This month, the nation will acknowledge two political milestones. On Aug. 9, we mark the one-year anniversary of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Two days later, we mark the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Watts. A third civil disturbance, located in time between these two, offers lessons learned from the failures of 1965.
It provides a blueprint for how we might begin to rebuild Ferguson and the many American communities that look like Ferguson. That third milestone is the 1992 unrest in South Los Angeles.
In April 1992, L.A. erupted, sparked by the acquittal of police accused of beating an unarmed Black man named Rodney King. The violence that followed cast a national spotlight on South Los Angeles and other impoverished L.A. neighborhoods in which liquor stores substituted for supermarkets and check-cashing joints served as surrogate banks.
In the aftermath of the unrest, it became clear that government and private-sector responses would be woefully inadequate to the need. Grassroots community leaders working in L.A.’s lowest income communities had little option but to do for themselves. That’s when the organization I now lead, Strategic Concepts for Organizing & Policy Education (SCOPE), was founded.
For more than 20 years, L.A. community organizations like ours banded together with residents to elevate the voices of people of color and strengthen their power. We have forged strong alliances with labor and grassroots groups that advocate for people of color. We engage sophisticated “inside/outside strategies.”
We understand that elected officials have powerful forces pushing them and often settle for what’s possible instead of what’s needed. Independent community power helps keep elected representatives accountable to the needs and interests of neighborhoods and residents.
As a result, community organizations in L.A. today are a force to be reckoned with. That’s why L.A. recently became the largest city in the country to raise the minimum wage and L.A. County, with 10 million residents, following suit. The raise in the minimum wage is one of many victories that could not have been won without the strength and power of grassroots community organizations, our partners in organized labor and the support of our allies.
In the last 20 years, SCOPE has emerged as a local laboratory for L.A. From day one, we were pushing the envelope. Experimenting. How do we build community power and influence? How do we elevate equity in all policies?
We believe if you start by building a program for people with the most burdens, facing the greatest barriers, who come from the poorest communities, if you start there and build a program for those communities to succeed, then you have a program that will benefit everyone.
SCOPE’s 20-year-old jobs model does that. Our model couples entry-level jobs with job-training and apprenticeships to create real career pathways into good-paying union jobs in entertainment, health care and the green economy. These programs go the extra mile by providing paid on-the-job training, mentoring by experienced senior workers and tutoring to help pass certification exams and tests.
SCOPE pioneered a neighborhood-based precinct model to engage voters and turn out the vote. We have neighbors talk to neighbors on the phones and at their doors, because we know that’s the most effective way to mobilize voters. We also invested in predictive dialing, an automated dialing program that allows us to reach an exponentially greater number of new and occasional voters. We do sustained engagement over time, during and between electoral cycles, because that’s what it takes to turn “new and occasional voters” to an “always voter.”
Engage. Educate. Turn them out.
We call it “integrated voter engagement.” With it, SCOPE and our allies have won two recent, tide-turning initiatives. Proposition 30 generated $9 billion for education and social services. Proposition 47 reclassified certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, reversing decades of investment in prisons and redirecting resources to treatment and support.
There is still more work to be done. The South L.A. neighborhood where SCOPE is located has a high percentage of working families struggling to make ends meet and high rates of violence. L.A.’s economy is obscenely out of balance with per capita income in Bel Air topping $128,000 while comparable South L.A. income is just $13,243.
But we have made progress and we will continue. South L.A. didn’t always look like the neighborhood that’s become infamous in news stories and movies. Sixty years ago, South L.A. was a vibrant middle-class neighborhood.
Many African-Americans bought their first homes here. L.A. was a major industrial center for the country. South L.A. was the heart of that industry. Men and women had jobs that supported families. Children graduated high school and many of them went on to college. That is SCOPE’s vision for the new Los Angeles.
It is the vision that our grassroots community counterparts in Ferguson, Baltimore and numerous other American cities hold for the future.
Walton is president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Strategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education (SCOPE), which works on social and economic justice issues.