How the LA Riots Ignited a Generation of Young Activists
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(Editor’s note: In the 20 years since the Rodney King verdict, Los Angeles has redefined itself and the individuals participating in #IgniteLA: Uprising Remixed have been some of the city’s strongest thought leaders in this two-decade long metamorphosis. This Saturday, the League of Young Voters, Cashmere Agency and SCOPE will host #IgniteLA: Uprising Remixed, a celebration of community organizing in South Los Angeles since the Los Angeles Riots.)
It’s been 20 years, but the summer of 1992 is indelibly etched in my brain. While Los Angeles’ fiery rebellion happened 2,000 miles away from my stomping grounds on Milwaukee’s far northwest side, the rage that pushed South Central Los Angeles residents to tear up their communities was very familiar to me.
As a 14-year-old boy growing into his manhood in one of America’s most segregated cities, I understood very well that people of color faced unprecedented discrimination. By the time I graduated the 8th grade, street gangs, police brutality, and a rapid uptick of violent crime became prominent features of my midwestern hometown. In many ways, Milwaukee was just like Compton, Watts and every other black and brown working class neighborhood in California’s most densely-populated county.
But it wasn’t just the Rodney King verdict and its violent aftermath that resonated with me. The hip-hop music emanating from South Central Los Angeles stirred my and my friends’ souls and challenged us to think critically about our surroundings. At the time, murder and violent drug deals weren’t just fantasy tales spun by gifted lyricists, but consistent fixtures of urban life. Chuck D once said that hip-hop was the “CNN of urban America,” and for me and my friends, rappers like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and DJ Quik were rap’s top anchormen.
While mainstream America may have labeled hip-hop a nuisance, the heavy basslines and groovy melodies of Los Angeles gangster music became the soundtrack of my youth. The stories were familiar and the contradictory messages of economic self-determination and hopeless nihilism made sense as I saw my friends and family members risking bids in the penitentiary to resist the economic hardships that were spurred on by the growing levels of African-American unemployment. For most of America, 1992 was defined by the young upstart presidential candidate Bill Clinton beating the conservative incumbent President George Bush. For me and my crew, that summer was all about competing to see whose boombox could play Ice Cube’s classic record, “Death Certificate” the loudest.
In 2000, I moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at the University of Los Angeles California. Torn between my love of music and my quest for higher learning, I spent just as much time studying as I did writing about and interviewing the West Coast’s biggest legends for rap magazines like The Source and Vibe. The world was opening up to me, and my campus life was juxtaposed between studying the non-violent movements of the ‘50s and ‘60s as a research assistant with UCLA’s Labor Center, and maintaining a professional decorum as marijuana smoke wafted through the air of a rap legends’ home or movie trailer. For some reason, these two completely different scenes made sense to me, and even though they rarely intertwined, they both inspired me to become a full-time grassroots organizer.
If there was anything that I learned during my time on the West Coast, it’s that the people of the now-rebranded South Los Angeles are resilient. Far from the stereotypical images seen in West Coast hood flicks and rap videos, working people of color and organizations that represent them are reshaping their socio-economic realities through direct advocacy and grassroots organizing.