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Capital & Main
Capital & Main
Cerise Castle

An Author Reflects on the Effort to Rebuild L.A. After the ‘Violent Spring’ of 1992

The Los Angeles riots began on April 29, 1992, at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in South L.A. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

In 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the brutal beating of Rodney King, an unarmed Black motorist, igniting tensions that had been simmering for years in South Los Angeles. Unemployment was almost 50%, the crack cocaine epidemic had a firm hold in the area, and gang activity and violent crime were high.

The same month that King was beaten, Korean American store owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl trying to buy orange juice. Du received probation and a $500 fine. That episode in 1991 strained already tense relations between Korean and Black residents and fueled exasperation with the criminal justice system.

The six days after the King verdict were marked by rioting across Los Angeles County: Some people set fires, while others looted stores and restaurants. Light-skinned motorists — both white and Latino — were targeted with bricks and other objects thrown at their vehicles; some drivers were pulled out of their cars and beaten.

The aftermath of L.A.’s burning is where author Gary Phillips set his debut novel, Violent Spring, which was published in 1994, two years after the unrest. Thirty years later, the mystery novel is being reissued by Penguin Random House. In an interview with Capital & Main, Phillips reflects on a city still tackling many of the same problems that plagued Los Angeles when the book first appeared.

Phillips, born in Los Angeles in 1955, initially pursued a career of political activism. He was a political campaign director, a union organizer and a community activist advocating for affordable housing and gang intervention. His hardboiled detective novels are influenced by his upbringing and life in South L.A.

Violent Spring opens at a groundbreaking ceremony at the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, where the unrest began. A bulldozer accidentally unearths the body of a Korean shop owner. Many suspect the murder had racial motivations, and Black private eye Ivan Monk is hired by community organizations to find the killer. Residents theorize about who is responsible, and each has their own vision of what a rebuilt city should look like.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Capital & Main: You grew up here in Los Angeles. What were your cross streets growing up?

Gary Phillips: I grew up on Flower Street between 59th Place and Slauson [Avenue]. My cross streets were Figueroa [Street] and Slauson. It was a working-class area. It represented those Black folks who were part of the Great Migration who came West for a better opportunity. Mr. Caldwell, who lived next door, worked with the gas company. And next door to him was Mrs. Lewis. She was a public school teacher. And down on the other end of the block was Mr. Guy, who worked for the railroad. Across the street, we had a bookie for a neighbor.

Gary Phillips.

What are some of your memories from that time?

I recall being around 10 in 1965 when the Watts riots happened. I vividly recall my dad’s reaction to it. He was not shocked or scared. You could arguably say he was rooting for the rioters in the sense [that they were] standing up to the racism and brutality of the cops. Not that he went on a long lecture about it. But the idea that Black folk were standing up and not taking it was a moment that he felt very proud about.

Violent Spring takes place during the period after the 1992 riots when corporate leaders focused on rebuilding South Los Angeles and communities were organizing to address some of the root causes of the riot. What actually happened?

Post 1992, there were some attempts at course correction. Proposition F [an amendment to Los Angeles’ city charter that gave city officials the power to remove a police chief and established term limits for the position] passed in the wake of 1992. That was a sign that some kind of incremental move forward can be accomplished. But that’s really the best you can hope for in a reformist democracy.

There was not going to be a great big, sweeping change. The federal government wasn’t going to be there for aid and succor. [Then-Mayor Tom] Bradley was certainly punting the ball. [After the riots, Bradley announced the formation of ReBuild LA, a private sector-led effort to steer billions of dollars in investment into riot-torn areas of the city.] People pretty much thought ReBuild LA was going to be a joke, which it kind of was. It had these grand schemes but no sense of what that meant to work at the grassroots.

Even understanding that, there were ways to [use the attention on South L.A.] to get some funding for community groups around issues of empowerment, economic development and education. There could be, at least, pockets of development that could move some things forward.

There are prominent real-life figures, like former District Attorney Ira Reiner and Soon Ja Du, who make appearances in the book. Are any of the book’s fictional characters based on people involved in city politics at the time?

There are composites of people I knew back then, people I know now. Certain characteristics of theirs that got incorporated into this or that character. For the sake of moving a story along, you tend to make a composite of three or four characters, hopefully not to make them stereotypical. You still want to [show their] flaws and attributes.

I’m telling a mystery story. On top of that is this bigger story about the city.

But I don’t want [my novel] to be a platform. I want to make the neighborhoods that Monk and my characters travel as organic as I can to the story. In the end, the story is paramount.

How have you seen the city evolve in the three decades since the uprising?

There’s been gentrification in the neighborhoods, the changing of the guard and demographic shift. We’re always rebuilding the past, or we’re destroying it. There are landmarks that have come and gone. Certainly, there are landmarks that I only know about from hearing my dad talk about them.

There’s nostalgia there, of course … [but] the question is always “Is this the change that is going to just push working-class, lower-income folks out? Or is it a kind of change that helps to incorporate them?”

Many characters in Violent Spring are longing to cure the social ills that plague their community, like poverty, violence and displacement. What progress have we made in addressing those concerns that the book spotlights?

Look at the trajectory of our current mayor [Karen Bass], not to say that she’s immune to criticism. During the so-called crack epidemic, she organized among the left to say, “We cannot police our way out of this issue. This is a medical emergency.”

It took those progressive politics and that coalition work to create the Community Coalition [the South Los Angeles community organization Bass founded in 1990 that promotes alternatives to policing]. From that, there was a somewhat natural progression into the political sphere.

Yet she ran for mayor with a platform of hiring more cops and has since approved police budgets of more than $4 billion.

Well, you’re right. And these are the inherent contradictions.

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