- RICHARD FLORY and NJUMA SMITH-POLLARD
Going through RNS
Thirty years ago, Los Angeles was burning. On April 29, 1992, Los Angeles police officers who brutally beat Rodney King, an unarmed man arrested on suspicion of impaired driving, were acquitted of excessive force.
Five months prior, the convenience store owner who killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was given a suspended sentence and a minimum fine. The acquittals in the King case broke the camel’s back. The city’s minority and economically marginalized communities realized they could never get justice.
In this April 30, 1992, file photo, a fire spirals out of control at the corner of 67th Street and West Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles. On April 29, 1992, white police officers were found innocent after beating black motorist Rodney King, and Los Angeles erupted in deadly riots. PHOTO: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma.
After decades of mistreatment by the LAPD – and decades of being forced out of their homes to make way for freeways, being denied mortgages, being kept out of certain neighborhoods, being kept in a failing education system and more, all meant to “keep them in their place”. – black and brown communities were so desperate for change that they were ready to burn down their own communities.
When the smoke cleared, 63 people had been killed, 2,383 had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested and hundreds of businesses had been looted and burned, with property damage estimates at more than one billion dollars.
“The Reverend Cecil L ‘Chip’ Murray, pastor of First AME Church, remarked from his pulpit amid the violence, ‘We may have started these fires, but we didn’t start these fires.’ “
Reverend Cecil L “Chip” Murraypastor of First AME Church, remarked from his pulpit amid the violence, “We may have started these fires, but we didn’t start these fires.”
In the years that followed, it was Murray who became the conscience of the city and a leader of a grassroots, faith-based movement for change, setting an example of social action for justice and community building. cities across the country.
Anticipating the violence, Murray had devised a visionary plan for the faith community to lead efforts to bring about positive and lasting social change in the city. The package included preaching on city issues to educate church members and organize with community activists and congregations of all faith traditions.
He answered the call of all those who wanted to work for the betterment of the city. He’s partnered with anyone with access to resources who can make the necessary changes, whether it’s a bank, corporation, celebrities or the federal government. The solutions were decided collectively and the problems were confronted directly during meetings with elected officials and decision-makers.
The result was a flourishing of interfaith activism in the civic sphere. Murray’s FAMOUS Renaissance, the community development company affiliated with First AME, is the most prominent example. FAME Renaissance has worked with public and private actors to create jobs, housing and opportunity in South Los Angeles neighborhoods.
In the 30 years since the uprising, many other faith-based organizations have entered the public sphere in Los Angeles, everyone working to create a better, fairer city with increased opportunities for all. At USC Center for Religion and Civic Culturewe have documented the public role of the religious community in the civic life of Los Angeles since 1992 and worked with groups motivated by their spirituality to create positive social change for the people of the city.
The contribution of the faith community to the civic culture of Los Angeles has been enormous, and as a result, most public agencies now recognize the need to engage with the variety of faith communities to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.
Murray has always advocated teaching people not just how to fish, but how to own the pond. A growing number of religious denominations community development corporations, non-profit organizations and social enterprises have adopted this approach to bring job training and employment opportunities to communities and empower individuals and families to gain financial literacy.
Those inspired by faith also seek to bring about change in the halls of power – running for local political officesexpansion interfaith power building and use the media to talk about social justice issues.
Despite progress since 1992, many of the same problems that caused the unrest that year persist three decades later. Systemic racism, coupled with recent efforts to protect white privilege through denial and voter suppression, remains endemic in American politics and institutions.
Since 2016, powerful faith groups – some with deep stories in LA – have joined the largest Christian nationalist movement oppose social change that would result in greater social equity. Their regressive social and cultural goals contradict the message of their faith, further diminishing the appeal of organized religion among younger generations.
These developments promise future upheavals along the racial and economic fault lines of Southern California and the nation.
But the past 30 years also show how faith groups can come together to address the challenges of racism and economic inequality by working across faiths to develop new movements and networks. This can be attributed to the preparatory work posed in the aftermath of the troubles of 1992. Now that the work has been entrusted to a new generation leaders who learn from each other while continuing their important work.
The stakes are high. Powerful religious figures and organizations are actively working against these efforts. Their ultimate success will be determined by our collective response – including by members and faith-based institutions of the white majority, whose interests are privileged by current systems and institutions – to decide whether to pursue some form of restorative justice that seeks to make our fellow citizens and our entire communities. Are we up to the challenge?
Richard Flory is managing director and Najuma Smith-Pollard is Deputy Director of Community and Public Engagement at USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.