For the past few days, an unmistakable beeping noise has pierced my house at least once a day, notifying my entire family of curfews set by Los Angeles officials. None of us were surprised—protests were occurring throughout the country in response to the latest brutal murder of a Black man by a police officer. However, it did remind us of similar events that occurred 28 years ago.
The 1992 Los Angeles riots were eerily similar to the events of today. A Black man named Rodney King was severely beaten by police officers who were using excessive force, resulting in violent riots and looting in protest. Before this week, it was also the last time Los Angeles had implemented severe curfews and called up the National Guard. After a couple days of the ’92 riots, Los Angeles officials made promises to invest in the Black community, putting an end to some of the most violent few days in recent American history. However, the memories of these promises quickly waned; no significant reform occurred, despite the national awareness that was raised.
Even more recently in the history of protests, a nationwide March for Our Lives broke out about two years ago in response to repeated school shootings, and there was hope that the immense awareness it brought would lead to changes. However, school shootings continued as regular occurrences and no significant gun reform took place, despite the event being one of the largest youth protests since the Vietnam War.
Why didn’t these monumental events lead to the changes people had hoped for? The answer is quite simple: changes in the law do not happen through mass protests alone, but also through government officials that have the legal power to make those changes. While protests are valid responses to injustice that allow people to express their anguish, they don’t necessarily change politicians’ beliefs or viewpoints. At best, they provide some temporary political pressure to provide some provisional relief. The past few days, I’ve heard many arguments about whether protests should be held peacefully or not. But as it turns out, that is the wrong question to ask. It doesn’t matter whether a protest is violent or not; in the end, it is the government officials that make the last decision, and unless the entire government can be thrown out, public awareness alone can only do so much.
This doesn’t mean that awareness isn’t important; instead, it needs to be combined with political action. Fortunately, we live in a country where we decide who has the aforementioned powers to create change. In order for real change to occur, people must funnel their energy from bringing awareness through protests to taking direct political action. This simple equation of awareness plus political action has worked throughout history, and has resulted in developments such as the New Deal and the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
At the most basic level, political action includes identifying the issues that you care about and knowing which government officials have the power to create policies regarding those issues. Then, you can research the candidate options available, choose one that you agree with and vote come election day. Even better, you can donate and volunteer for the political campaigns and organizations that you care about. This is where one can be most effective in creating reform. From my own personal experience as a regional organizer for a presidential campaign, there is nothing more important for candidates than donations and volunteers.
Just as history has shown, we can also apply these steps to create change regarding today’s issue of police brutality. As President Obama wrote in his statement in response to recent events, it is the mayors, county officials and district attorneys that have power to create policy reform. You can decide which candidates running for these positions in your local area are worthy of your support, or you can support single-issue organizations that specifically deal with police brutality. Using your energy and passion to take these steps will be crucial in whether the Black Lives Matter movement will be seen as a turning pointing in history or as just another passing event.
Growing up Korean in Los Angeles, I often heard about the lasting effects of the 1992 riots. Over the span of five days, there were over 60 deaths and numerous damaged or destroyed buildings, including 2,000 Korean homes and businesses. While the anger and emotions of the people are well-founded and justifiable, the current riots may very well have similar lasting effects for many more communities throughout the country, and there will be little upside. Instead, we should focus more directly on policy, taking effective political action and, of course, keeping the pandemic manageable.
Justin Ko is a member of the Class of 2022.