Greg Boyle, S.J.: What Rodney King and racial unrest in Los Angeles taught me about policing and community
It was a Wednesday, so I had evening Mass at the Dorothy Kirby Center in Commerce, Calif., a lockdown facility for troubled teens, mainly gang members. Earlier that day, at 3:15 p.m. on April 29, 1992, four police officers had been acquitted of the use of excessive force in the beating of Rodney King during Mr. King’s arrest following a high-speed car chase. I was aware of the verdict when I presided in the tiny chapel at Kirby. Afterwards, I would visit the “cottages” where the minors lived. I sat in the living room and was speaking with a few kids, but I grew distracted by the images on the TV. Los Angeles was on fire, and I needed to get home.
I was in my sixth and final year as pastor of Dolores Mission Church, the poorest parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, comprising mostly people from the largest grouping of public housing west of the Mississippi. The Los Angeles Police Department called the neighborhood, Boyle Heights (no relation), the location of the highest concentration of gang activity in the whole city. We had eight different gangs, all at war with one another. Violence and reprisals of further violence were common in the neighborhoods around Dolores Mission even without an igniting event like the acquittal of four white men for the brutal beating of a Black man. If any pocket of poverty in Los Angeles was likely to ignite, it would be my parish.
But when I got home, the parish was not imploding. It never did implode. I would subsequently tell The Los Angeles Times that perhaps one of the reasons was because our parish had 60 strategically hired rival gang members working together and who, consequently, had a reason to get up in the morning and perhaps a reason not to torch their own community. This was the beginnings of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program on the planet. That Times article led to a seminal donation to begin Homeboy Bakery. Currently, we have ten social enterprises, free tattoo removal, therapy, a school and an 18-month training program, with 10,000 gang members, men and women, each year, seeking healing and restoration. There are 120,000 gang members and 1,100 gangs in Los Angeles County.
Tom Brokaw called. He had become a friend and had done several segments on his various broadcasts on our parish community’s response to gang violence. “What are you seeing?” he asked me. I was on the second floor of our Boyle Heights Jesuit community, looking out the window. I could see Central and South Los Angeles in flames. “The whole city is on fire, Tom.” The smell of smoke lasted for many days. I sat with Mario, an imposing gang member (who would be killed some months later) on a stoop outside a project apartment, two days into the unrest. “It’s the end of the world, isn’t it, G?” I put my arm around him. “No, it isn’t, mijo. It isn’t.” I remember feeling not entirely sure that it was not.
The National Guard arrived in our neighborhood nearly four days later. They need not have come at all. In other parts of the city, there was distrust between Korean shopkeepers and poor folks of color who were their customers, and television images of attacks on local stores were commonplace in some neighborhoods of Los Angeles during the unrest. Not so much here. Gang members, watching the images on the TV screen, feared that others would invade their community and attack “our stores.” They stood by, armed against the “attacks” that never happened. I thanked the local store owners for staying open during these days. It promoted something that resembled normal at such a troubling moment.
Once, in midday, I came upon several young men atop a factory adjacent to the housing projects, passing down appliances and boxes to adults below eager to receive the merchandise. I remember screaming like a banshee at them; they all slunk away, with heads bowed.
The unrest lasted for six days, and 64 people lost their lives. At the midpoint of these days, I was summoned to meet with Gov. Pete Wilson and other community leaders at the governor’s office in Los Angeles. I suppose you could say that the governor and I were not exactly on friendly terms. We previously had gotten into an argument on live television. It was a debate of sorts and, in those days, we were stuck in the “Get Tough” times, which emphasized increased arrests and longer prison sentences in an effort to deter crime. Darryl Gates was chief of police, and it was the era of Operation Hammer, gang round-ups, draconian laws and endlessly excessive use of force by police against gang members. I had many encounters with gang members, bloodied and bruised, with their faces rearranged, and I presumed they ran into gang rivals. They would reluctantly confide that they had been taken to the factories behind the projects and beaten by police for purposes of interrogation and intimidation. On TV, I told the governor that getting tough, longer sentences and implementing stricter laws to end gang violence was “like building cemeteries, then saying you’ve cured AIDS.” (I was young.) So it was surprising for me to receive an invitation to this gathering around the governor’s conference table.
On TV, I told the governor that getting tough, longer sentences and implementing stricter laws to end gang violence was “like building cemeteries, then saying you’ve cured AIDS.”
I remember the actor and activist Edward James Olmos arriving late to the meeting. He was breathless and in jeans and work clothes, carrying big brooms. He had become quite and deservedly celebrated for rolling up his sleeves and cleaning the streets in the aftermath of the unrest. He galvanized many volunteers to hit the streets, clean up and vow to rebuild.
Change and Stasis
Much has evolved over these 30 years. Certainly, in the first 10 years of Homeboy Industries’ existence—1988 to 1998—our efforts to help gang members transform their lives was met with intense hostility. Death threats, bomb threats and hate mail were regularly directed our way. These never came from gang members, since we represented a clear and assured hope to them. But for those who had demonized gang members, it was but a short hop to demonize an organization that assisted them. In fact, nearly all the hate mail was from anonymous law enforcement officials. “We hate you. You are part of the problem…not the solution.” If the gang member was the enemy, then we were fraternizing with the enemy.
I had buried my first young person killed because of gang violence in 1988, and by the time this is published I will have buried my 254th person gunned down in our streets for no reason at all. This most recent one is a 14-year-old named Jeremy. Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles reached a peak of 1,000 in 1992 by the end of the year, eight months after the unrest.
Since 1992, homicides have been cut in half and then nearly cut in half again. But like most cities during the pandemic, Los Angeles has seen a 30 percent increase in homicides during the past two years. Yet we are still far from the horrific body count that followed in the wake of the Rodney King riots.
Since 1992, homicides have been cut in half and then nearly cut in half again.
In Los Angeles, anyway, policing changed. We evolved as a city from the days of Darryl Gates’s Operation Hammer, which were mindlessly tough (1978–92), to the community policing of Chief Bill Bratton (2002–09) to an even more enlightened, “relational policing” of Chief Charlie Beck (2009–18). Police during this time actively sought a relationship with people “on their beat” and frequently coordinated with community organizations. The leadership in the police department valued and even gave credit to Homeboy Industries for a marked decrease in gang violence. Still, in the early years of Homeboy Industries, the rank-and-file police officer did not always share the benign view of our efforts at gang rehabilitation that their leadership had. Thirty years ago, homies would change out of their “Homeboy Industries” shirts after work, because wearing them would get them stopped by cops and harassed. Now, our good work is more widely recognized; if you are stopped, wearing the shirt might well be the reason you are released.
When the four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in 1992, the prevailing cultural take on gang members was to demonize them in a wholesale way. They were the “bad guys” doing “bad things.” Today, we are all more inclined to find, as the homies say, “the thorn underneath,” those factors causing a lethal absence of hope. More and more we have come to realize, since those days when Los Angeles was in flames, that no kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang; he is fleeing something. No hopeful kid has ever joined a gang.
In the ensuing three decades since the unrest, the adverse childhood experiences study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente looked at the way neglect and trauma during childhood negatively affect an individual’s well-being as an adult. The lessons from this research have been wholly incorporated into Homeboy Industry’s trauma-informed way of seeing as a society, and it has urged us to address what undergirds violence, rather than merely “calm the cough” of the lung cancer patient.
There are 18,000 independent law enforcement agencies in the United States, and we have long asked them to solve every piece and part of crime and violence in the country: mental illness, child protection, domestic violence situations, homelessness and people who do harm to themselves. We have, along the way, felt it necessary to train cops to handle all of the above. I think, in Los Angeles, after April 30, 1992, we started to imagine “all hands on deck.” It was after this moment, 30 years ago, that chiefs of police, beginning in Los Angeles and spreading everywhere, started to say, “We cannot arrest our way out” of this. It was a beginning.
It was after this moment, 30 years ago, that chiefs of police, beginning in Los Angeles and spreading everywhere, started to say, “We cannot arrest our way out” of this.
Community organizations across the country were born during this time, and research has proven their ability to reduce crime without relying on the tools of state violence. Policing has been proven to be an unsustainable way of reducing violence in the long term. We see now that it can work for a time, but this cannot be a permanent solution. We have decidedly moved from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime,” but still have much room to meet crime with a higher respect for its complexity.
On April 30, 1992, there were many factors in place that provided kindling for the conflagration. There was the mistrust between Korean shopkeepers and Black customers (born of the death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl killed by a Korean-American shop owner in March 1991), intense Latino poverty, out-of-control law enforcement and a nearly clueless political establishment that all readied the blaze. As it turned out, there were many things that needed the community’s attention as we sought to rebuild Los Angeles.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and activist who recently passed away, wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in 1991 after viewing the video of Rodney King being beaten by law enforcement. “We are all the beaten,” he writes, “and we are all the beaters.” A true community of kinship, such that God might recognize it, knows what this holy man knew. Consequently, we are all trying to locate some deeper current within us that can change how we see things. Separation is an illusion, and there is no us and them—just us. Scripture says what God has joined, we should not separate. This is not just about divorce but speaks to a larger love. It invites us to thrive in an abundance that allows separateness to fall away.
The events surrounding the police response to Rodney King, as well as the verdict in the trial of the officers who beat him and the riots that followed, surely underscored issues of police brutality, economic disparity and an undergirding racism. But remembering these events today pushes us to remember always that we belong to each other. Living through those times taught us that moral outrage will never be a substitute for a moral compass. Real kinship cannot be achieved simply by mastering knowledge of Christian virtues. Truth be told, morality codes have never kept us moral. But they have kept us from each other.
The poet Wallace Stevens writes, “We live in the description of the place and not the place itself.” Perhaps the unrest prodded us not to settle for the description of what we want, but to hold out for the reality of real connection and kinship. So many awakened hearts know now, as never before, that, indeed, “We the People” has never included all the people. So how do we build an economy, for example, that serves everyone’s well-being?
We must recognize that not only do we belong to each other, we must choose to belong with every cherishing breath we take.
We must recognize that not only do we belong to each other, we must choose to belong with every cherishing breath we take. We refuse to settle for a “behaving community” and instead choose to form a beloved community. We know now that our hope resides in our communal thriving and aliveness. Perhaps we are more resolved than ever to walk each other into wholeness, which can come only from a culture of beloved belonging.
Working for the Kingdom
A homie the other day described his experience at Homeboy Industries. “The last are first here,” he said. “This is heaven on earth.” All anyone hopes to approximate is some new imagined way of proceeding, often born of the gut-wrench of disturbing riots and the dis-ease of unrest. We are all called to fashion a world in which we are the front porch of the house everyone wants to live in. The marrow of the Gospel guides us to put first things recognizably first and choose to live as though the truth were true. John Lewis, the great politician and civil rights activist, says, “We all live in the same house.” The sheer declarative nature of his statement jars us enough to put one foot in front of the next. The zen masters insist that there is no such thing as “an enlightened person” only “enlightened action.” One step. That is all we can do at the moment.
A fearless openness is within our reach, and it allows us to shrink the space that separates us from one another. “What can separate us from the love of Christ?’ St. Paul writes. Well, nothing. Anchored in that truth, we choose not to be separated from our kindness and tender hearts. We seek to heal severed belonging in our midst and know that loving never stops loving. Systems change when people do. And people change when they are cherished. Only then can we build systems of care that offset our over-built system of punishment. Only then will we stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment at how they carry it. Only then will we choose to dismantle the barriers that exclude.
It is hard to retrieve everything from those events of three decades ago. To acknowledge our progress since then is not to say we are done. Though God created the world, God did not finish it. It is our common, human task to do that. For we were all born into the world wanting the same things. We are human beings. We share the same last name: “beings.” So we each, in our own particularity, try to take “enlightened action” that will get us to even more progress.
As we put one foot in front of the next, we remember, as the Irish saying goes, “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.” That consoles me as we no longer settle for the description of the place but hold out for the place itself.