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Celebrating Transit and Remembering Riots: L.A. Moves Forward and Looks Back All in One Weekend

Kids describe what a healthy community looks like to them at the Advancement Project's booth at the South L.A. Rising event. photo: sahra

If you were an alien that landed in L.A. this weekend, you could be forgiven if the juxtaposition of the festivities surrounding the opening of the Expo Line and the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots (Civil Unrest or Rebellion, depending on your perspective) left you a little confused.

Flying over South L.A. in your UFO, you would have seen a number of things that might have seemed contradictory: Small armies of parents taking their kids to ride the new Expo Line shepherded safely by colorfully-dressed Metro ambassadors; a small and rather rag-tag group of zombies dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in a parking lot near one of the train stations;

Zombie flash mob at the Crenshaw stop of the Expo Line.

TRUST South L.A.'s flash mob asking Metro to consider the housing rights of residents living near the train stops; theater performances by the Watts Village Theater Company; the Community Coalition-sponsored gathering at 81st and Vermont celebrating South L.A. Rising; and two separate gatherings on the corners of Florence and Normandie -- a riled-up one led by a group called the Coalition for Community Control over Police and a more celebratory one led by the 77th Street Area Community Police Advisory Board and the 77th Street Area Clergy Council.

B.C. from the Black Riders (the new generation of Black Panthers) after her speech calling for African Americans to unite to fight the system instead of each other.

Although seemingly disparate, the events were linked by underlying messages of unity and a call for all Angelenos to invest in South L.A. and participate in breaking down the boundaries between it and the rest of the city.

Those messages were perhaps best embodied by the South L.A. Rising event, held on a vacant lot that, with the help of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT), will be converted into a Tot Park. Using the park victory as a metaphor, speakers from participating organizations encouraged the crowd to use their memories of the riots and their dissatisfaction with conditions in South L.A. to fuel constructive engagement with their community.

"It's up to us!!" shouted Manuel Hernandez of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE).

Manuel Hernandez of SCOPE tells the crowd, "It's up to us!!"

A child at the time of the riots, Hernandez had participated in the looting, jumping through a broken window at a linens shop and running out with towels and soaps.

"I had no idea why I was doing this!" he proclaims, "I was EIGHT YEARS OLD!"

Only as he aged, he said, did he come to understand the issues that had caused his neighborhood to erupt as it did. Seeing that little had changed in the aftermath of the riots and deciding he needed to be part of the solution, he joined with others at SCOPE working to promote political engagement among residents of the area. Participating in the process and raising your voice, he told the crowd, is key to holding representatives accountable and creating a better future for the community.

A child stands under a banner using flags from around the world to promote unity at Florence and Normandie.

While the consensus may be that another round of riots is unlikely it does not mean that the underlying issues that sparked them have been adequately addressed. More residents who wrote out descriptions or drew pictures of their ideal healthy community at the South L.A. Rising event seemed to place jobs, harmony in the community, clean streets, access to fresh food, and streets free of violence ahead of parks.

A resident wishes for a community free of gang-banging, shootings, and the threat of being hauled off to jail. photo: sahra

One child (at least, I hope it was a child) declared a healthy community was "Bacon."

A healthy city is... Bacon.

Although it may have seemed a little odd to set the festive opening of the Expo Line for the weekend of one of L.A.'s more important and painful anniversaries, it also kind of makes sense. The riots are a good reminder of the importance of including communities and consideration of their needs into the policy-making process. This is particularly true with the new light rail lines, as the potential for displacement of lower-income residents exists even as the lines bring new investment into communities. South L.A. is also changing, as the vibrancy of the community-based organizations on display this weekend aptly illustrated. But a better future for the area requires that the rest of Angelenos also see themselves as stakeholders in its well-being. Hopefully, the connection of communities through transit networks like the Expo Line and the future Crenshaw Line will help to facilitate that shift in thinking.

If the opening of the new line prompted you to explore a part of the city you hadn't before, please let us know in the comments.

Anything can be beautiful when you look (mural adjacent to Manual Arts High School)

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