How Do We Prevent Another L.A. Riot? Give Youth a Voice

Posted by Jason Sperber

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If you lived in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, you remember where you were when the city began to burn.

I’d just turned 18 and was two months from graduating from Los Angeles High School. I grew up in Koreatown, the biracial son of two public school teachers living in a multiracial, middle-class neighborhood in the center of the city. I saw Los Angeles as a city of diverse voices telling their own personal, yet interconnecting stories in a beautiful multitude of languages. And because of my involvement in L.A. Youth, a nonprofit youth newspaper founded in 1988, I knew that it was important that my classmates and I share our voices.

On the day of the verdict acquitting LAPD officers of beating Rodney King, I was leaving campus early to take the bus to UCLA where I was taking a class. I will never forget the voice of the teacher who told me what had happened: "They found them not guilty, Jason. NOT. GUILTY. Now tell me that there's justice in this world."

I watched righteous anger turn into fires, violence, and looting. There was no school the next day and the National Guard soon turned L.A. High's blacktop into a staging area. Since I was also editor-in-chief of the high school paper, I talked my dad into driving me around over the next couple days so I could take photos of destroyed businesses in Koreatown, the Humvees on my campus—and eventually, of people coming together to sweep and clean the streets and sidewalks.

And, with the fires still smoldering, L.A. Youth put together a special issue. We called it "Rebuilding the Dream” and devoted it to asking questions about how we’d gotten to where we were, and where we needed to go next. We student writers knew this was our city, even if the mainstream media never showed youth who looked like us unless the story was negative. These were our communities, our realities. And the future was ours to build. We couldn’t do it alone, but we weren’t going to sit back and be silent either.

That fall I headed off to college in New England—3,000 miles and a world away from Los Angeles. But what those few days in the spring of 1992 and my experiences with L.A. Youth taught me about the intersection of race, class, history, identity, and community, and the importance of voice and stories became the focus of my life.

I always imagined that I would return to Los Angeles—the city was part of me, was me—but now I live 100 miles away in central California. My parents still live in the city, though, so I visit frequently, and I am connected to it when my Facebook feed fills with news. Now, on the anniversary of the riots, the question on everyone’s mind is, Could the riots happen again?

Some things haven't changed in Los Angeles. Friends share stories—like the recent shooting of an unarmed black male youth by police in suburban Pasadena—that are reminiscent of what happened to Rodney King. Then there are the stories about the injustices perpetrated against students and teachers in overburdened public schools, and tales of the insidious intersection of racism, classism, and city politics.

But wait. Counterbalancing those stories are other stories of hope. Two decades after L.A. Youth tried to make sure that diverse young people's voices were heard in the aftermath of the riots, its handful of adult staffers is still helping young Angelenos tell their stories.

The stories L.A. Youth’s 80 current student journalists are producing, like surveying 1,850 Los Angeles County high school students on how education budget cuts are affecting them, expose the truth about what’s happening in Los Angeles today in a way that wasn't possible 20 years ago. The spotlight the paper recently shone on the disproportionate truancy ticketing of students of color in lower income neighborhoods by the police helped bring about an end to the practice. Through their stories—and the way they travel on social media platforms—today's student writers are speaking truth to power and fighting for their peers, for their communities, local organizations, and for themselves.

I know how important that is, as do the several thousand students whose words have been printed on its pages in the almost quarter-century L.A. Youth has been in existence. But L.A. Youth—like many nonprofit organizations fighting the good fight in a climate where fewer and fewer resources are devoted to more and more problems—is in financial trouble. The paper needs to quickly raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep operating. If it doesn't, the student voices and stories that need to be told may be silenced. Silenced frustration can bubble over and turn into the kind of rage we saw burning through Los Angeles 20 years ago.

We can't let that happen. For many young Angelenos, the dream remains deferred and half-built. People, young—and not-so-young anymore, like me—still have work to do. Let's give our support to L.A Youth and make sure they can tell the story of how young people in this city are making the dream a reality. To donate to L.A. Youth, click here.