How The L.A. Riots Ignited A Generation of Young Activists

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In the 20 years since the Rodney King verdict, Los Angeles has redefined itself and the individuals participating in #IgniteLA: Uprising Remixed have been some of the city’s strongest thought leaders in this two-decade long metamorphosis.

This Saturday, the League of Young Voters, Cashmere Agency and SCOPE will host #IgniteLA: Uprising Remixed, a celebration of community organizing in South Los Angeles since the Los Angeles Riots.

The unique event, broadcasting online at YoungVoterLive.com, will be shot on location at Mercado La Paloma in South LA from 1 to 4 p.m. and will feature guest appearances by Nipsey Hussle, Medusa, Jasiri X, Anthony Thigpen, Allhiphop.com’s Chuck Creekmur and many more. #IgniteLA: Uprising Remixed will be hosted by up-and-coming rapper Dee-1 and will feature performances by Thurz and League activist / artist Aliesa Nicole.

It is underwritten with the generous support of the Compton Foundation and Nathan Cummings Foundation.

It’s been 20 years, but the summer of 1992 is indelibly etched in my brain. While Los Angeles’ fiery rebellion happened 2,000 miles away from my stomping grounds on Milwaukee’s far northwest side, the rage that pushed South Central Los Angeles residents to tear up their communities was very familiar to me.

As a 14-year-old boy growing into his manhood in one of America’s most segregated cities, I understood very well that people of color faced unprecedented discrimination. By the time I graduated the 8th grade, street gangs, police brutality, and a rapid uptick of violent crime became prominent features of my midwestern hometown.

In many ways, Milwaukee was just like Compton, Watts and every other black and brown working class neighborhood in California’s most densely-populated county.

But it wasn’t just the Rodney King verdict and its violent aftermath that resonated with me. The hip-hop music emanating from South Central Los Angeles stirred my and my friends’ souls and challenged us to think critically about our surroundings.

At the time, murder and violent drug deals weren’t just fantasy tales spun by gifted lyricists, but consistent fixtures of urban life.   Chuck D once said that hip-hop was the “CNN of urban America,” and for me and my friends, rappers like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and DJ Quik were rap’s top anchormen.

While mainstream America may have labeled hip-hop a nuisance, the heavy basslines and groovy melodies of Los Angeles gangster music became the soundtrack of my youth.

The stories were familiar and the contradictory messages of economic self-determination and hopeless nihilism made sense as I saw my friends and family members risking bids in the penitentiary to resist the economic hardships that were spurred on by the growing levels of African-American unemployment.

For most of America, 1992 was defined by the young upstart presidential candidate Bill Clinton beating the conservative incumbent President George Bush.

For me and my crew, that summer was all about competing to see whose boombox could play Ice Cube’s classic record, “Death Certificate” the loudest.

In 2000, I moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at the University of Los Angeles California. Torn between my love of music and my quest for higher learning, I spent just as much time studying as I did writing about and interviewing the West Coast’s biggest legends for rap magazines like The Source and Vibe.

The world was opening up to me, and my campus life was juxtaposed between studying the non-violent movements of the ‘50s and ‘60s as a research assistant with UCLA’s Labor Center, and maintaining a professional decorum as marijuana smoke wafted through the air of a rap legends’ home or movie trailer.

For some reason, these two completely different scenes made sense to me, and even though they rarely intertwined, they both inspired me to become a full-time grassroots organizer.

If there was anything that I learned during my time on the West Coast, it’s that the people of the now-rebranded South Los Angeles are resilient. Far from the stereotypical images seen in West Coast hood flicks and rap videos, working people of color and organizations that represent them are reshaping their socio-economic realities through direct advocacy and grassroots organizing. 

Soon, even the notorious Crenshaw Blvd, a thoroughfare made famous by LA rappers, will be transformed by a massive infrastructure project that was helped made possible through the direct advocacy of community activists.

In many ways, the fires of 1992’s Los Angeles uprising provided the city and the country with a fertile opportunity to redefine and reshape the popular narrative about race and class in America.

That’s why I am so honored that the League of Young Voters Education Fund, SCOPE, and Cashmere Agency have partnered to throw Ignite LA: Uprising Remixed on Saturday, June 30th from 1 to 4 p.m. Pacific to honor some of South Los Angeles’ most important community and cultural tastemakers.

For the last 19 years, SCOPE, one of LA’s strongest community groups, has been empowering community residents to take a stand through grassroots organizing.

First hitting the scene as a response to growing rates of police brutality, SCOPE has transformed grassroots organizing and has built a permanent voting block to fight for the needs of its working class constituents.  While Cashmere Agency, a rapidly growing media agency, led by a mostly young-person-of-color staff, may seem like a strange bedfellow for this unique community event, the tech-savvy upstart has been one of the League’s strongest partners in defining how social media can connect disparate communities around the common causes of struggle, justice, and empowerment. 

Sadly, as much as things have changed, they have stayed the same. Many of the socio-economic pressures that sparked the LA Riots haven’t gone away, and for some, they have gotten worse.

While nationally, violent crime statistics have started to plateau, unemployment is up and vigilantism, as seen in the Rodney King beating, is creeping its way back into the popular narrative. Today, youth of color may not be blasting Ice Cube, but South LA rappers like Nipsey Hussle haven’t stopped delivering the street news. 

That’s why we’re organizing #IgniteLA: Uprising Remixed– to empower young people to use their creative energy to build movements around the issues in our neighborhoods. Join the conversation on Twitter today using the #IgniteLA hashtag and don’t miss the broadcast on YoungVoterLive on Saturday. 

-Rob Biko Baker

Rob Biko Baker is the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters Education Fund.

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