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Los Angeles Sees Improvements 20 Years After Riots

Rodney King poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, April 13, 2012. The acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of King sparked rioting that spread across the city and into neighboring suburbs, leaving cars demolished, homes and businesse

Twenty years ago on Sunday [April 29, 1992], parts of Los Angeles, California, erupted in race riots that left 53 people dead and caused more than $1 billion in damage. Local leaders recently toured the scene of the violence to see how things have changed. Although there have been many improvements, problems remain.

It was an April afternoon in 1992 when a jury stunned the city by acquitting four police officers who had been caught on video tape beating a black motorist, Rodney King.

Spontaneous protests soon turned to violence, with some African Americans targeting Korean immigrant shop owners. Two carloads of men drove near firefighter Emile Mack and his crew.

"And they all began pulling out guns and shooting into the storefronts that were immediately adjacent to us. We immediately hit the ground. But within seconds, Korean shop owners came out of those same shops, lined up, and began shooting back."

Many African American businesses also were destroyed.

Pharmacy owner Gil Mathieu left his store as the unrest began. "By the time I got home, I turned on the TV to continue to follow the news, and lo and behold, the store was on fire. So I said, 'Oh, well.' It's a very humbling experience, and I couldn't do anything. You get numb when you see it," he said.

By day two of the riots, the fires were spreading. Firefighter Mack was on Vermont Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare.

"Every block was ablaze, and literally there were columns of smoke that blocked out the sun," said Mack.

South Los Angeles, where the riots began, has changed since then. A bus tour by the charity Operation Hope takes local leaders through the neighborhood, where new businesses have replaced the charred rubble. Mathieu's pharmacy has been rebuilt. And banks and shopping centers are on many corners.

Residents say there are business opportunities for potential investors. But some areas are still bleak and awaiting development.

Rebecca Blank, the U.S. deputy secretary of commerce, said one key to improvement here is better schools, and many have opened.

"Because the skills of the people that are there as workers, as community leaders, are more important than anything," said Blank.

At Quincy Jones Elementary School, children learn math and science, as well music and art. The school was named in honor of the legendary music producer. And Quincy Jones said the school's broad curriculum helps instill a sense of pride, and improves the neighborhood and the nation.

"Because the culture, the food, the music and the language is what defines a country," said Jones.

Race relations are also better, said fire department official Mack.

"Because they've reached out to the other communities and created relationships that really will help prevent something like this from ever occurring again," he said.

Mack has bridged the racial gap in his own life. He was a Korean orphan who was adopted by an African American couple and raised in South Los Angeles. His friends and family growing up, he said, were black.

Obama administration official Blank said the economy needs to improve for lasting changes in the city. She cautioned that there still is potential for unrest in Los Angeles and other American urban centers.

"Anyone who thinks that we are past the ability of riots anywhere in American cities really needs to look to Europe, which has been facing major riots in many of their cities because of concern for what's happening with their government, for austerity measures, for high unemployment. We're not immune to that," she said.

Those who live here say there is much work to be done in the inner city by both government and business.