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It's been 20 years since four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. A riot soon erupted in Los Angeles. And before it was over, more than 50 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured. Those who want to understand that violence include students too young to remember it. NPR's Carrie Kahn listened to discussions in L.A. schools.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Most history books used in L.A. schools end at the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s. So 11th grade history teacher Anthony Lawson, who himself was 10 at the time of the riots, has to improvise.
ANTHONY LAWSON: All right, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I need your attention please.
KAHN: Lawson teaches at Animo Locke High, a charter school. Everyone in the class is 16 or 17, black or Latino and live in the neighborhood, which is not far from the flashpoint of the riots.
LAWSON: What caused people to riot? Mauricio, I see you in the back.
KAHN: The answers start flying: hatred, injustice, racism. Lawson shoots back: Were the rioters reacting to those causes, or were they just selfishly breaking the law? Monica Revelo says all the rioters did was just destroy their own community.
MONICA REVELO: What do you get out of it?
KAHN: For classmate Artesia Cox, it's about being angry and being heard.
ARTESIA COX: You get noticed.
REVELO: But not in a good way.
COX: It's just publicity.
REVELO: You act like animals, so they're going to treat you like one.
COX: They already did.
KAHN: These students say the conditions where they live, where the riots hit, haven't changed much at all. For Delshone Patton, the gangs are still a problem.
DELSHONE PATTON: People are still be going out and shooting kids for no reasons. Like, you've got a seven-year-old got killed before. Five-year-olds get killed.
KAHN: And Manuel Amaya says economic conditions keep getting worse.
MANUEL AMAYA: A lot of things like poverty are still existing around here. A lot of liquor stores haven't been taken down. A lot of things that oppressed us back then are still like - we still see them today.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
KAHN: Twenty miles west of Locke at Pacific Palisades Charter High School, the same topics - poverty and racial tensions - are discussed. The setting, though, couldn't be more different though. Pali High sits on a bluff just blocks from the beach, surrounded by the Santa Monica Mountains and million dollar homes.
CHRIS LEE: I'm going to give you some current facts about Los Angeles. And I want you to compare these at the time of the riots to now.
KAHN: Chris Lee is the teacher. This is an honors economics class.
LEE: And see if you can make any conclusions or maybe predictions or any...
KAHN: Lee's students are a mix of races and incomes, and come from all over L.A. But in these pristine surroundings, poverty is taught from handouts. Omeed Atlaschi raises his hand first.
OMEED ATLASCHI: What I notice in the third graph was that the median household income for black and Latino people over the past 20 years has risen to the point where it was 20 years ago for white people.
LEE: OK. But although everyone's income level has gone up, the gap between them has doubled.
KAHN: Students move the discussion deeper. They want to talk about racism. Amy Dersh, who is white, says outside of school, she gets stared at when she's hanging out with black friends.
AMY DERSH: I don't know. I've noticed, you know, when I'm out and about with them, that we get looks. Like - and if I'm with, like, let's say a black boy and we're holding hands, especially, we get looks then.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAHN: Another white student says when he walks into the local pharmacy, his black friend has to leave his backpack at the door. Mr. Lee tries to get the students to talk about preventing another riot. Most agree the answer is getting to know each other better. Maddie Hausberg says having more integrated schools like Pali High would help.
MADDIE HAUSBERG: I think that if everybody in Los Angeles, every school had this kind of education with different kids from different neighborhood, different races, then I think that's one of the first things to prevent riots from happening.
KAHN: That message of racial and economic harmony was a bit harder to find back in South L.A. at Animo Locke High School. Students agree that everyone should pitch in, work together to build up the neighborhood. But they also said it's hard to rise out of poverty when it's gone on for decades.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're getting more poverty places across the country. I'm just saying. If there's going to be riots here now, I think it could spread onto everywhere. I think that...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And then if it goes that way, it wouldn't be more of a riot. It wouldn't be called a riot anymore. It would be called a revolution.
KAHN: Teacher Anthony Lawson says he hopes for so much more for his students, and if their future is to be brighter, he says they need to know what happened in their community 20 years ago.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.