Reporting on social change, 50 years after Watts

Erin Aubry Kaplan with her father, Larry Aubry. Kaplan covered the 1992 Riots, while Aubry covered the 1965 Riots. | Jenna Pittaway

Erin Aubry Kaplan with her father, Larry Aubry. Kaplan covered the 1992 Riots, while Aubry covered the 1965 Riots. | Jenna Pittaway

How is social change covered in the wake of civil unrest? Journalists, community organizers and students convened at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism on April 23 to reflect on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots — along with underlying issues, and how reporting can benefit the community. The event was the culmination of a months-long project that connects local and ethnic media outlets and organizations to investigate current structural problems and potential solutions in South Los Angeles. Through a partnership between USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism’s Metamorphosis Project, Intersections, five additional news outlets, six community organizations and a local high school, attempted to create a glimpse of contemporary challenges, as well as where change is happening that could be expanded.

Annenberg Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative Director Daniela Gerson moderated a panel that considered how coverage of South Los Angeles can play a role in drawing attention to and alleviating structural inequalities that contributed to civil unrest and rioting. The panel included observations from two long-time South L.A. residents with first-hand perspectives on the unrest and coverage of it. Larry Aubry, a columnist with the Los Angeles Sentinel and civil rights activist who witnessed the 65 riots, exchanged thoughts with his daughter, KCET writer Erin Aubry Kaplan, who reported on the 1992 unrest. Among the questions they raised was: Just how should we refer to the event commonly known as the “Watts Riots?” Perhaps “culmination,” said Kaplan, indicating that such eruptions come from long-simmering issues and that terms riots, unrest, and rebellion do not encompass all of the elements.

Two of the project participants, KPCC Community Health Reporter Adrian Florido and Community Coalition press liaison Isaiah Muhammad shared the process of collaborating on an article about promoting healthy living, as well as some of the barriers for media to cover South LA such as an assumption of a violent narrative and lack of context. The four panelists agreed that many stories remain to be revealed in South L.A. — if only reporters can dig deep to the “grassroots level,” as Kaplan suggested. The audience divided into teams to do just that, meeting with community activists to discuss development, housing, jobs and health.

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The event also marked the launch of WATTS REVISITED, a website that provides solutions-oriented reporting about challenges that South L.A. faces today. It was created by Intersections, the Metamorphosis Project and the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative, all hosted at the USC Annenberg School. Media partners included La Opinion, LA Sentinel, Hoy, LA Wave, KPCC, and students from the journalism program at Augustus Hawkins High School. Community organization partners included the All Peoples Community Center, Coalition for Responsible Community Development,Community Coalition, Community Health Councils, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, and Trust South LA.

Read event highlights in the Tweets below:

The LA Riots twenty years on

By Dr. Mary Hill-Wagner

Najee Ali and Corliss Bennett-McBride

Whether it’s called a riot, a rebellion, or civil unrest, the tragic chapter in Los Angeles history that sparked days of violent protest 20 years ago invites intense discussion today.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles residents met at the University of Southern California to hash out some of the issues highlighted during the incident.

By now, the statistics are well known: the incident some call the Los Angeles Riots resulted in more than 50 deaths, 3,600 fires, 1,100 destroyed buildings, 2,000 damaged businesses and property damages totaling $1 billion, of which 50 percent was incurred by Korean Americans.

The panel discussion at USC was sponsored by El Centro Chicano, the Asian Pacific American Student Services and the Center for Black Student and Cultural Affairs.

According to a release advertising the event, “Three names that conjure a static image of Black-Korean violence in the American consciousness” are “Civil Unrest,” “The LA Riots,” and “Sa-I-Gu.” The event was advertised as an evening of reflection and dialogue with those who were actually there – store owners, police, and community activists.

Among the questions the panel wanted to address: what was the root cause that led to L.A. exploding? Will the embers of racial and economic injustice ignite again? Also, what are some of the positive changes that have come out of the event that was sparked by the acquittal of officers in a police brutality case?

In the beating case, African American motorist Rodney King was the victim of police brutality. The entire incident was caught on videotape on March 3, 1991 by bystander, George Holliday.

The footage showed white LAPD officers repeatedly striking King with their batons while other officers stood by watching.

Four white LAPD officers were later tried in a state court for the beating. Three were acquitted. The jury failed to reach a verdict for the fourth. The announcement of the acquittals sparked city-wide violence and fires in April 1992. A later federal trial for civil rights violations ended with two of the officers found guilty and sent to prison and the other two officers acquitted.

Now a Beverly Hills Police Officer, Rachel Shannon was a young cadet coming out of the Los Angeles Police Department when the city was engulfed in violence two decades ago. She said a good thing that has come out of the incident is that citizens are more aware of their rights when confronted with police officers who may be treating them unfairly.

“There are cell phones and cameras everywhere now. And people know they can use them,” she said. “Excessive force [by officers] has gone down because everyone is taping.”

During the incident in 1992, Shannon said the entire contingent of 8,000 LAPD officers was kept at a bus depot in South Los Angeles for several hours and told not to go out into the streets because the community wasn’t safe for police.

Shannon added that another positive thing to come out of the riots was the ouster of then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, who had ordered officers not to confront violent protesters for several hours. Gates resigned from his post as chief on June 28, 1992.

“Some of these [USC] students have no clue about what things have changed,” said Corliss P. Bennett-McBride, director of the Center for Black and Cultural Student Affairs. “There have been some good things that came out of the riot, like the gang truce. And there were rebuilding efforts [for businesses],” she said.

At the event, community activist Najee Ali offered a sincere apology to Korean Americans for his hand in encouraging violent protests against business owners.

“We thought of Korean-Americans as our enemies,” he said. “If we had had more of a dialogue with our Korean brothers and sisters, this incident wouldn’t have happened.”

The panel also included USC Law Professor Jody Armour and Civil Rights Attorney Do Kim, who graduated from Harvard College in 1993 with a joint concentration in Afro-American Studies & Sociology.

“This whole thing was part of [Hurricane] Katrina and the crack plague because it’s part of the pattern of officials not helping the black community,” Armour said. “When you have concentrated disadvantaged [people] and inequality and alienation and hopelessness, you have a powder keg…Maybe the stage is set again.”

Kim said the events of 1992 go beyond race relations.

“Something like this can happen any time, because of economic disparity,” he said.

The conversation about the events of two decades ago continues at the Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism on April 19, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the Annenberg Auditorium. Journalists will address the questions: Riot? Rebellion? Or Civil Unrest? What is the Media Message?

Email Dr. Mary Hill-Wagner for details at [email protected]