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School Climate & Safety

Host of Motives and Circumstances Spurred Youth Violence, Experts Say

By Millicent Lawton — May 13, 1992 8 min read

Young people under age 25, mainly impoverished blacks, were among the first to begin rioting on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles following the verdict in the Rodney G. King beating case, representing the leading edge of a violent wave that within hours brought rioters of all ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds out across the city, local observers said last week.

A complex set of motives and circumstances, they said, drove the rioters and looters, who ranged from elementary-school children--alone or accompanied by parents--to a 73-year-old arrestee.

For the young people involved, anger over a mostly white jury’s verdict virtually exonerating four police officers in the case, hopelessness over a lack of jobs, and a sense of failure traceable in part to low expectations set for them in school all played a part, many community leaders and educators said.

But some observers warned against explanations that might excuse participants’ responsibility for their own behavior, or stressed that many youths had simply taken advantage of the turmoil and the slow police response to engage in criminal acts.

Members of youth gangs were among the young people involved, but were not the dominant players in the disturbances, a number of authorities on Los Angeles gangs said. “Gangs are not the cause of this problem,’' one worker with a gang-abatement group said.

All told, perhaps 30 percent of the rioters were juveniles, said officials at Community Youth Gang Services, a nonprofit group funded by the city and county of Los Angeles.

That figure does not represent a disproportionate share of those involved, local experts said.

Steve D. Valdivia, the executive director of the gang-services group, said authorities had told him that “very few’’ of the more than 6,000 arrests made in the city of Los Angeles were of juveniles or gang members.

Los Angeles police last week could not provide figures on the ages of the those arrested in the city on charges stemming from the looting, arson, and mayhem.

Of the more than 50 people believed to have been killed in riot-related incidents, at least eight were age 18 or younger, according to a partial list released to The Associated Press last week by the Los Angeles and San Bernadino county coroners’ offices. Four of the eight were age 15, the youngest age recorded among the fatalities.

Of the 15- to 18-year-olds included on the list, four were identified as black, two as Hispanic, one as Asian, and one as white. All were hit by gunshots, according to the list. Details of the incidents were sketchy.

Questions About Gang Role

Several experts played down news accounts suggesting a concerted role in the riots by some of Los Angeles’s notorious youth gangs.

More gang members were not involved, Mr. Valdivia said, because “their conflict is ongoing, their antagonisms are ongoing.’'

But gang members likely took advantage of the situation by looting and vandalizing in the wake of others, Mr. Valdivia and others said.

Mr. Valdivia, for instance, said he did believe youth gangs had targeted liquor stores and “places where they didn’t like the owner.’'

Malcolm Klein, a sociology professor at University of Southern California who has studied gangs, agreed that gang involvement was incidental. “There’s nothing inherent in a riot situation that would connect it to gang needs,’' he said.

Regardless of the extent and nature of gang involvement in the riots, some press reports have noted reasons for local authorities to be especially watchful about gang activity in the aftermath.

Many of the large number of firearms looted during the disturbances may be in the hands of gang members, according to some reports.

And The Los Angeles Times last week cited concerns expressed by local police officials that some rival gang members may have reached a “truce’’ aimed at cooperating with each other in targeting the police. At the same time, the newspaper said, some church and community leaders see such a truce as a chance to enlist gang members in constructive activities, such as helping to rebuild neighborhoods hit by the riots.

In the city of Los Angeles, more than 56,000 youths are identified as gang members, while there are about 105,000 countywide, according to Tony Massengale, a former assistant director of field operations for Community Youth Gang Services who is now a community organizer and consultant for the group. Those numbers represent perhaps 75 percent of the true total, he added.

Korean Youths ‘Devastated’

If youths were among the perpetrators of the violence, they were also among its victims.

Some lost their lives, and young people in the Koreatown area watched as rioters burned or looted their parents’ businesses.

“You very much have the opinion from the youth that they are devastated by this experience,’' said Bonghwan Kim, the executive director of the Korean Youth Center in Koreatown, which works primarily with juvenile delinquents.

“Many of their parents’ stores have been lost,’' he said, in looting that Mr. Kim believes was conducted primarily by Latinos from the nearby Pico-Union district, as well as other groups, including Koreans.

Mr. Kim said he expects to increase the center’s counseling services in the riots’ aftermath to help Korean-American youths “just deal with the problem they’ve been through.’'

One Korean-American teenager called the center, Mr. Kim said, “out of a feeling of frustration and hopelessness’’ after her parents lost their stores to rioting.

The girl was angry, he said, that “Koreans were being scapegoated by some people in the African-American community,’' and she wanted to find a way to spread a message countering racial stereotypes.

Mr. Kim said he suggested that the student, with help from her boyfriend, who is black, gather a group of Koreans and blacks together at her high school in a show of unity.

Mr. Kim noted the tension caused by the death last year of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot by a Korean-born grocer in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. The grocer, convicted of voluntary manslaughter, was placed on probation.

‘You’re Not Quite Good Enough’

The initial violence following the April 29 verdict in the King case came from those in the most disadvantaged portion of the population, who felt “uncut anger, hurt, betrayal by a system seeming incapable of getting past its racism,’' according to Mr. Massengale, the expert on gangs.

But after the first 24 hours, “the mood began to change,’' he added. “There was a different kind of mood out on the streets, almost a cathartic or liberating mood’’ that cut across demographic and socioeconomic lines, he said.

“So we’ve got something that’s a whole lot bigger than a reaction to the verdict,’' Mr. Massengale said.

For Mr. Kim, part of the explanation for the riots lies in the stressful environment of inner-city Los Angeles, where joblessness and “third-world living conditions’’ create a “hair-trigger situation’’ in which “anything can happen.’'

And bias experienced by lower-income, minority-group students in school may have contributed to some youths’ need to participate in the rioting, argued Harriet Doss Willis, the director of the Southwest Center for Educational Equity at the Southwest Regional Laboratory in Los Alamitos, Calif.

“There’s a certain amount of inequality, bias against particular youngsters in the public schools as well as in the world, the country’’ at large, she said.

By using practices that begin with holding back kindergarten students, she said, school officials convey a message to some disadvantaged youngsters “that you’re not quite good enough’'--not as good as the nonminority children who have had better preparation at home and are expected to succeed.

Academic tracking and ability grouping can contribute to this cycle of failure, Ms. Willis said, as can disparities in school programs available to students of differing backgrounds.

“That message gets delivered over and over again,’' Ms. Willis said. “By the time you’re 14, 15, 16 years old, you turn that hate outward.’'

“I wouldn’t put the rap on the schools’’ as being responsible, said former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. If values are lacking at home or in the community, he said, “it’s pretty tough on schools’’ to fill the void.

Mr. Bennett, who made his remarks at a press conference in Seattle last week before addressing the second annual National School Safety Conference, said he thought the reasons young people were involved in the lawbreaking in Los Angeles were “pretty simple.’'

“They were imitating what they saw adults do,’' he said.

“A lot of these kids,’' he added, “took [the situation] as a chance to get what they need: shoes, radios.’'

“They are human beings,’' he said, and they “have the same desires’’ as other people.

‘It’s Criminal Activity’

Walter E. Williams, a prominent black conservative who is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, took a strict line toward those who rioted.

“They are engaging in criminal activity,’' he said. “If it’s social protest, it’s stupid as hell.’'

“Clearly, whatever the motivation, it has clear consequences,’' he said. “Whatever the motivation, it’s criminal activity.’'

“There’s no up side to this at all,’' Mr. Williams said.

And Alex Rascon, the director of police services for the San Diego City Unified School District, said he considered youths’ involvement in the disorders “strictly a lawless act.’' He said he doubted that their actions had anything to do with the King verdict.

“They just all of a sudden saw that opportunity and took it,’' said Mr. Rascon, who commented while attending the school-safety conference.

Ms. Willis of the educational-equity center stressed that, while she and other African-Americans were angry about the verdict, their response will be channeled through avenues other than violence or crime, because of the values instilled in them growing up.

“But many of those youngsters have not had’’ that kind of upbringing, she said, referring to the low-income, inner-city children of Los Angeles.

For them, she said, gunfire and death are common events, prompting them to take to the streets in the rioting despite “knowing they were going to get shot.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1992 edition of Education Week as Host of Motives and Circumstances Spurred Youth Violence, Experts Say

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