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Brush fire burned the Oakland hills

On Sunday, October 20, 1991, one of the costliest fires in the history of the United States broke out in the Oakland-Berkeley hills on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The Oakland Firestorm, as it became known, erupted on the crest of a hill overlooking Highway 24 at the mouth of the Caldecott Tunnel. The weather had been very dry here for some five years, making the brush exceedingly dry and easily able to catch fire. A glowing ember remaining from a small fire extinguished the previous day was blown into a tree. An unusually fast wind, some 65 miles per hour, carried the fire from its starting point rapidly through a residential community. Several thousand houses were destroyed. Twenty-five people were killed and 150 injured in the fire, which burned over an area of about 1,500 acres. The total damage from the Oakland Firestorm was about $1.5 billion. Rebuilding of homes in the Oakland hills began immediately.

Riots broke out in Los Angeles after white police officers were acquitted of beating black motorist Rodney King

On April 29, 1992, a jury in Sylmar, California, acquitted a group of white policemen from charges of wrongdoing during the arrest of Rodney King, a black man. The news sparked rioting in the city of Los Angeles. King’s arrest had been videotaped by a bystander and had been aired on television, with the images seeming to make it clear that the police had repeatedly hit King with their batons. The trial was on television live for nearly the entire length of the proceedings. Most of the country had already decided that the four policemen were guilty, and the news of their acquittal came as a surprise.

At a number of spots in Los Angeles, African-Americans who felt that the verdict was unjust began to throw stones, burn buildings and loot shops. Mayor Tom Bradley imposed a city-wide curfew, and all schools and businesses were closed for three full days, while the rioting raged continually. Governor Pete Wilson sent 4,000 National Guard troopers into the area to restore order. The rioting was the worst civil unrest since the riots in Watts in 1965. Over 50 people were killed and more than 4,000 were injured. Police made in excess of 12,000 arrests during the riots. The total property damage from looting, arson, and vandalism was more than $1 billion.

Three Strikes Law was passed

On November 9, 1994, California voters approved a measure for a "Three Strikes Law" which would give mandatory life-sentence penalties to criminal offenders who are convicted for the third time. The measure was extremely controversial, with many arguing that it would reduce crime while others called it racist and unconstitutional. The state of Washington adopted a similar law at the same time, making these two states the first to enact such laws. Within the next three years, 24 more states passed "Three Strikes Laws." A similar law was proposed by Congress at a national level, though not enacted.

In California, the measure was especially harsh. While only certain serious felonies are counted for the first two "strikes," the crime that triggers the life sentence can be any felony. Furthermore, the law doubles sentences for a second strike, requires that these extended sentences be served in prison (rather than in jail or on probation) and further limits time off for good behavior. In June of 1996 the California Supreme Court modified the "Three Strikes Law" to allow the judge more leeway in sentencing.

Voters passed Proposition 187 limiting illegal immigrants’ access to free services

In the November 1994 election, California voters approved Proposition 187, a law which restricts illegal immigrants’ access to services. The law was passed due to citizen frustration with the many people who cross the border illegally from Mexico. Welfare services, education, and health care for these people was paid by California taxpayers. Proposition 187 denies these services to illegal immigrants. Governor Wilson was a strong advocate of the measure and made it a focus of his re-election platform.

The new law was immediately attacked as unconstitutional in several lawsuits. A U.S. District Court judge of the Central District of California held that the law could not be put into practice until the lawsuits had come to trial. Twice since then, the California State Supreme Court has ruled Proposition 187 unconstitutional. California, it is argued, cannot change immigration policies within its borders, when those policies are national. In March 1998 a federal judge ruled that the entire proposition was unconstitutional.


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