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When Elvis Left South Central

How the first post–L.A. riots president let Los Angeles down

Twenty-five years after Los Angeles rose up, how far have we come as a nation? Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.

On Monday, May 4, 1992, five days after the L.A. riots began and the same day that Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley lifted the citywide dusk-till-dawn curfew, presidential candidate and Arkansas governor Bill Clinton started his day at two black churches in Washington, D.C. From there he flew to Jeffersonville, Indiana, for a church service, and then to Los Angeles, where he stopped at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in south central Los Angeles. Outside Israel Baptist Church in D.C., Clinton said of the riots, “We have refused to sit down in a room together in common conversation, black and white together, to discuss our honest fears, our honest differences and our common interests. And for this neglect, we have all paid.”

In the spring of 1992, Bill Clinton was the front-runner in a bruising race for the Democratic nomination for president. That November, he would contest a president, George H.W. Bush, whose approval rating had soared to a record-setting 89% after the Gulf War. But the events that overtook the city of Los Angeles for more than a week made it apparent that 12 years of Republican control of the White House had done little for minorities siloed into poor neighborhoods nationwide. Sixty-one percent of Americans polled by CBS News a week after the riots began said that the country was spending too little on helping black Americans living in poverty, a jump of nearly 30 percent since the question was posed four years earlier. More than half of white Americans and 76 percent of black Americans polled said that President Bush had failed in his handling of race relations.

Then-candidate Clinton was campaigning as a change agent who could unite both working-class white Americans in rural areas and black voters in the South and West. For him, the riots provided an opportunity to take an important stand on race relations while not aggravating white voters who viewed the riots as a faraway problem for black people. But once Clinton became president, addressing the root causes of the riots slipped off the agenda as his presidency faced a full-throated opposition from a newly powerful GOP, and the neglect he disparaged so eloquently during the 1992 campaign continued.

As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton positioned himself politically and culturally as neither completely liberal nor totally conservative, but something else: a “ New Democrat.” That gave him the political flexibility to appeal to both Democratic voters in blue states and, importantly, white conservatives in the South who had voted for Ronald Reagan and President Bush. He could be the best of both worlds: a Southern governor who could speak eloquently about discrimination while vowing to cut the crime rate. “[Clinton] moved to the right of the party on a number of issues, promising to ‘end welfare as we know it,’ while supporting the death penalty and cracking down on crime,” Steve Gillon, a professor of modern U.S. history at the University of Oklahoma, told MTV News. “It was a delicate balancing act that only a candidate as skilled as Clinton could pull off: maintaining the enthusiasm of the urban black community while reassuring suburban whites that he would get tough on crime and lawlessness.” His move toward the center influenced future Democrats — Barack Obama considered himself a “New Democrat,” and, to an extent, Hillary Clinton ran twice as one herself.

To conservative and center-right voters, Clinton promised a return to “law and order” and community norms. In Birmingham, Alabama, two days before his trip to Los Angeles, Clinton told a crowd of supporters, “No president can promise to wipe the stain of crime and drugs and lost human wreckage away from the spirit of any community in America, unless the people in the community are willing to take responsibility, each and every one of them, to lift up the children in those communities.” But to black Americans across the country, Clinton had a different message: The federal government hadn't done nearly enough to combat poverty. In comments made two days after his visit to the scene of the riots, Clinton said that the Bush administration had done nothing to help and everything to hurt black Americans and people living in poverty. “We need things that will let people at the local level shape their future in everything from houses to jobs to safe streets. But we can't do better with a do-nothing approach.”

In contrast to President Bush's public statements, in which he seemed to blame the riots on bad parenting rather than bad public policy, Clinton came across as sensitive and perceptive of the needs of real people living in the shadow of police brutality and extreme poverty — even while making incredibly conservative arguments about the need for intact families and personal responsibility. He argued — effectively — that the Bush and Reagan presidencies showed that the Republican Party simply didn't understand Americans, whether they lived in urban areas or in rural small towns. “Bush's inept handling of the riots,” said Gillon, “seemed to confirm what Clinton had been saying all along: that the nation's needs had been neglected under Reagan and Bush; that Bush was out of touch with the lives of everyday Americans; and that the nation needed someone who could address the deep racial divide in America.”

But after Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination and, in November 1992, the presidency, the allure of a potential president who could be everything to everyone fell victim to an actual president who was enmeshed in scandal within weeks of taking office. Bill Clinton couldn't be both a “law and order” president and sensitive to the needs of minorities — so he chose the former over the latter. Two years after the riots, in the so-called “Republican Revolution” midterm elections of 1994, the GOP gained control of both the House and Senate, and Clinton's momentum shifted from a triumph of centrist liberalism to seven years spent shoring up precious few hard-earned victories.

That culminated with conservative-minded welfare reforms and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expanded the use of the death penalty on the federal level and added billions of dollars in funding for prisons and police departments. “Clinton spent the rest of his presidency on the defensive,” said Gillon, “trying to find common ground with hardcore Republican conservatives who were determined to gut most social programs, and especially those that aided the cities. Instead of new initiatives designed to address the underlying cause of the riots, Clinton gave us ‘ three strikes and you're out’ and a restructuring of welfare that hurt the nation's most vulnerable.”

The riots didn't last in Clinton's imagination, but they did in the minds of a newly ascendant Republican Party. Clinton could claim during the campaign to speak for both the people of South Central L.A. and voters who had never so much as visited Disneyland. But as president, he could do neither.

Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.