A year after George Floyd, Los Angeles confronts its future and its past

The New York Times
CaliforniaWritten By: Tim Arango ©️ 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: May 25, 2021, 11:42 PM IST

A file photo of a George Floyd mural Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

In Los Angeles, the unrest that gripped the city for days evoked memories of 1992, when the city erupted in chaos after the acquittal of four officers in the beating of Rodney King.

One year ago, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, and the streets of U.S. cities filled with protesters demanding an end to police killings, in the largest mass movement for civil rights in a generation.

In Los Angeles, the unrest that gripped the city for days evoked memories of 1992, when the city erupted in chaos after the acquittal of four officers in the beating of Rodney King.

But there was a crucial difference between 1992 and 2020.

After King, the unrest tore through South-Central Los Angeles, the heart of the Black community, leaving dozens dead and stores and buildings ablaze. After Floyd’s killing, the protests in Los Angeles were mainly in the whiter and richer Westside.

That was intentional, Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, said last year. She described it as part of an effort to bring the voices of Black disenfranchisement to the communities that she said needed to hear them.

With the streets filled and activists calling not for reform but to “defund” police budgets and steer money toward social services, local leaders and voters seemed to embrace the spirit of the movement.

Mayor Eric M. Garcetti agreed to cut $150 million from the police budget, while voters elected a new district attorney, George Gascón, who promised to prosecute cops and send fewer people to prison. As recently as December, the city, facing a budget crunch as well as the racial justice movement, was considering laying off almost 1,000 police officers, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Now, as the nation observes the anniversary of Floyd’s murder, it is a much different story.

Los Angeles, like many big cities, is awash in new guns and continuing violence. Last year, there were 305 homicides, up 36% from the prior year, and the highest level in more than a decade.

“The number of guns that are out there is just astonishing,” Chief Michel Moore of the LAPD said in an interview.

And instead of cutting the police budget, the City Council recently approved an increase, and the department is about to start hiring more officers.

“If you want to abolish the police, you’re talking to the wrong mayor,” Garcetti recently said in his State of the City address, speaking from the Griffith Park Observatory, which offers panoramic views of the city below.

To contain the surge in gun violence, the LAPD is leaning on some of its old habits, having recently deployed an elite unit to South Los Angeles to stop vehicles for traffic violations in the search of guns and men with warrants. It’s a tactic the department sharply curtailed in recent years after a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed sharp racial inequities in the practice.

Moore said much of the gun violence was gang-related and he also blamed the despair and dislocation of the pandemic, which has closed schools and parks and limited the work of gang peacemakers. Pandemic-related delays in trials and the district attorney’s policy of largely eliminating cash bail have also put more criminals on the streets, he said.

“When those gun arrests are not going to court for months, there’s a sense that zero bail, court trials being deferred, delayed, there’s a sense that there’s a lack of consequences,” he said.

Just like the King beating, the murder of Floyd galvanized a generation of activists. Some who were drawn to community organizing in 1992 are still working the streets of Los Angeles, working alongside the police and trying to tamp down gang violence.

But unlike today’s new activists, who talk about abolition and defunding police budgets, Leon Gullette and other older activists believe in partnering with the police.

“We can’t operate without the police,” said Gullette, who started working for Community Build, which does gang intervention work in South Los Angeles, in 1992.

Lex Steppling, who runs a group called Dignity and Power Now, which advocates for police and prison reform, said: “More police doesn’t mean less gun violence. It just means more police.”

The rise in gun violence is nowhere near the levels of the 1990s, when in some years more than 1,000 people were killed in Los Angeles. The LAPD has changed drastically from the days when Daryl Gates led the department and officers routinely profiled Black citizens and used battering rams to knock down suspected drug houses.

As younger activists in Los Angeles take stock of their wins and setbacks over the last year, they say the biggest change may be the number of people who have been awakened to issues around the police and race, including the money communities spend on law enforcement.

“One of the big takeaways around the uprisings and attention to the Movement for Black Lives is there is more attention on public budgets,” said Ivette Alé, an organizer with Dignity and Power Now. “People know how much communities are spending on police and incarceration. You can’t unknow that.”