Reflections from 1991: A Tale of Two Cities

Anger over oppressive policing didn’t start with the killing of George Floyd, and this article I wrote for the June 1992 issue of the Washington Socialist looks at two uprisings from that time triggered by police violence: in DC’s Mount Pleasant Neighborhood in 1992 and in Los Angeles the previous year. At that time I emphasized the need to revitalize central cities, and indeed in the early 1990s urban areas across the country suffered from widespread decay and disinvestment. Now, 28 years later, many U.S. cities have enjoyed a renaissance, but militarized policing – with many of the practices stemming from the crack wars that were raging when this article appeared – is obviously still with us. And the benefit of the remarkable urban revitalization of the past two decades tended not to flow to the neediest; rather, it fueled gentrification that led to widespread displacement of lower-income urban residents. The policy prescriptions that might have fit the early 1990s might not fit so well today. I present this article as a time capsule of another era that had many similarities to or own, but many differences as well.

For those who wish to take a further look at the 1991 Mount Pleasant uprising, the DC Library undertook an oral history project that included interviews with a number of the neighborhood’s residents who shared their memories of the event.
Bill Mosley


D.C. and L.A.: A Tale of Two Cities
Bill Mosley

Less than a week after the Los Angeles riots, history almost repeated itself in the District of Columbia community of Mount Pleasant. As a Hispanic man was being arrested for drunken behavior in a restaurant, a group of men, also Hispanic, who had gathered in the vicinity pelted the police with rocks and bottles. Shortly afterward, the 7-Eleven store on Mount Pleasant Street was vandalized and looted and several other stores suffered broken windows and other damage. District police soon arrived in force and were highly visible in the neighborhood for several days.

There was uneasiness in Mount Pleasant even before this incident. Not only were the Los Angeles riots on everyone’s mind, but the neighborhood had just commemorated, with a community forum and march, the first anniversary of its own small-scale version of South-Central L.A. Then, the police shooting of another Hispanic man, also in the process of being arrested for a drinking-related offense (in this case, violating the city’s open-container law), touched off two days of destruction and looting that spread to the nearby Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan neighborhoods.

There were obvious differences between this year’s Los Angeles riot and last year’s Mount Pleasant incident. The L.A. uprising covered a vast area, resulted in many times the property damage and, most significantly, was infinitely more violent (more than 50 people were killed in L.A., none in Mount Pleasant). But when one looks deeper, the similarities are striking:

  • Both grew out of the resentments of poor minority communities – blacks in L.A., Hispanics in Mount Pleasant – over patterns of harassment and insensitive treatment by police.
  • Both reflect frustration borne of poverty and futures that seem at best uncertain, at worst bleak.
  • Both were triggered by real or perceived acts of police brutality (at least perceived in Mount Pleasant; vividly real in L.A.).

There were other common threads. In both cases there were attempts among the affected communities to channel anger into constructive protest. But these efforts were soon lost in the explosive destruction that followed. And both resulted in further victimization of those who were already victims: the rioters, many from outside the neighborhood, burned stores that the local community depended upon for shopping and jobs. Many were quick to draw stereotypes, to conflate the rioters and the looters. But as Harold Meyerson wrote in In These Times, in L.A. “the interracial violence that triggered the riot . . .certainly came from young black men . . .The looting, on the other hand, was a racially integrated, often familial activity . . .and some of the violence and arson came from Latino and white youth.” And of over 200 arrested in the Mount Pleasant riot, only about one-fourth were Hispanic, according to District police. Ironically, both Los Angeles and Washington are among the nation’s more affluent cities, both attractive to the professional types who enjoy urban living. They are a far cry from a Detroit or an East St. Louis. And yet it is in such cities that the contrasts between rich and poor and the well-to-do are most glaring, where the uneasiness of the haves and the resentment of the have-nots creates an atmosphere of tension and conflict.

There is a common pattern to the urban disturbances of recent years – running back through the riots in Washington in 1968, Watts in 1965 and others. A powderkeg fueled by racism, brutality, impoverishment and powerlessness is ignited by a dramatic incident that the poor perceive as an assault upon them, with the subsequent explosion harming not only the progenitors of the oppressive conditions but the oppressed themselves, sending them further into their downward spiral.

What is to be done? Two weeks after the L.A. riots, 200,000 people descended upon the Washington Monument to demand action to address the problems of our cities. This second Save Our Cities rally dwarfed the sparsely attended one last fall. The overwhelming show of concern at this year’s rally may be an indication of a turning point, a sign the problems of cities have at last reached the front of the national agenda.

The messages of the speakers – big-city mayors like David Dinkins of New York, Raymond Flynn of Boston and D.C.’s own Sharon Pratt Kelly, as well as Jesse Jackson, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, labor leaders and others – was remarkably consistent. The problems of the cities cannot be solved by the cities alone. Only massive and well-targeted federal funding can begin to reverse years of neglect. The cold war is over, and there could be no better use of the funds now spent on useless weaponry and troop deployment than the rebuilding of our cities.

The story of America’s major cities since the end of World War II has been one of decline, albeit punctuated by periodic revitalization projects targeted largely on downtown neighborhoods. Federally subsidized mortgages and highways fueled middle-class flight to the suburbs from the 1950s onward. The cities became increasingly divided between the wealthy in the “good” neighborhoods and the poor in the decaying inner city. The rich and the downtown corporations had the clout to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, placing an increasing burden on the ever-shrinking middle class and shriveling the tax base. This situation was ameliorated by federal programs designed to aid cities, such as revenue sharing, and others designed to help the people directly, such as Medicaid and welfare payments. But the Reagan-Bush administration shredded the urban safety net, and city services such as education, public housing and neighborhood clinics suffered. The wealthy, less in need of these services, were scarcely affected.

If the needs of the urban poor continue to be ignored, future Los Angeleses are not only likely but certain. Further urban decline will affect not only the poor but the wealthy as well, in or out of cities. How little has changed is revealed by the words of Kenneth B. Clark of the City College of New York in testimony to a Senate committee 26 years ago: “We are going to become serious about the problems of our cities . . .only when more privileged people understand that the pathology of the ghettos cannot be confined to the ghettos and that the interests of the privileged are at stake, that there is no immunity to the consequences of squalor.” Are we finally getting serious? The fates of Los Angeles, D.C. and all of our cities hinges on the answer.

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