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Lessons from the riots have continued relevance today

April 28, 2012 |  2:38 pm

In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, Pastor Cecil L. Murray of First AME Church emerged as a civic leader willing to address the social and economic causes of the violence that tore through the city.

Now, at 82, Murray is a senior fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and has been speaking about the civil unrest that helped define his tenure at the church.

In a statement written for a community gathering Friday morning to discuss the lessons learned from the riots, Murray cited an ongoing need “to fix the 4 Ps: poverty of pocket, poverty of family, poverty of education and poverty of imaging (how we see ourselves).”

Twenty years ago, Murray stood beside more than 5,000 congregants and community leaders at his church and watched the flames “burning like Dante’s Inferno” at West Adams Boulevard and South Western Avenue.

Less than a week later, he was interviewed by Times national correspondent Robert Scheer, and while Murray made clear that the looting and the arson were “totally inexcusable,” he firmly believed that blame “belongs to more than just the people [who did the] burning.”

His words have continued relevance today.

When asked if the violence and the fires had an economic base, he replied that “everything in history is pulled by an economic engine.... To pretend that you can be poor and depressed and poor and racially discriminated against without an explosion sooner or later -- that is Disneyland.”

When Scheer asked about rage in the community -- and the belief at the time that the riots were the result of the actions of “only a few bad apples, only a few punks, gang members” -- Murray pointed to the discontent engendered by disparity and disadvantage.

“People need a way to live,” he said. “Even our middle-income people need a way to live.... If the haves do not make room for the have-nots, then nobody will have.”

Murray also called for the development of a Marshall Plan for Los Angeles, believing that an investment program in the city could become a prototype for the nation. “We had better make this prototype succeed, because every time there's a flash point in L.A., there will be a flash point in Philadelphia, New York, Detroit and Miami,” he said.

According to a story by Ricardo Lopez in The Times on Saturday, worse economic disparities riddle parts of city today than in 1992. In South Los Angeles, median income -- when adjusted for inflation -- is lower than it was in 1992, and in two areas of the city, Florence-Graham and Westmont, unemployment is almost 24%. In 1992, it was 21% in Florence-Graham and 17%  in Westmont.

After the riots, a report called for an investment in South Los Angeles of about $6 billion and the creation of 75,000 to 94,000 jobs. Two years later in 1994, the federal and state governments had spent $768 million, and the private sector was looked upon to help create jobs.

But according to Lopez’s story, most private sector programs have had little effect. According to Chris Tilly, director of the UCLA Institute of Research on Labor and Employment, the private sector does not invest in depressed areas.

"The nature of private-sector investors is to look where the payoff is," Tilly said. "If you've got large swaths of the city where there are bad schools, poor people and crime, that's not where private investment will go."


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-- Thomas Curwen