When Rodney King had a swimming pool built in his backyard, he inscribed two dates: March 3, 1991, when a random bystander videotaped a group of Los Angeles police beating him; and April 29, 1992, when a Simi Valley jury acquitted four officers in the attack and sparked the riots that left Los Angeles in ruins. On Sunday, King, 47, was found dead in his backyard pool.
His death comes almost exactly 20 years after the riots, and an entire generation of Californians has grown up since then with no notion of what it was like to live in our major cities at that time. As astonishing as it would have seemed in 1992, our cities today are safe. What we once accepted as facts of life — the constant fear, the blight, the arson, the practice of locking your car doors and driving as fast as you could through certain neighborhoods — are for the most part things of the past.
The Los Angeles riots left 55 people dead. Roughly 600 buildings were burned to the ground by angry mobs, and countless more were looted. The six days of looting, heat and anarchy laid bare the simmering tensions in Los Angeles — and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco. Crack, gang warfare, racial tension and other factors created an appalling bloodbath in Los Angeles; the number of people killed in 1993, one year after the riots, totaled 1,077, the second-highest in the city’s history. In San Francisco, the homicide figures were similarly dismaying, with 129 people killed that year.
In the past two decades, there have been dramatic changes in the crime rates. Killings in Los Angeles totaled just 298 in 2011. In San Francisco, the number of the slain tallied just 50, putting The City’s homicide rate on par with the 1960s.
The exact reasons behind the remarkable drop in violent crime since the mid-1990s are not easy to identify, but some have attributed it to changes in police tactics, such as the Compstat program innovated in New York City under then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The San Francisco Police Department instituted a scaled-down version of Compstat, and The City’s crime declined as well. Some have cited the booming economy of the 1990s as a major factor — but we are living through the worst economic times since the 1930s, and crime rates are still as low as they have been in 50 years.
When 15-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by white racists in 1955, his death forced a nation to look the brutality of the South square in the eye. When King was beaten, and Los Angeles erupted in flames, the nation was forced to confront a different, more nuanced problem: cities filled with impoverished, unhappy minorities living with daily violence, hostile police officers and a general sense of hopelessness.
The Los Angeles — and San Francisco — of today looks as different as the South does from the days of Till. For that, we may be thankful.