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Harvard Reflects on the L.A. Riots, 20 Years Later

By James D. McCaffrey, Crimson Staff Writer

Columbia Law Professor Patricia J. Williams connected the mistreatment of Rodney King with that of Trayvon Martin in the keynote address of a conference entitled, “LA Riots: Twenty Years Later,” on Saturday.

Williams described the police brutality in the beating of Rodney King and the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin as examples of the volatile history of American racial relations.

“We need to examine the limits of state force and also the proper applications of police investigation which is at the heart of the Trayvon Martin case,” Williams said.

The event—sponsored by the Department of African and African American Studies, the Anthropology Department, and five other university institutes—involved discussions with hip-hop artists, scholars, and activists about social justice and racial inequality in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

“We wanted to get not only academics, but artists and activists together to have a conversation looking back on the event 20 years ago and updating it for the present times,” said African and African American studies and anthropology assistant professor Laurence A. Ralph.

A screening of the documentary film, “Sa-I-Gu,” which examines the Los Angeles riots from the perspective of Korean-American women, kicked off the two-day conference on Friday evening. A question and answer session with director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson followed the movie screening.

Hip-hop artist David Banner, who has worked on Hurricane Katrina relief projects and on raising awareness of the Trayvon Martin shooting, highlighted the importance of social activism in a presentation on Saturday morning.

“We wanted to get his take on how hip-hop connects to these broader notions of uprising and social unrest,” Ralph said.

Student presentations on socioeconomic inequality and racial protests followed panel discussions on collective memory and action on Saturday afternoon.

Performances by poets from the group Hoop Suite Project, which encourages inner-city youth to engage in creative expression, concluded the commemoration event.

Ralph explained that the collaborative efforts of intellectuals and performers exceeded the program’s goals.

“I just wanted to get a conversation going about what the riots meant 20 years ago and also how they reflect on forms of social inequity today,” Ralph said.

—Staff writer James D. McCaffrey can be reached at

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