In the aftermath of the Rodney King Riots between April 29 and May 4, 1992, my friend Pastor Ignacio Castuera, the Priest then at Hollywood’s United Methodist Church, assembled a book he called Dreams on Fire – Embers of Hope – From the Pulpits of Los Angeles After the Riots (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1992) in which clergy throughout Los Angeles – black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Buddhist – all spoke with one intent: to find embers of hope in the ashes of L.A.
Coretta Scott King said of this volume (among the top ten religious books published in America that year): “Dreams on Fire – Embers of Hope reveals the fervent social commitment of the religious leadership of a community in crisis. I wholeheartedly recommend this important and inspiring anthology to overcome who cares about the future of America’s cities.”
I was the sole Jewish voice in the volume.
As I think back over the past 31 years, much has changed in Los Angeles and America, and much has not changed. The murder of African-Americans by police continues. Economic injustice separating racial and ethnic groups continues. Disparate educational opportunities between white and peoples of color continue. Racism and hatred of the “other” continue. But, we’ve also elected an African-American President as well as many minorities to federal, state, and local office. Many important legislative efforts have been successful in lifting many at the bottom of the economic ladder to lives of greater dignity and out of poverty. We have Obamacare, increased Medicaid in many states, more federal money going into national infrastructure projects, and climate change, more rights for women, minorities, and LGBTQ individuals. There is also a growing middle and upper-middle class amongst minority communities.
However, there is a reactionary response settling in across the country that is alarming as white supremacist, misogynist, homophobic, and the MAGA extremists threaten the well-being and integrity of American democratic institutions and traditions. The polarization in American society has become so wide and entrenched that one wonders what’s in store for America in the years ahead. As much as we have progressed as a nation in so many ways, we are also facing regression that’s alarming.
As we approach the 31st anniversary of the Rodney King verdict and as we enter the pre-2024 election cycle, I pulled that small volume Dreams on Fire – Embers of Hope from my book shelf and reread many of the entries, including my own (pages 25-27).
I spoke at the Messiah Baptist Church in South Los Angeles on Sunday morning, May 3, 1992, and Pastor Castuera included my remarks in this little gem of a book. Though I spoke these words 31 years ago, they feel contemporary still. Here is what I said (The Reverend Kenneth J. Flowers was the pastor):
Thank you for your graciousness in giving me these few moments to speak to your congregation. All of us from Temple Israel wanted to be with you today. Our growing friendship with you these past two years in our Covenant Relationship has meant a great deal and continues to bring us closer to one another. For our friendship, I am grateful.
My heart is heavy as I speak to you today. Not only have these riots shaken our community’s sense of safety and security; but, also, yesterday I learned that Howard Epstein, the son of one of our synagogue families, was murdered on Thursday at the beginning of the rioting. He was here from Orinda where he, his wife, and his two small daughters (ages nine months and seven years) were living. He came to check on his business and to be sure his seventy-five employees (African-American and Hispanic) were safe. He rented a car at the airport and journeyed to South Central LA where his business was located. While stopped at a light, three men pulled up alongside him and shot him dead. They didn’t know that his employees loved him. Nor did they know that, despite economic hard times, Howard could not lay off his employees because they were his friends.
After services this morning, I will make a condolence call to his parents’ home, a task that breaks my heart. Howard’s memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday at Temple Israel.
So much has transpired in so short a while – a wake-up call not only to the people of Los Angeles but to the country. The Rodney King verdict strains credulity, but anyone with any understanding knows that this was the tip of the iceberg. The rage we saw so violently exploding in the streets must be condemned for its viciousness and lawlessness by all decent people. But the feelings of despair, alienation, and anger cannot be ignored. Not all the looters are criminals, though much of it was, no doubt, opportunistic theft. When a mother of five children remarked that this was the first time she was able to put shoes on the feet of all her children, then we have to wake up to the reality of the lives of far too many people.
Pastor Flowers and I spoke on Thursday morning about how extraordinary the Rodney King verdict was, and I told him that so many white people simply don’t understand the lives of black people in this part of the city.
Last January, Pastor Flowers invited me to participate in the city-wide celebration of Dr. King’s birthday at McCoy Memorial Baptist Church. I was, along with City Attorney Jim Hahn, the only white face in that church. I had never in my life been in that neighborhood. I felt very much the minority and not a little out of place. But I was proud to go and be with Pastor Flowers and others whom I have come to know here at Messiah. I must tell you that only since getting to know you folks at Messiah have I begun to understand what your lives are about, about your dreams and about the nature of your community. I have grown to appreciate who you are and respect you as I had never known before. And I consider myself enlightened, empathic, and openhearted.
The people in Simi Valley haven’t the foggiest idea about the realities of what it means to be black in a white world, at the hands of certain white police who’ve lost control and displayed vicious animus toward indefensible black people.
This is why their verdict went the way it did. We need more understanding between black and white, more economic empowerment in the African-American community, more opportunities for business investment and more black ownership of businesses, a higher voting percentage, more political power, and the building of coalitions of decency between black, white, Korean, Christian, Jew, Muslim, and all peoples of faith.
If better conditions, better lives, and greater understanding come as a consequence of these riots, then we can say “Dayenu” (it will have been enough!). But much work needs to be done in the months and years ahead. We need political leaders with courage and community leaders who speak the truth. We need the effort of every black, white, and Asian person living in this community. And we need goodwill and the willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for the common good. For purposes of enlightened self-interest, this is a necessity. In the interest of God’s will, it is mandatory.
God bless, and may peace come to us soon based in justice and greater mutual understanding. Amen!”
An historical note: When the riots ended, 63 people were killed, 2,383 were injured, more than 12,000 were arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion. Korea-town, situated just to the north of South Central LA, was disproportionately damaged. Much of the blame for the extensive nature of the violence was attributed to LAPD Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who already announced his resignation by the time of the riots, for failure to de-escalate the situation and overall mismanagement… According to one study, “scandalous racist violence… marked the LAPD under Gates’s tempestuous leadership.” (Source: Wikipedia)