Panel discusses '92 L.A. Riots

Emily Files '14

March 02, 2012

A faculty panel spoke at Emerson on February 29 about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and what fueled them. Sponsored by the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdiscinplinary Studies, the panel was titled “Why Los Angeles Exploded: Perspectives on the Urban Upheavals from 20 Years Out.” The panelists were Dean of Liberal Arts Amy Ansell; Writing, Literature and Publishing Lecturer Tamera Marko; and Boston College professor and author Min Hyoung Song. Institute Scholar-in-Residence Erika Williams moderated the discussion.

Boston College professor and author Min Hyoung Song told Emersonians about the events that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The L.A. Riots, the panelists agreed, were a response to injustices and tensions in the country, which America has failed to mend over the preceding 20 years. Hyoung Song discussed the events that triggered the upheaval in L.A., notably the acquittal of four police officers who were caught on camera beating Rodney King, an African American man. Soon after, Korean American store owner Soon Ja Du shot 15-year-old African American Latasha Harlins and was given a sentence that included no jail time. Hyoung Song said that these two events were key in sparking the revolts, as they aggravated tensions between racial groups and dissatisfaction with what many saw as a biased legal system. He also explained two issues central to the L.A. Riots that he said still exist in America: government oppression and rising inequality.

Ansell said that although the uprisings brought the issues to light, the government saw the riots as criminal actions to be crushed and not as a cry for reform. She noted that the same thing happened years before, in American government and society’s reaction to the 1965 Watts Riots.

“Something’s really lost there, if that was the response in 1965 and nothing changed. Should we be surprised [riots about racial and political oppression] happened again in 1992? Should we be surprised if it happens again?” Ansell said. “Hidden reservoirs of anger” are still pulsing under the surface of America.

Marko added stories of her personal experiences with racism in a country that some call “post-racial.” Marko grew up near San Diego, close to the border between the United States and Mexico. Borders aren’t just line separating states and countries, she said, but invisible lines people use to separate themselves from others. “We carry borders inside of us like markers of home. Sometimes they are invisible to others. They don’t know how many borders we crossed to be in this room,” she said.

Marko covered the L.A. Riots as a journalist when she was only 22, and saw the destruction and turmoil in South Central L.A. firsthand. The area still carries scars 20 years later, she said.

The panel followed Emerson Stage’s production of Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, directed by Emerson Distinguished Producing Director-in-Residence Benny Sato Ambush. Ambush attended the panel discussion and led a more informal talk with the audience. “Uprisings are a response saying they’re not laying down and allowing [oppression and injustice] to happen to them,” he said.

Many students involved in Emerson’s Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 also attended the panel and discussed how reenacting such emotional events gave them insight into the Riots and social justice issues in America.

Photo by Lauren Foley '13.