Looking back at the 1992 Los Angeles riots, people often remember tensions between African-Americans, white law enforcement officers and Korean small business owners. That story gets even more complicated when you step into Pico-Union — a neighborhood that was, and still is, predominantly Latino.
In the wake of the Rodney King verdict, riots broke out around the city. The first day, they erupted in South Central; by the second, they had spread north to Pico-Union. And while people all over the city had to deal with looting, fires, and general chaos, many residents of Pico Union had to deal with an additional fear — the threat of deportation.
Mike Hernandez was the neighborhood's city councilman in 1992. He said that in the 25 years since the riots, Pico-Union hasn't changed that much. The area is still more than 80 percent Latino, with lots of immigrant families from Mexico and Central America. And, in 1992, a majority of Pico-Union constituents were living below the poverty line in crowded conditions. Hernandez said he knew long before the riots started that Pico-Union was just as combustible as South Central LA. "We had twice the density here of Manhattan," Hernandez said. "And our fire station here, Fire Station 11, was the busiest fire station in the nation."
But in the midst of the burning and looting, Hernandez said the few law enforcement officers who made it to Pico-Union were not protecting and serving. He partially blamed it on the fact that in the early 1990s, "Latino" was often synonymous with "illegal" in California. In a 1992 interview, he told NPR that his request for reinforcement during the unrest didn't get him the results he wanted. "The response to me when I said I needed the National Guard to protect the people of the area and I needed to protect the businesses and protect the homes, they gave me the Border Patrol. It was totally an insult," he said.
Hernandez doesn't deny that people in Pico-Union were among the looters, but he said he saw people taking basics, like food and diapers. The vast majority of his constituents were scared out of their minds and hiding in their homes. The rioting and chaos, he said, triggered past trauma for many of the Central American immigrants who had fled civil war. And the presence of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which included the Border Patrol back then, seemed to be fueling that fear — with good reason.
Documents gathered during the Webster Commission, the FBI's months' long investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department's response to the riots, included declarations from Pico-Union residents. Many of them were arrested by the LAPD for illegally residing in the U.S. and turned over to the INS.
During the LA riots, Madeline Janis ran a Pico-Union based non-profit called CARECEN (Central American Resource Center), which is still in the neighborhood and provides multiple services to immigrants. In the aftermath of the unrest, Janis, an attorney, helped a couple dozen people facing deportation — people like Martha Campos, a Salvadoran woman arrested by the LAPD at three in the afternoon on April 30, 1992 while drinking a fruit juice in front of a convenience store. At the time, Campos was eighteen years old.
"An officer demanded to know my name, if I had any immigration papers and what country I was from," Campos said in her declaration, taken after two weeks in immigration detention at Terminal Island in San Pedro. She added that the LAPD questioned her about her immigration status. "I responded that I had no papers and I told him what country I was from...I was then taken to a police station with many other people. Immigration arrived in several vans and took me and many other people away."
Campos said that in detention she slept on narrow concrete benches, was fed dry meat and old bread, and not allowed to bathe. She was seven months pregnant. Campos said that she was afraid that the treatment she endured while in INS custody could cause serious harm to her or her baby.
Madeline Janis said she's almost positive she was able to get Campos a hearing in immigration court, even though the 18-year old signed a voluntary departure document the day of her arrest. (NPR tried to find Campos and other detainees who gave declarations, but was unable to locate anyone 25 years after the incident.) Janis said the entire ordeal was so upsetting that it was hard for her to recall the events after our initial interview request. "This was so awful, I think I blocked it out of my memory. I think it's because people suffered so much that I really ... just blocked it."
What happened to Martha Campos shouldn't have.
According to a rule called Special Order 40, which has been around since the late 70s, the Los Angeles Police Department wasn't, and still isn't, allowed to "initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." They can only involve immigration enforcement when an unauthorized person has been arrested for serious misdemeanors or a felony. Among the Webster Commission papers archived in 40 cardboard boxes at the USC library, there were Immigration and Naturalization Service documents that show 86 percent of more than 1,200 undocumented "riot aliens" they received from the LA County Jail, the LAPD and other law enforcement were deported. Those documents only cover May 1 to May 4, 1992 (the unrest began on April 29th); and they do not specify what crimes those detained and deported were charged with.
Robert Moschorak was the district director of the INS in Los Angeles during the unrest. He remembers the riots differently than people like Hernandez and Janis. Moschorak, who has been retired for 23 years, said the riots were an all-hands-on-deck situation, and he sent in agents to help as requested, sometimes to just interpret for LAPD officers. As for Special Order 40, he told me he wasn't aware of it then, and doesn't agree with the policy now. "I think that's ridiculous," Moschorak said. "You know, many people don't realize that illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor in and of itself, a violation of 8USC1325 and re-entry is a felony. How long are we going to accept that in our society?"
Not everyone shares Moschorak's contempt for the order.
Charlie Beck, the current LAPD chief, said he has accepted that there are a couple hundred thousand immigrants living in Los Angeles who don't have legal status. "And I got to be their police chief, too," Beck said. "I'm not just a police chief to property owners. I'm not just a police chief to business owners. We're in charge of everybody's safety."
Chief Beck has been at the LAPD as long as Special Order 40 has been around, and said he can't recall a time it wasn't followed, even after learning about the Webster Commission documents that show otherwise. Regardless, Beck said it has long been crucial that the LAPD isn't thought of as immigration enforcement, because it erodes trust and immigrants stop reporting crime.
Just last month, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti expanded Special Order 40 to include fire fighters, port and airport police. At the event where Garcetti signed the executive directive, Beck told the audience that crime reporting has dropped significantly in Latino communities this year over fear that interacting with local law enforcement may lead to deportation.
Immigrant rights activists in 1992, and a new generation of activists today, don't think the order goes far enough to protect LA's immigrants — no matter how it's implemented. Many in California's immigrant rights movement are calling for zero cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement. (And a bill under consideration in the state legislature may decide that issue state-wide.)
Garcetti said he's trying to quell fears stoked in LA's immigrant communities by President Trump's calls for more cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. "So to make our city safer we're focused on keeping those bridges from being burned down right now," Garcetti said.
But 25 years ago, when Los Angeles was burning, Special Order 40 appears to have been an afterthought amidst the chaos. Garcetti said that this new generation of police officers understand the need for Special Order 40 from both moral and practical terms. Garcetti said that it's one thing to have a policy on the books, "But it's another thing to make sure that it's enforced, and enforced by everybody." The mayor added that we continue to learn lessons from the LA riots 25 years later. "We're not perfect, but in this imperfect paradise that we call Los Angeles, I think we're better and more resilient because of what we went through in 1992."
Parker Yesko, an NPR intern on the National Desk, and NPR digital producer Leah Donnella contributed to this report. NPR's Anjuli Sastry produced and Melissa Gray edited All Things Considered's series of reports on the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The LA riots were 25 years ago this week, and to mark that anniversary, our co-host Kelly McEvers is visiting key spots around the city.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Yesterday, we were at Florence and Normandie. That's where the riots started. Today, we are at Pico and Alvarado. That's about six miles north of where we were. We're with Shereen Marisol Meraji from our Code Switch team. Hey.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Hey.
MCEVERS: Tell us why this intersection is important.
MERAJI: So when we talk about the riots, we usually talk about tensions between the African-American community, white law enforcement and Korean small business owners. I'm going to tell you a story that complicates that narrative a little bit, and it takes place right here in a neighborhood that's predominantly Latino.
MCEVERS: Let's hear it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, what's the address there, sir?
MIKE HERNANDEZ: 1223 Alvarado Street. We've got flames coming out of the attic, smoke and people inside the building.
MERAJI: This neighborhood is called Pico-Union. And today, Mike Hernandez is reporting a fire. An Our Lady of Guadalupe plaque swings in the breeze from the second floor of a rundown Craftsman-style duplex; its roof in flames. We find out later no one got hurt, but the scene is eerily coincidental - sirens, a chopper circling, smoke in the air.
It is really weird that we're talking about buildings burning down, and there is a building burning down.
MERAJI: Mike Hernandez, the former city councilman who represented this area during the riots, suggested we meet here because all four of these corners were on fire 25 years ago. He says Pico-Union hasn't really changed that much since '92. It was and still is more than 80 percent Latino, heavily immigrant, mostly Mexican and Central American, really poor. And Hernandez says, back then...
HERNANDEZ: We had the density here twice of Manhattan's. Our fire station, for example, Fire Station 11, was the busiest fire station in the nation.
MERAJI: Hernandez says he knew long before the riots started that Pico-Union was just as combustible as South Central LA. The burning and looting spread here on the second day of the unrest, and he recalls that the few law enforcement he saw were not protecting and serving. He says it's because in the early '90s, Latino was often synonymous with illegal. Here he is talking about it on NPR in 1992.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
HERNANDEZ: The response to me when I needed the National Guard to protect the people of this area and I needed to protect the businesses, protect the homes, is they gave me the Border Patrol. It was totally an insult.
MERAJI: Today, Hernandez is 65. He has a difficult time catching his breath and uses a giant wooden staff to steady his gait. He says time's dulled his memories, but this is something he can't forget. He told me the rioting triggered nightmares of home for the Central American immigrants who had fled civil war. He doesn't deny people in this community looted but says the vast majority were scared out of their minds. And fueling that fear - the presence of what was then called the INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which included the Border Patrol. Hernandez says he couldn't get anyone to pay attention to what was happening in Pico-Union, so he played a little trick on the mayor.
HERNANDEZ: I called Tom Bradley's office. I left a message that said I heard they were picking up Nigerians in south LA - INS. About 15, 20 minutes later, I get a call from the mayor.
MERAJI: Hernandez knew Mayor Bradley once lived in south LA and some of his most fervent support came from the area's black community.
HERNANDEZ: And he's like, Councilman, what is this I hear that INS is picking up Nigerians? And I said, did I say Nigerians? I might have meant Nicaraguans, and maybe it wasn't south LA. Maybe it was Pico-Union.
MERAJI: And maybe it wasn't just the INS. Maybe it was the LAPD too.
MADELINE JANIS: Wow, this is deja vu.
MERAJI: Madeline Janis is flipping through a stack of declarations from Pico-Union residents detained during the riots. Her name came up a bunch of times in Webster Commission documents we found archived in cardboard boxes at the University of Southern California. That was the FBI's five-month investigation into the LAPD's response to the riots. And when I called Janis for an interview, she asked me to bring copies to jog her memory.
JANIS: Yeah, I remember this.
MERAJI: Back then, Janis, an attorney, ran a Pico-Union-based nonprofit called CARECEN, which is still in the neighborhood and provides all kinds of assistance to immigrants. She told me right after the riots, she helped a couple dozen people facing deportation, people like 18-year-old Salvadoran Martha Campos, arrested by the LAPD at 3 in the afternoon on April 30 while drinking a fruit juice in front of a convenience store. Here's Janis reading from her declaration.
JANIS: (Reading) An officer demanded to know my name and if I had any immigration papers and what country I was from. I responded that I had no papers and I told them what country I was from. I was then taken to a police station with many other people. Immigration arrived in several vans and took me and many other people away.
MERAJI: Martha Campos' declaration was taken at an immigration detention center in San Pedro, which is about a 45-minute drive from downtown LA 15 days after she was picked up. She says in detention she slept on narrow, concrete benches, was fed dry meat and old bread and not allowed to bathe. She was seven months pregnant.
JANIS: (Reading) I fear that the treatment I have suffered while in INS custody could have caused or might still cause serious harm to either me or my baby or both. I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief. Martha Campos.
This was so awful I think I blocked it out of my memory.
MERAJI: What happened to Martha Campos shouldn't have. The LAPD wasn't and still isn't allowed to, quote, "initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person," unquote. It can only involve immigration enforcement when a, quote, "undocumented alien" has been arrested for serious misdemeanors or a felony. It's a rule called Special Order 40. And it's been around since the late '70s.
ROBERT MOSHORACK: What is Special Order 40? I'm not familiar with it.
MERAJI: That's Robert Moshorack. He was the district director of the INS in Los Angeles during the unrest, and he's been retired for about 23 years. Moshorack remembers the riots were an all-hands-on-deck situation, and he sent in agents to help as requested - end of story. And as far as Special Order 40, here's how he reacted when I told him about it.
MOSHORACK: I think that's ridiculous. Many people don't realize that illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor in and of itself, a violation of 8 U.S.C. 1325. And then of re-entry after deportation is a felony. How much longer are we going to accept that in our society?
MERAJI: Current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck seems to have accepted that there are a couple hundred thousand LA residents who don't have legal status.
CHARLIE BECK: And, you know, I got to be their police chief, too. I'm not just the police chief to property owners. I'm not just the police chief to business owners.
MERAJI: Chief Beck's been at the LAPD as long as Special Order 40's been around, and he says he can't recall a time it wasn't followed, even after I told him about the Webster Commission documents that show otherwise. Regardless, he says, it's long been crucial that the LAPD isn't thought of as immigration enforcement because it erodes trust, and immigrants stop reporting crime. Just last month, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti expanded Special Order 40 to include firefighters, port and airport police. The mayor says he's trying to quell fears stoked in LA's immigrant communities by President Trump's call for more cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
ERIC GARCETTI: So to make our city safer, we're focused on keeping those bridges from being burned down right now.
MERAJI: I remind Garcetti this city burned down 25 years ago, and Special Order 40 appears to have been an afterthought amidst the chaos.
GARCETTI: It's one thing to have a policy or a law on the books, but it's another thing to make sure that it is enforced and enforced by everybody. And this new generation of police officers has come up understanding this both from moral and practical terms. We're not perfect, but in this imperfect paradise that we call Los Angeles, I think we're better and more resilient because of what we went through in 1992.
(SOUNDBITE OF O K H O, SAITO'S "GINSENG")
MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.