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LA's History Of Racial Tensions And Police Brutality, Revisited


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter.


George Floyd was killed by police 11 days ago. And in the wake of his death, protests against police violence towards black men continue to ripple throughout the country. In Minneapolis where he was killed...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.


CHANG: ...In Atlanta, where public officials like the city's mayor walked in solidarity with protesters yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) When black lives are under attack, what do we do?


CHANG: Even outside of the U.S., people took to the streets to protest, like in London.


GARY MCFARLANE: The instigators of the violence and the outside agitators are the police.

CHANG: This moment in history has prompted the city I'm in to revisit its own history, one long familiar with police brutality and civil unrest. The last several days have resurrected familiar images for people here in LA, feelings that surface very personal memories of the Watts rebellion of 1965 and the Rodney King riots of 1992. I spoke with three men, all African American, who bore witness to those events. Over the decades, each of them has given serious thought to how policing in LA should change. And each has arrived at a different answer.

BRUCE PATTON: We moved here in 1953.

CHANG: Bruce Patton (ph) has lived in the exact same spot in South LA for almost 70 years.

PATTON: So this wasn't here. This portion wasn't here. And there was a swing that hung in that corner of the porch, that side of the porch.

CHANG: And you would be sitting in the swing.

PATTON: I'd be sitting in the swing.

CHANG: One of Patton's earliest memories of the troubled relationship between police and African Americans unfolded in August of 1965 in the nearby Watts neighborhood. Police had stopped a black driver. A crowd gathered. A fight ensued. And the incident ignited existing tensions between police and the black community here.

PATTON: I remember; we were at my grandmother's house mowing her lawn. And we would see smoke in the distance. We, of course, did not know what it was. In essence, we just knew it was a disturbance and that some black people finally had had enough. And like a pressure cooker, it exploded.

CHANG: Patton was just 13. He didn't understand enough to be scared at the time. What he did pick up on was something very different from fear.

PATTON: Deep down inside, there was a joy that black people would stand up and have the audacity to stand up and push back.

CHANG: What do you mean that you felt or your family felt a sense of joy? Can you talk about that a little more? Like...

PATTON: Fighting back - fighting back, that was the joy.

CHANG: The problem is, Patton says, his community has been fighting back against a problem that never seems to change - police violence against black people. And for Patton, at least, the solution to that problem is very clear. He says we need to take all guns away from the police.

PATTON: There's no need for a policeman to have a gun. That is what gives them the propensity to kill you. It's their approach to the people in these communities that make police officers fear for their lives.

CHANG: Because he says these police officers go into neighborhoods like his without asking the right question.

PATTON: The idea is that an officer sees you in a situation, his mind should be as a doctor is and say, how can I help that person? How can I help that person?

CHANG: You think that's a missing question - police officers aren't asking the question, how can I help?

PATTON: They're not concerned about the question.

CHANG: Twenty-seven years after Watts burned, racial unrest spilled through the streets of South LA again when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of a black man named Rodney King. Protests erupted on April 29, 1992, at the corner of Normandie and Florence Avenues right in front of a liquor store called Tom's.

GILBERT JOHNSON: And right here at this intersection, it was mayhem. It was crazy. It was like a world war or something going on.

CHANG: Gilbert Johnson (ph) lived in a different section of South LA at that time, which meant after he joined a gang, he wasn't allowed on this particular corner for years.

JOHNSON: I just got off the phone with one of the OGs from this area, double OG, Big James (ph) and told him, like, hey, bro, I'm right here on Normandie and Florence - you know what I'm saying? - just to check in. There's protocols to the street business.

CHANG: Johnson says this intersection outside Tom's has changed a lot since 1992.

JOHNSON: Tom's Liquor - you would see loitering. You would see - they would give you cups. You could drink your liquor in the parking lot. They would sell literal crack pipes behind the counter.

CHANG: He was only 8 years old during the Rodney King riots, and there was so much anger in his house at the time. So when the looting started, his brother, his uncle - they all got in on it.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Hell yeah. Everybody was doing it. You know, they got out there and capitalized off the situation, too.

CHANG: What did they bring back? Do you remember?

JOHNSON: Oh, man. Yeah, I remember - some weapons, TVs, food, clothes, all of that. It was a pretty good moment as far if you look at it from that standpoint because we were all poor. You know, we used to get free food, stand in lines to get food, recycle cans to get food, food stamps.

CHANG: Back then, he says, it didn't feel wrong because the system had already wronged them so many times. Johnson would end up spending most of his young adult life in and out of prison.

JOHNSON: Oh, [expletive] yeah, I have - my rap sheet is long.

CHANG: And he says cycling through the criminal justice system like that only reinforced his views against law enforcement. Today he is a community organizer. He leads programs like youth and gang intervention. But when it comes to policing, he calls himself an abolitionist, as in abolish the police.

JOHNSON: You know, I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of people across South LA, and they do not want more law enforcement.

CHANG: I mean, but if the police were defunded, do you feel at all concerned that this community might have trouble addressing crime or dealing with violent criminals or holding people accountable who do commit crimes?

JOHNSON: I think that's a hard question to unpack because, again, thinking about trauma, you know, you say violent criminals. I look at them as humans that maybe needed treatment or needed help, needed a hug, needed some love rather than needing getting beat or needed, you know, going to jail, you know? And so I feel like when we talk about creating community alternatives to policing, gang intervention is one, yes. But also there is neighborhood watches where the community could be first responders.

CHANG: It sounds like what you're saying is the community knows best how to take care of itself.

JOHNSON: Absolutely.

CHANG: In the scenario that you're painting for me, is there a role for the LAPD to play at all? Do you see your community ever having a functioning, workable relationship with the police here?

JOHNSON: I don't.

CHANG: You don't.

JOHNSON: No, I don't.

MARQUEECE HARRIS-DAWSON: My position to Gilbert is I completely understand. I've been in the place that you're at.

CHANG: And this brings us to the third man in our story, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, another native of South LA who's now a city councilman.

HARRIS-DAWSON: I think there's obviously a use for LAPD and other police departments.

CHANG: While Bruce Patton wants all guns gone from the LAPD and Gilbert Johnson wants to see the LAPD completely gone, Harris-Dawson just wants to see the police here focus on fewer things.

HARRIS-DAWSON: We ask police departments to solve homelessness. We ask them to solve truancy. We ask them to solve blight, traffic problems, pedestrian safety. We ask them to solve a whole bunch of problems that they oftentimes are not the appropriate set of individuals to do.

CHANG: And while the LAPD is getting overloaded with all these tasks, Harris-Dawson thinks the city is also overloading it with money; money that could be better spent on schools or health care. And he says when it comes to policing, it's initiatives like the Community Safety Partnership that are the best way forward. That's a program that's been in place in South LA since 2017. It's where police officers embed inside a neighborhood, the same cops for several years, and they watch kids grow up there. They actually get to know them.

HARRIS-DAWSON: In Harvard Park, before we put the Community Safety Partnership, there was a community that had seen six murders, had one of the highest violent crime rates anywhere in the city. Community Safety Partnership, with just 10 officers assigned to that area, zero crime calls for two consecutive reporting periods, zero homicide but, most importantly, trust.

CHANG: And he says programs like this, they measure successful policing differently.

HARRIS-DAWSON: One of the big differences is oftentimes officers are evaluated by how many citations they give away or how many people they arrest. Here, we say, how many interactions did you have? How many church services did you attend? How many events with young people did you participate in?

CHANG: Ultimately, Harris-Dawson says, the more police officers actually get to know the people they're policing personally, the less likely the police will resort to violence. I asked Bruce Patton and Gilbert Johnson, two men who have seen so little improve between police and their community, if they think these protests right now could bring that kind of change.

PATTON: There is a direction. There is a direction for the first time because there are more people listening.

JOHNSON: The community is rising up. Right now, we have opportunity. We have a chance to really organize and galvanize all this momentum and push it in a positive way. We're going to see a lot more change, and a lot more people are out protesting because they want change. So, yes, I see this as a moment of hope amidst all the chaos.

CHANG: Three men, three visions for policing in South LA, all working towards a more just system. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.