Story by Danny Rivera/Viking/News editor/@dannyriveralbcc
“The one thing I remember is that it was very quiet that night.” Long Beach Police Department veteran Lt. Kevin Coy recalled his experience working an extended shift on April 29, 1992.
Earlier that day, a Simi Valley jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of using excessive force against black motorist Rodney King. Anger over the perceived injustice of the verdict from the African-American and Hispanic communities led to six days of protest and rioting, resulting in 52 deaths and upwards of $1 billion in property damage in the Greater Los Angeles area.
But to Coy, the first night in Long Beach was relatively quiet compared to the insanity happening less than 15 miles away in South Central L.A. “Incidents were light that first night,” he said. It wasn’t until the following day, Thursday, April 30, that Long Beach saw levels of rioting akin to its neighbor to the north.
Memories of the chaos from younger residents are still remembered. Nick Sennette, 31, a language arts department assistant recalled his memories as a 4-year-old living on the Long Beach and Compton border.
“I remember being at a gas station with my mom that night, and the attendant told us not to get out of the car,” he said, “even the worker had a big silver gun on his side.”
Even students who weren’t born when the riots took place feel its impact. Development of Afro-American Professionals Club President Imani Onyia believes the riots were the first time since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when “African-Americans felt empowered to stand up and have their voices heard.”
“My aunt became involved in community programs after the riots, and her activism inspired me from a young age to be involved in social and political activism,” she said.
Rioters and law enforcement clashed in central Long Beach throughout the weekend. Much of the destruction happened along Pacific Coast Highway, where PCC students and employees found themselves in the middle of pandemonium.
PCC instructional lab coordinator Harold Foot was a student employee at the campus when LBPD instructed everyone to evacuate the campus.
“That night was pretty damn terrifying because you could see the fires everywhere, you could smell the smoke, and gunshots were going off everywhere,” Foot said.
It took the LBPD, the National Guard and Marines from Camp Pendleton nearly a week to restore order to the ravaged streets of Central Long Beach. By that time, the carnage was evident: $18 million in estimated damages, 340 structure fires, 1,175 arrests and the death of Matthew Haines, 32, a former student at PCC.
“But surprisingly, the PCC campus was untouched,” said Foot. He attributes the sense of respect the surrounding communities have for PCC and efforts made by students and staff to help those in need.
“For some reason, the campus is kind of owned by the neighborhood,” said Foot. “You talk to almost anybody from Long Beach, either they went to City College or their brother, their sister, their mom did.”
In the 25 years since anger and frustration engulfed Los Angeles County’s second-largest city, members of Long Beach’s community have varied opinions of the impact the riots have had on issues ranging from community involvement to social justice to law enforcement practices.
Coy said he and many of his fellow LBPD officers have learned valuable lessons on how to cooperate with people and communities who are wary of police.
“It starts with working together. The communities have to be a part of it,” Coy said, “We’ve learned to find a solution to problems instead of arresting our way out of them.”
But according to Sennette, the impact of the riots hasn’t been all positive. While his neighborhood has cleaned up some since 1992, he cites media coverage from then and now continually portraying minorities – African Americans in particular – as inciters of violence and mayhem.
“People see the news and say ‘You see what blacks do, you see how they act.’ I respect my color and my ethnicity, but why go through with the violence part of it and make us all look bad?” Sennette said.
Onyia sees how the impact of the riots has improved the lives of people in minority communities, but notes that “it’s far from perfect.”
“What the riots showed is how a group of people can react to oppressive forces,” she said. “But it showed that angry outbursts don’t solve as much as peaceful, non-violent protests.”
Onyia believes that law enforcement officials have also made progress in community relations, but more can be done, either through education or by replacement of the old guard with more officers with open minds in the ranks.
“My grandma always said, ‘You can’t change a leopard’s spots, but you can always change the leopard.”