Three decades ago, Los Angeles erupted in some of the worst urban violence America has ever seen. People were furious that the LAPD officers who were filmed beating Rodney King would not be punished. It was a fuse that ignited a keg of gunpowder, the effects of which still reverberate today.
A few days after the start of the violence, John Hope Bryant, a young entrepreneur, decided that it was not enough to give speeches or make statements in front of the press cameras. He got to work mobilizing the public and private sectors to create opportunities that did not previously exist in this community. The result was Operation HOPE. Now based in Atlanta, the organization has secured $2 billion in investments to support its financial literacy and empowerment mission. He sat down with BET.com for a look back at the events of 1992 and why bands like his are still needed today.
BET.com: It hardly seems like three decades have passed since that day, and many people will argue that Los Angeles has never been the same. But are they right? Is the spirit still there?
John Hope Bryant: The spirit is actually stronger because we made a bet on ourselves in the community and the bet paid off. But for those who took part in the struggle in 1992, and in the 30 years since, we have made a bet inspired by the mayor Tom Bradley and [organizations like] rebuild LA, Operation HOPE, the first AME church, FAMOUS Renaissance and West Anglia Church of God and Christ, and so many heroes and sheroes of this partnership between government, community and the private sector. The bet was nobody tearing up their own stuff, nobody burning down their own house.
By giving people an ownership mentality, we made a bet that would change the tone and texture of the community and help us make revitalization sustainable. The shopping complexes that have been built are bustling. The office buildings that have been built are filled. The service stations that have been built have customers and create jobs. The loans that have been given to people to become owners have paid off… which proves that we are a good investment. We are just an untapped asset base and in many cases we don’t even recognize our own value proposition.
LA Riot: 30 years after the fire – Then and Now
A lot has changed since the Los Angeles riots of 1992. But the spirit is still there.
La Brea Ave. was one of many streets where businesses burned during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles had a very real fear of the police in 1992, which fueled frustration against them. Even before Rodney King, complaints about police brutality by a majority white LAPD were commonplace.
Much of the area destroyed by the violence was in marginalized black communities with few opportunities. Many resources and jobs burned along with the buildings.
Many community members affected by the violence simply wanted to know why the officers who beat Rodney King would not be punished.
BET.com: We’ve talked about what happened in 1992 before, and the media tends to focus on Rodney King, racial tensions, or the billion dollar damage. But you were there, boots on the ground. What do you think we should focus on?
Bryant: I’m focusing on the little old lady who just wants to refinance the mortgage on our house. I focus on the young entrepreneur who could be next Steve Jobsor Bob Johnson. Or whoever the hero or the shero is… who’s probably sitting in one of the school classrooms just not getting the time and attention.
The burning buildings, an unjust arrest that led to an unjust verdict – these are the stories that are known to everyone and they are dramatic and they are adapted for television, so they are there, that is what is broadcast.
It’s much less sexy to Craft sexy smart. It’s much less sexy to educate a child in the local school and do it on a large scale. It’s a lot less sexy to go block to block and pull the data and find that it’s 500 credit score neighborhoods that have high levels of crime, murder, chaos, drugs, single-parent families, etc. a credit score of 600, a credit score of 650 or a credit score neighborhood of 700? And we both know that 700 credit neighbors don’t riot.
What we have done is help give people something different to see which is the promise of individuality to become a real estate professional, to become a banker, a businessman, a leader community, an architect or an engineer. I mean, this stuff isn’t sexy, but it’s durable.
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BET.com: Some of the same economic challenges still exist in Los Angeles today. Do you feel like the same things are causing the same problems?
Bryant: The problems of disinvestment and misunderstanding of our value in our neighborhoods have always been the same. The only time we were truly valued was when we were profiting from, that is, slavery. It’s interesting to me that these communities that we call “city centers”, in a country like France, the city center is Paris. In the UK the city center is London and in Switzerland it is Geneva. Only in America do we consider inner cities somewhat bad.
New York has Harlem, which is nothing more than Upper Manhattan. You couldn’t give Atlanta 25 years ago. In Anacostia [Washington D.C.]., which is really a waterfront property, and now you have FEMA headquarters there. African Americans were really kicked out of that community. We didn’t give them the opportunity to come up, we just asked them to leave. I’m afraid in inner cities across the country we don’t get the memo. We are moving away from these communities and others are not investing in them because they see them as poor neighborhoods. When they invest, what you see is a check casher, a payday lender, next to a rent-to-own store, next to a title lender, next to a liquor, next to a pawnshop, then a church down the street trying to make you feel a little better.
In that respect, nothing has changed because you don’t have financial literacy, you don’t have financial coaching, you don’t have access to large-scale capital, and you also don’t have the capitalist system at work in these urban neighborhoods. They are simply hollowed out, in many cases.
In South Central LA, and other places where we operate, you have these little pockets of hope that you can point to where the economy is working, people have jobs, contracts, opportunities. But overall, we are still far from the promised land.
BET.com: Since the riot, a whole generation has been born, raised and become adults. Do you think they understand what happened?
Bryant: I think the answer is probably no. But it’s no different from someone thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and remembering only the speech “I have a dream”. Or someone trying to understand Nelson Mandelabut just know that he was president of South Africa, not knowing that he was a prisoner for 27 years.
The story here is the journey and transition of what has happened over the past 30 years. But probably the image in people’s minds is that Rodney King was a black man beaten by police officers and then riots happened after that which is a narrative that has replayed over and over again, most recently with George Floyd. I fear that the true message of investment, revitalization, recovery and stability is being lost with the hard work that organizations like ours and others have done for 30 years.
BET.com: Your organization, Operation: HOPE has come a long way since then. It is now a nationally recognized organization. What are some of the things you do these days?
Bryant: the 1 million black businesses initiative. There was a lot of $52 billion investment from the private sector, after the murder of George Floyd. Some of that money went to organizations like ours. and we got $130 million from Shopify to create a million new black businesses over 10 years. It started about a year and a half ago, and we’ve made incredible progress in that regard. This creates e-commerce businesses, websites, fulfillment systems, and delivery systems for people to connect and take advantage of this technology-driven business boom.
We have a Financial Literacy for All movement which is now co-chaired by me and Doug McMillonCEO of Walmart, to embed financial literacy at the heart of business, government and community.
We have 190 HOPE inside locations in 40 states Plus, which increase credit scores by 54 points in six months, 120 points in 24 months. We’ve directed $4 billion in capital for homeownership and small business ownership in underserved neighborhoods, including South Central Los Angeles, since our inception on May 5, 1992. Four million customers of Operation: HOPE, and it goes on and on. It all started with a dream that started on a bus against the backdrop of the Rodney King riots in 1992.
It was hope-less-ness. Now we return to South Central LA with her daughter Mrs. (Lora Dene) King to highlight the hope-full-ness and to fill the cycle where only rainbows follow storms.