Venice community activist Naomi Nightingale on the lasting impacts of 1992’s civil unrest

Naomi Nightingale (center) says that when century-old homes are lost, community history goes with them

April 29, 1992. The events of that Wednesday in Los Angeles 25 years ago are seared into the collective memory of those old enough to remember, whether they were watching the chaos and violence erupt on television or outside their homes.

Most people call them Los Angeles Riots. Others find the term inadequate — ignoring the underlying conditions that led to one of the darkest episodes in the history of Los Angeles.

In the six days of rioting that followed the acquittals of four LAPD officers involved in the Rodney King beating, the world watched in horror as a truck driver was beaten with a brick, much of South L.A. and Koreatown went up in flames and, although the Westside went largely untouched, the National Guard even shut down local beaches as a precaution.

Longtime civil rights activist Naomi Nightingale, an informal liaison between residents of Venice’s historically black Oakwood neighborhood and the LAPD, was living in South L.A. in 1992. She spoke about the legacy of civil unrest and the gradual erosion of Venice’s black community over the past 25 years.

— Gary Walker

Most people use the word “riot” to describe what happened. Do you find that to be accurate?

I don’t use the term “riot.” A civil unrest doesn’t just wake up one morning and start. They start because of longstanding prior issues of injustice and people feeling like their voices aren’t heard. ‘Civil unrest’ has a simmering component to it. … In 1992 it did get out of control, and there were people who took advantage of that and didn’t act lawfully.

Where were you when it began?

In 1992, I lived at 79th Street between Normandie Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue [about eight blocks from Normandie and Florence avenues, one of that night’s key flashpoints]. I had planned to go out to dinner with my sister and we saw several police cars parked along Florence. … After we left the restaurant, I heard gunshots and saw people running up and down the street yelling and screaming. When I got home I watched [truck driver] Reginald Denny getting pulled out of his truck. At the time I didn’t know how far this was going to go. When you have that kind of unrest, people aren’t thinking clearly. There’s no rational thought during a civil unrest. But I also remember people coming out to sweep up the glass and clean up after it was all over.

Did the civil unrest change you?

I’ve been working on social justice and civil rights issues since I was 18 years old. The disappointment for me is that I’m still fighting the same issues.

Do you think the uprising set the stage for the beginning of “black flight” from Oakwood?

No, I don’t. What caused people to leave Oakwood was when developers came in and began offering large sums of money to people who had owned their home for years. When parents passed away, many families sold the properties and took the money that developers were offering.

But I also think that many people left because of what happened after the unrest. A lot of the young men saw an opportunity to move out due to fear of harassment and being unfairly detained by the police. And others who might have been involved in gangs in the past moved away because they wanted to get a fresh start.

Where did everyone go?

Many families that I know who sold their homes moved to Lancaster and Palmdale. They found that homes out there were less expensive and they could try to start communities there.

How has policing in Venice’s Oakwood neighborhood changed since 1992?

There was very little mutual, respectful engagement at that time. Now there have been some changes. We have had more access to the police department, but because officers change so much it’s hard to establish continuity and a standard of respectful engagement. Unfortunately, there’s still a certain level of mistrust.

What should we learn from the events of 1992?

Elected officials and community leaders need to be continually involved in discussions with each other. People in power need to look at the decisions they make and how they will affect people long-term, and citizens should be voting for and electing people who are more in line with their concerns.

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