In the past few weeks there has been rich analysis and storytelling around the 20th anniversary of LA’s civil unrest. I talked to leaders at three organizations that have been central to important gains of the past 20 years and to the transformation and fights currently underway. Their work varies from education and foster care reform, to advocating for the rights and reintegration of previously incarcerated people, to fighting for just transportation and fair neighborhood revitalization. The challenges they take on are undeniably difficult politically and economically. The opportunities they zero in on to engage stakeholders authentically and build community leadership are not taken on lightly. Most inspiring is the people-power they are building.
The complex conversations they lead are tied to systemic change and far from the media’s reductive dominant narrative that focused on racial disharmony 20 years ago. The Los Angeles Police Department’s impunity in the Rodney King case and the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins were painful flashpoints for the community, but there were bigger systemic issues that for years conspired to create a fertile ground for unrest.
Everyone I talked to agreed that South Los Angeles specifically has benefited in the past 20 years from the organizing and work of many social justice organizations that did not exist before. While they all pointed to the challenge of the local economy, unemployment and holding banksters accountable, these three organizations are looking at what they can do now to tackle issues that impact the future of families of color in South Los Angeles.
South LA’s Community Coalition is an organization that leads campaigns aimed at improving the quality of life for the area’s African-American and Latino residents. The Coalition’s Chief Operating Officer, Joanne Kim, talked to me about successes, challenges and how the history that led to the organization’s founding is coming full circle.
The organization was founded by community leaders including US Congresswoman Karen Bass two years prior to the civil unrest in response to the 1980’s crack cocaine public health epidemic. It aims to provide preventative community-centered solutions to the drug problem that was approached with harsh sentencing and jailing.
One of Community Coalition’s first campaigns started in 1992, and has led to the closure of more than 150 public nuisance liquor stores that had previously been hubs of alcohol-and drug-related violence. Thanks to the Coalition, many of the stores were converted to business like laundries and restaurants. The organization achieves victories while it stimulates people power and leadership across a variety of issues. Community members have mobilized and won important local education reforms that have improved school conditions by helping to reduce overcrowding. They also won over $82 million in state money for foster care reform, including $36 million for relative caregivers to keep families together.
South LA has dealt with the mass separation of black and Latino families due to harsh crack cocaine sentencing.The Coalition is now working to make sure that communities have a say in how their formerly incarcerated friends, families and neighbors are welcomed back into society. A recent state adult prison realignment bill shifted responsibility for supervising non-violent offenders from state prisons to county jails and communities themselves.
"In welcoming people as citizens newly out of prison, the resources and capacity to fully integrate people into the legal economy, need to be there," Kim says. For the Coalition, realignment needs to be done well, and may also be used to look at how prevention and treatment are better and more cost-effective than incarceration and punitive measures.
Manuel Criollo, Director of Organizing for the Bus Riders Union (BRU), helped me understand the organization’s work within the context of the civil unrest, and what’s happening now. The Bus Riders Union considers transportation a human right and has saved public transportation in Los Angeles, becoming the country’s largest grassroots mass transit advocacy organization. The BRU is recognized nationally for a historic civil rights order that transformed the city’s bus system. The organization is a multiracial dynamo of 200 active members, 3,000 dues-paying members, and 50,000 supporters on the buses of L.A.
The work of the Bus Riders Union is tied to the region’s shifting economy. When that shift from local high-paying wage jobs to more service-oriented work occured, people had to travel far and wide to get to their jobs. Public transportation was needed, but scarily, there were also many forces on the move trying to privatize the service, and worse, trying to use public money to build a new train system that was going to segregate many of the poor communities in the city. In 1994, the BRU sued the Metropolitan Transportation Agency for violating civil rights law. Two years later, the union won a court order mandating that the agency spent over $2.7 billion to improve its buses. That led to over 600 new buses that ran on natural gas instead of diesel fuel. The entire fleet was replaced from diesel to natural gas; and the fleet was expanded by over 600 buses.
According to Criollo, the BRU sees itself in the tradition of the black liberation and Civil Rights movements where transportation — namely the Montgomery Bus Boycott — was central to an agenda for achieving justice. Criollo says that for African Americans, this fight was a continuation of that history, and for newer immigrants it was an opportunity to learn about a history of 400 years of slavery and racial discrimination. People from El Salvador who had been guerilla fighters, people from Mexico that had been labor organizers and people who lived through the Jim Crow south all contributed their talents to saving transportation in LA.
What’s next on BRU’s agenda? Protecting its signature achievements. The BRU will look toward President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to uphold the understanding that there has been a violation of the the group’s historic court order.
Founded in 1995, CDTech is a nationally recognized organization that’s dedicated to promoting economic opportunities and justice for low-income residents and communities throughout Greater Los Angeles. CEO and President Benny Torres and Director of Policy, Research & Innovation, Lizette Hernandez Moore talked to me about the organization’s evolution, their work to build community power and innovate in the field of community economic development.
Surprisingly, CDTech was created with resources from the failed campaign to rebuild Los Angeles shortly after the 1992 uprisings. Initially a bunch of technicians who did research and training, CDTech helped reframe issues joblessness. Those new frames pushed back against the common narrative that ignored the role of systemic disinvestment and lack a of critical infrastructure in causing the uprisings. In its first 10 years, CDTech pioneered the nation’s first community college degree in community development. The degree was in partnership with Los Angeles Trade Technical College, one of the area’s largest vocational schools. CDTech told people to follow the money.
In recent years and in the challenging economic climate, the organization has transitioned toward building power on the ground. Their goal is to tie civic engagement and leadership building to economic transformation. To help do that, their organizing academy is building the next generation of young and older adults, training them to understand all of the dynamics necessary for residents to create change themselves.
Currently, they’re teaming up with other local organizations to challenge proposed expansion by the University of Southern California. The coalition of groups, known as the Unidad Coalition, is not against USC’s expansion alone, but they are pushing the university to think of how the project can be a catalyst for economic revitalization that does not continue to displace communities from the area and prioritizes affordable housing.