On the L.A. riots’ 25th anniversary, I wanted to reflect on the personal significance those crucial five days in Los Angeles’s history had in my own life.
In April 1992, I was a graduate social work intern at the Kaiser Watts Counseling and Learning Center.
Until then, my life and career path were set. My wife and I were married a few months earlier in December 1991, and I was in graduate school to become a therapist for children and families. My internship experience at Kaiser Watts solidified my desire to be a therapist. I enjoyed working with the kids at the local elementary school, and I felt I was helping people with the challenges and struggles in their lives with their children and families.
The Day the L.A. Riots Began
The morning of April 29, 1992 began like most days at Kaiser Watts—I spent my time preparing for my afternoon sessions of therapy with my scheduled clients. All week long, the news had been anticipating the verdicts from the Rodney King trial, but I did not really think much about them at the time. In fact, when I greeted one of my clients in the waiting area for her afternoon therapy session, she said to me, “Did you hear about the verdicts? They let them all off!”
To tell you the truth, back then, I wasn’t as worried about the verdicts as much as I was worried about the next 50 minutes in therapy with my client.
After our session, I walked my client out to the waiting area, and I saw the Executive Director, Bill Coggins, pacing around nervously, looking outside the front doors. Soon thereafter, he ordered the center to be closed, and he sent the employees and interns home early.
I wondered why he was so concerned, so I decided to drive around Watts to see if there was any public reaction to the verdicts. Seeing nothing, I decided to drive home.
As I drove home, I became increasingly upset about the verdicts and the injustice of it all.
My wife was so concerned about my emotional state of being, she took me out to dinner. When we returned to our apartment, our phone was ringing.
“Are you watching TV?” my friend impatiently inquired.
I turned on the TV, and I saw the news reports of the rioting at the corner of Florence and Normandie, not five miles away from my internship site in Watts.
The next few days were a blur to me. I remember the television being on all day and all night long. I would wake up in the middle of the night, turn to the television and see video of burning buildings, angry rioters, opportunistic looters, and—most of all—a community in pain. I could see plumes of smoke rising from South Central Los Angeles, and I stood in long lines at the grocery store with others who stocked up on food and supplies out of fear.
The next Monday, I returned to my internship at Kaiser Watts Counseling and Learning Center as a different man. It became very clear to me that the rioting in the streets was related to the anger, frustration, and suffering that I saw in my therapy sessions every week. My gut was telling me that I did not belong in the therapy room but I needed to work in the community.
Shifting from Therapy to Community
In my final year of graduate school, I decided to forgo my original goal to become a therapist and to pursue an experience in community work, planning, and administration. This shift led me to get involved in politics.
In November 1992, I was working full-time with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, while I was completing my graduate degree at Cal State Long Beach. I learned that Proposition 165 was going to be on the ballot, and it proposed to cut Aid to Families with Dependent Children payments by 20%. I knew that, if this proposition passed, many of the families with whom I worked would be severely and adversely affected, compromising their ability to keep their families together.
I was very, very angry, so I decided to volunteer my time to work on the campaign to defeat Proposition 165.
I learned how to walk precincts and talk to voters, how to read voter registration lists, and how to get out the vote! I spent weeks going door to door in precincts in South Los Angeles sharing information about Proposition 165 and encouraging them to vote “NO on 165”.
By election day, I had compiled a list of registered voters who indicated to me that they would vote “NO on 165.”
On election day, I spent the day making sure that all of these voters showed up to their polling place to cast their votes. I remember knocking on the door of one young woman who wanted to vote but did not know where her polling place was. I told her that I could give her a ride, and she agreed to let me take her. On the way to the polling place, she told me that she had just turned eighteen years old and that this was her first time voting. I was very proud that I could help her cast her first vote.
Proposition 165 failed to pass. Fifty-three percent of the voters voted no, and I was content knowing that I had made a small contribution towards defeating this proposition.
From there, my interests led me to pursue a Ph.D. in Social Work from the University of Southern California, where my dissertation focused on the relationship between the federal government and local human service organizations in the provision of family support programs. At the same time, my political interests focused on local government, specifically, in the City of Artesia, where my wife and I purchased our first home, in preparation for the birth of our first daughter. In 1999, I accepted an appointment to the city’s planning commission.
In 2002, I began my appointment as an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Los Angeles, where I taught graduate and undergraduate classes in social welfare policy, community organizing, administration of human service organizations, and institutional racism and I did research on engaging students in political work.
In 2007, in my third run for Artesia City Council, I finally won in a special election to complete the remaining term of Tony Mendoza, who was elected to the California State Assembly.
Where I Am Today, 25 Years Later
Today, twenty-five years since the Los Angeles Riots, I find myself in a position where I continue to encourage people to be civically engaged.
I remain an elected member of the council of the City of Artesia, where we are engaging in an ambitious economic development plan to preserve our ability to provide essential public services to our constituents, residents, business-owners, and visitors alike. I served as President of the California Contract Cities Association from 2014-2015, and I am a member of the Regional Council for the Southern California Association of Governments, the largest metropolitan planning association in the country, covering Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, and Imperial Counties.
As the Dean of the Claremont Core Program at Claremont Lincoln University, whose mission is to educate and to inspire students to “engage in positive social change”, I am collaborating with scholars and experts with the California Consortium for Public Engagement to develop an online, virtual civic engagement conference and a Master’s Degree in Civic Leadership.
The Los Angeles Riots had a very meaningful impact on my life, like it did for many Los Angelenos. To this day, it remains to be the pivotal event of my professional career.
Header photo credit: © Stevehymon | Dreamstime.com
What a powerful description of the impact the riots had on your career path. Though you would have positively impacted lives either way, the broader circle was clearly meant for you with that reach ever expanding through your position today.
Thanks for sharing your powerful story, Victor. We both made the pivot away from therapy at about the same time and for similar reasons. Both of our paths have led us to the power of the collective.