Watching images of buildings on fire, shattered storefronts and armfuls of impulsively snatched merchandise stirs a sense of déjà vu for Bob Taylor.
The retired Los Angeles Police Department commander saw the 1992 riots so up-close a rock smashed his patrol car windshield.
“It’s sadly reminiscent,” Taylor said. “I just saw on TV a woman at her nail salon, with debris all over the floor. Why break into a nail salon? What are you going to take? That woman put her whole life into her business.”
Twenty-eight years ago, civil unrest exploded after the acquittal of four police officers who – years before omnipresent cellphone cameras – were videotaped beating Rodney King, an African American pulled over in a traffic stop.
Today’s protests and riots follow the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man heard pleading for air as a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck.
Law enforcement and political leaders around the country swiftly condemned the actions of the officers involved.
Black Lives Matter and other civil rights groups organized protests nationwide, including all over Southern California, that generally began passionate yet peaceful. However, several demonstrations have deteriorated into chaos, arson and looting.
Protests can reach that breaking point when groups of people feel “their voices just aren’t being heard,” said José I. Rodríguez, a communications scientist at Cal State Long Beach.
“If people feel justice is for others but not for them, they become disenfranchised,” Rodriguez said. “They go to the streets to reclaim their significance and express frustration.”
Several factors can lead to a free-for-all. “It can be an act of sheer desperation, or unbridled anger, or moral indignation,” Rodriguez said. “Then there’s herd mentality and the human tenancy to conform. People see other people doing it and think, I’m going to do it, too.”
In 1992, Taylor said he witnessed “mob mentality develop.”
“People who don’t originally go to the demonstration with the idea of throwing rocks get caught up in what they see,” he said.
Rioting and looting can drown out the reason for protests in the first place, said Gregory Akili, an organizer with the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter – which advocates against police brutality.
Still, he said, the center of the conversation must remain George Floyd.
“I do not take responsibility for behavior I don’t agree with, nor do I know their motivations,” Akili said. “That’s on them. I take responsibility for challenging the conditions that brought us to this point.”
Akili noted that riots and vandalism can also occur after a hometown sports team victory – such as when the Los Angeles Lakers have won NBA championships. “People act crazy,” he said. “But that didn’t take away from the fact that the team won.”
Fearful that their protests could slide into violence, some organizers have even pulled the plug. A group of UCLA students planned a demonstration in Westwood Village on Monday, June 1, but then posted on social media: “We are deeply concerned that a peaceful protest today could be hijacked by individuals seeking to commit crimes and damage business and property.”
Social media allows people on both ends of the spectrum to coordinate quickly, Rodriguez said. In Huntington Beach, for instance, Facebook pages called on counter-protesters to show up for a demonstration planned Sunday, May 31.
“Instigators encourage people to engage with the other side, which serves to heighten emotions,” Rodriguez said.
Based on surveys taken by Loyola Marymount University statisticians, the current unrest does not come as a shock to most people in the Los Angeles area.
LMU’s StudyLA has conducted polls every five years since 1992 to monitor concerns about race relations. In 2017, the poll found that residents were less hopeful than they had been in 20 years – with 58% predicting that civil disturbance could happen within five years.
“It’s not surprising that we would find ourselves in this situation again,” said Brianne Gilbert, who coauthored the most recent study. “The ridiculous treatment of African Americans continues. Tension builds until it bubbles over. Then it subsides, but it is not rectified.”
Tustin Police Chief Stu Greenberg said riots are the result of “different people with different motivations.”
“In general, demonstrators truly are out there to be heard to to exercise their constitutional rights,” Greenberg said. “But then you have the other people – the opportunists who come and take advantage of the chaos. Often, they don’t even care about the cause.”
Tustin has not experienced rioting. But in all cities, a convergence of circumstances has created “the perfect storm for unrest,” Greenberg said.
“We have been dealing with a pandemic, and everyone is at the end of their rope,” Greenberg said. “And we are in an election year, with political campaigns and rallies and everything that naturally goes with it.”
This may be the beginning of a long summer and fall, Greenberg added. “We’re not going to get much of a break. This is going to go right up to the election.”
Source: Orange County Register