Two stray pit bulls swaggered like old pals toward the intersection of Florence and Normandie. On the northeast corner was Tom’s Liquor, on the southeast corner sat a Unocal station, and the northwest and southwest corners housed two vacant lots, one of them charred and burnt-out. The Eight Tray gang stood watch over the liquor store. The rest of the street was fires, smashed glass, looters with formula, diapers, paper towels, and guns going off. One motorist was dragged from his truck, kicked, and beaten with a brick and claw hammer till his head was coursing with blood. Further west down Florence, at an auto shop, Irwin Small of AC Motors told his white customer to jump into the trunk of his car; he closed the trunk and smuggled him home. This place and this moment, April 29, 1992: The core of the LA Uprising.
After the acquittal of four police officers for the beating of Rodney King, the city rose up in a series of events some people refer to as the LA Riots. Fifty-five people died, thousands were injured, and more than 1,100 buildings were damaged or destroyed, leaving behind a repair bill of nearly $1 billion. The preferred and more accurate term is LA Uprising, rather than riots, to indicate that the events were a proactive response to the acquittal and consistent racism from the police and the judicial system.
The city’s biggest attempt to respond to the 1992 Uprising was Rebuild LA. I’d read about RLA’s job creation efforts before: the supermarkets that would be built, the minority business enterprises that would be created, the vans that would be distributed. But combing through hundreds of boxes of the organization’s archives at Loyola Marymount University, nothing had prepared me for the extent of RLA’s corporate gaze, and the degree to which entrepreneurs saw financial ruin as an opportunity to profit in South LA, with both private and foundation funding acquired in the millions.
March 3, 1991, the videotaped beating of Rodney King flashed across televisions all over the country. Thirteen days later, a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins walked into Empire Liquor Market Deli at 91st and Figueroa. She placed a plastic bottle of orange juice on the counter. The owner, Soon Ja Du, pointed at her, an argument ensued, and they got into a scuffle. Harlins put her money on the counter, took the orange juice, and began to walk out the door. Soon Ja Du pulled out a gun and shot Harlins in the back of the head. On November 15, 1991, a jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 16 years, but Judge Joyce Karlin rejected the jury’s sentencing and instead sentenced Du to five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.
Crowds stormed Karlin’s courtroom, demanding an explanation. Hundreds more took to the streets with signs, chants, fists in air. Danny Bakewell, a real estate mogul and entrepreneur, later to be on the board of Rebuild LA, later to be the target of NAACP protests for threatening to close down businesses he had brought into the community, and later to owe the city of Compton $3.1 million in debts for development loans and land, led the angry crowd into the courtroom.
Six miles north on the 110 Freeway from Florence and Normandie stood 1000 West Eighth Place. It was June 1992, two months after shopkeepers stood watch with shotguns above their stores in South LA. The street outside was full of honking cars and bikes on sidewalks. Inside the office suite, meetings were taking place with LA’s richest and most powerful men. A letter with the city seal from Mayor Tom Bradley hung in the foyer. The letter announced a new organization to renovate Los Angeles in the wake of the uprising. Rebuild LA, later known as RLA, had been born.
The word on the street was that Rebuild LA was going to help the city Rise Out of the Ashes. From the moment it was created, the promises came pouring in. The organization responded to the gang treaty with pledges to create jobs and require the employers to only hire within the affected areas. In response to an unprecedented gang treaty signed a few days before the uprising—which called for “the return to permanent peace in Watts California” and “the return of Black businesses, economic development, and advancement of educational programs,” and included a detailed economic plan—RLA pledged to create jobs and require the employers to only hire within the affected areas.
A logo was painstakingly designed—it was to be a lotus flower in red, blue, yellow, with three big petals to represent the private sector, the public sector, and the community.
Rebuild LA had a lot of work ahead of it. Between April 1991 and April 1992, the month of the uprising, 108,000 local jobs had vanished. LA was once the second-largest automaking center in the nation; the final GM plant in Van Nuys shut down in the summer of 1992, leaving 2,600 more people without jobs. Black and Latinx communities were hit hard, with a combined 29.7 percent in poverty and more than 13 percent unemployed. But in the room at 1000 West Eighth Place sat money. The board of Rebuild LA was comprised of 96 Fortune 100 entrepreneurs, community leaders, and public officials—the joke became, if you had a disagreeable critique of RLA, they’d just put you on the board. Was it a business or was it a nonprofit? It was both—a Corporate Nonprofit.
At 8611 Western in Manchester Square, about a mile and a half from Florence and Normandie, there’s a Shell Super Station. As a generous contributor to RLA, the Shell Oil Company constructed a $2 million gas station with some plants, a market, and an adjoining low-slung gray building that served for a while as an academy. Inside the training center there were desks with brand new computers and a couple of teachers. The doors opened in March 1993, and by the end of the year, 611 students had graduated from the program. More than 90 percent went on to college, employment, or both. Shell also granted $100,000 in scholarship money each year and created a minority financing program, arranging $2 million in loans for 10 new black and Latinx station owners in California.
Like many other Rebuild LA projects, that training center didn’t last. It was shut down in 2003 and all of Shell Oil’s Southern California gas stations were sold to Tesoro in 2006. Today it sits boarded up, a vacant bungalow; the last time I was there it served as a backdrop for a guy selling clothes, or blankets, or plants, or cell phones, or a medley of all of the above.
Rebuild LA’s leaders argued that over the decade prior to the uprising, government had failed to deliver for the people of South LA. The board operated on the assumption that the neighborhoods and its residents were insolvent, inefficient, lazy, corrupt thieves, and that an overreliance on public subsidies had run them into the ground. This community needed a group of people with good business sense, they said.
Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Peter Ueberroth to head Rebuild LA. Prior to this, Ueberroth was known as a Coca-Cola executive and former Major League Baseball commissioner. As baseball commissioner he raised his salary to $450,000 (nearly twice that of his predecessor) and found a new source of income by persuading large corporations to pay for the privilege of having their products endorsed by Major League Baseball, although he’s most notorious for facilitating a collusion among team owners to prevent players from joining the teams of their choice and signing equitable contracts.
Ueberroth’s successor, developer Tony Salazar, received much heated correspondence from the Service Employees International Union due to the poor working conditions maintained by the subcontractors of Salazar’s buildings. One of his Rebuild LA co-chairs, Linda Wong, was paid a salary of $150,000. Many people in the community felt that if the organization’s board members were making so much money, they should increase the wages of their employees. The Justice for Janitors campaign put Rebuild LA on their “Top Trash List” for refusing to sign a workers’ bill of rights.
Part of RLA’s strategy was to engage Berglas & Garfield, a consulting firm, to determine how to cut costs in buildings they acquired. In their proposal, the firm suggested switching contractors for security, janitorial services, maintenance, and gardening—all property service jobs, mostly filled by people who lived in the very community RLA was supposed to be creating jobs for. The proposal included such suggestions as, “rather than use four people for janitorial services, we feel three should be sufficient.”
There’s a lot of money in poverty. Privatization might seem like an earnest strategy for eradicating poverty, but it often ends with private companies holding lucrative contracts to achieve elusive or/and unattainable goals, while enjoying a tax write-off at the same time. Privatization dulls the last weapon the poor still have—their vote—by allowing corporations to make the decisions about their neighborhoods. Rebuild LA was trickle-down economics in a nonprofit.
Last summer, Shell Oil Company reached a $120 million settlement and began a soil cleanup of a leak from a contaminated oil tank they left underground in the city of Carson, which is bordered by Compton and home to many low-income, non-white residents. Shell was one of many companies that damaged the community they purported to support in their rebuilding efforts. In 1996, Lockheed Martin agreed to a more than $60 million settlement with residents of Burbank whose health and property were damaged by the aircraft manufacturing company’s plant. In 2010, I surveyed all the bank-owned foreclosed properties in South LA and found at least 604 homes that were in blight. This ranged from a small level of debris, unkempt lawns, and stolen water pipes to full-fledged crack dens. Of these 604 homes, 102 were owned by Bank of America, whose executives joined Ueberroth on the board of RLA and made a $1 million equity investment in the minority-owned Founders National Bank. Some of the houses were serving as hubs for illegal gang activity, clothing and empty bottles on the floor, the walls inscribed with graffiti. One closet bore the names and numbers of girls presumably working as prostitutes. The saddest feature, amid the shoes and wet trash: a piece of half-finished algebra homework.
Another big contributor to RLA was GM, with donations of vans. A white man in a Santa hat went to 200 East Slauson Avenue to deliver one of 100 vans. This one went to The Brotherhood Crusade, a nonprofit organization run by Danny Bakewell.
Other companies engaged in RLA were Coca-Cola, Toyota, Hyundai, Exxon, Occidental Petroleum, the New York Stock Exchange. As noted in a memo by Chuck Frumerie, an executive who was loaned to RLA, in their first 18 months of operation, the organization solicited over $500 million of public and private investments from companies such as IBM and GM, and all of the oldest and largest private sector companies in the world.
On June 6, 1992, one thousand chorus members of South LA churches were bussed into the Hollywood Bowl to perform the new anthem for LA. RLA purchased the song: David Cassidy’s “Stand and Be Proud.”
This is our chance
Now we gotta take it
We may never get to pass this way again
We gotta be strong
If we’re gonna make it
Now it’s time to dry the tears.
Through the ashes hope appears
And if we reach out for the sky
We might touch the stars.
Stand and be proud
Of who we are
We’ve come so close
We’ve come so far
Now and forever
Our light will shine
Shout it out loud
Stand and be proud
The song brands RLA as a beam of hope and poverty as an identity problem and a result of poor life choices, rather than a lack of access or circumstances. All proceeds of this feel-good motivational ditty went to Rebuild LA.
RLA planned to create an economic recovery for the areas affected by the LA Uprising over the course of five years. Many admit that these plans were too ambitious for such a short time frame. Others say that the 1994 Northridge earthquake was a major obstacle, with a repair bill 20 times that of the LA Uprising. After five years of promises, RLA was dismantled and its assets were transferred to the Los Angeles Community College District. Today, the income per capita in South Los Angeles is 51 percent lower than the national average, the median household income in South Los Angeles is 40 percent lower than the national average, and unemployment is 39 percent higher than the national average.
For over a decade after the uprising, the Watts truce held and gang crimes remained at historic lows. But the truce alone couldn’t turn things around. What this community needed then, it still needs now: jobs. The Crips and Bloods held up their part of the bargain, Rebuild LA did not hold up theirs.
In May of 1992, inspirational slogans and behavioral modification advice was plastered on billboards throughout South LA. Phrases like “It hurts when you lose everything” or “Why are we fighting each other?” or “The voices of peace must be bigger than the voices of violence.” These billboards were put up in place of some poorly timed marketing ads, such as a Benetton ad that featured a car in flames.
One of RLA’s strategies was to engage big companies to invest in minority-owned banks, such as Founders National Bank, and to disburse “affordable” loans of millions of dollars to small business owners within South LA. This strategy of offering loans to community members confused poverty with joblessness, ignoring the multitude of factors that contributed to the economic conditions of the area—access to education, health care, opportunities, negative engagement with police and the Department of Children and Family Services. People needed jobs, but not just jobs. Meanwhile, the loans turned some business owners into people permanently in debt, running to catch up with these “dreams” bestowed upon them.
Rebuild LA was a non-taxpaying legal entity with massive resources and an overambitious mission, a wholly unaccountable organization that had the means to funnel money and influence wherever they wanted. How else would a Coca-Cola executive find himself designing policies and revitalization programs for the city of Los Angeles?
In preparation for the one-year anniversary of the LA Uprising, the RLA planning committee suggested hosting a major community event at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. The concept, laid out in a memo, was to “build or rebuild something at the site that will be left as a permanent memorial.” Other ideas were to “stage a Hands-Across-Los Angeles type event.” Definitely to establish a permanent “leave-behind something-or-other” and to “make the event or leave behind something symbolic, practical, or both.” Perhaps an eternal flame? someone suggested. Like the flames atop the family-owned businesses in South LA during the uprising.
The board agreed to reach out to the owners of the lots at Florence and Normandie to see if they would be amenable to some development assistance, and to survey the community on how this sort of event would be received. It was a mixed response, but overall people felt that it would be more appropriate for RLA to have a presence in the community during the other 364 days of the year. Heeding the advice of the community, they chose not to rebuild that intersection, as it would be seen for what it was, an empty gesture. Nothing happened and nothing was left behind.
Today, the intersection of Florence and Normandie has a Chevron gas station, a 76 station, a brand new AutoZone, and the same liquor store, Tom’s Liquor. A security officer stands at the entrance of Tom’s; all the liquor is behind bulletproof plexiglass. Some travel-size bottles of liquor, Swisher Sweets, and a framed photo of the owner, James Oh, in a military uniform are behind the glass, by the register. Chips and sodas and toiletries throughout. It’s the kind of store that, if you lived in the neighborhood, you might come to to pick up a can of soup or beans, a box of eggs, a carton of milk. Maybe some orange juice.
“Latasha Harlins, remember that name … ’Cause a bottle of juice is not something to die for” —Tupac Shakur “Something 2 Die 4”
Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler
Special thanks to the archives maintained by the Center for The Study of LA.