For the third time in a span of 55 years, major confrontations with the police have turned violent and ruinous in Los Angeles. In the previous instances, state and city governments created commissions to get to the riots’ root causes and to offer recommendations for change so that similar instances would never happen again. But it has happened again, begging the question, will follow-up attention to these protests and riots, even if considered separately, bring different outcomes?
The commissions that followed the Watts Riots of 1965 and the Rodney King-police verdict inspired protests in 1992 actually had different goals. The McCone Commission, created by Governor Pat Brown in 1965, and headed by former CIA director John McCone, focused on the living conditions of the African American community. The Christopher Commission, created by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and headed by future United States Secretary of State and influential Los Angeles attorney Warren Christopher, aimed at the culture and actions of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The McCone Commission recommended that the riots’ causes of high unemployment, poor schools and inferior living conditions be met with literacy and preschool programs, job-training and increased low-income housing, upgraded health services, more public transportation and better community-police ties.
The Christopher Commission addressed police relations with the minority communities and how the police responded to complaints of force, recommending better training, community ties, and different procedures to respond to the use of force complaints.
This time the spark that set off protests that eventually turned violent was elsewhere, with the death at police hands of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Any follow-up looks at causes of the resulting protests and riots that took on a national scope would undoubtedly combine the focuses and recommendations of the two above mentioned commissions. They would look at both the living conditions and welfare of the African American communities as well as police protocols, culture and procedures. But these issues could be subsumed in peoples’ minds by repulsion over the violence and looting that accompanied many protests.
Assessing whether the follow-up of the protests and violence will bring different results this time will first manifest itself within the political world rather than with academic studies and reports.
Los Angeles and California are different places politically than they were in 1965 and 1992. One clear test will be in the race for Los Angeles County District Attorney where incumbent Jackie Lacey faces more progressive challenger George Gascón, former San Francisco DA, who represents a different perspective on law enforcement. The law and order attitudes of the last century have given way to more liberal responses to crime. But they have not gone so far as to destroy police authority or general public safety or condone rioters and looters in an overall assessment of conditions that led to the protests.
Let’s not forget that over the last couple of decades many moves have been made by local and state politicians to address some of the issues including the change in the law on use of force passed by the California legislature and signed by the governor last year, as well as efforts to deal with poverty with mandates on business like minimum wage increases, and expanded social welfare and health programs.
Since the McCone and Christopher reports, there have been some improvements in community-police ties (see my Friday column) and more public transportation added in Los Angeles. However, the hotly debated issues of health care and schools will be tested against a background complicated by the pandemic and its effect on state and local budgets.
Will voters support more taxes and spending for wider health care and schooling, especially at a time when household budgets are as threatened as much as government budgets? Will the interests who oversee these public sectors be willing to accept restructurings to the systems to improve efficiency and reduce costs?
The political response to the causes that lead to protests and the response to the violence will be measured in the coming election. What will voters focus on at that time: the reasons that promoted the protestors or the actions of the rioters?