|1992 Los Angeles riots|
|Date||April 29 – May 4, 1992|
|Caused by||Reaction to acquittal of four policemen on trial in beating of Rodney King; death of Latasha Harlins|
|Methods||Widespread rioting, looting, assault, arson, protests, property damage, firefights, murder|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
The 1992 Los Angeles riots, sometimes called the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, were a series of riots and civil disturbances that occurred in Los Angeles County in April and May 1992. Unrest began in South Central Los Angeles on April 29, after a trial jury acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for usage of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King, which had been videotaped and widely viewed in TV broadcasts.
The rioting took place in several areas in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, as thousands of people rioted over a six-day period following the announcement of the verdict. Widespread looting, assault, arson, and murder occurred during the riots, which local police forces had difficulty to control due to lack of personnel and resources against the sheer number of rioters. The situation in the Los Angeles area was only resolved and ended after the California National Guard, the United States military, and several federal law enforcement agencies were deployed to assist local authorities in ending the violence and rebellion.
By the time the riots ended, 63 people had been killed, 2,383 people had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion, much of which disproportionately affected Koreatown, Los Angeles in which the bulk of the unrest occurred. LAPD Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who had already announced his resignation by the time of the riots, was attributed with much of the blame for a lack of control, mismanagement of the situation, and failure of de-escalation and prevention.
In the year before the riots, 1991, there was growing violence between the African-American and Korean-American communities. Racial tensions had been simmering for years between these groups. In 1989, the release of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing highlighted inner-city tensions between different ethnic groups, including Blacks and Koreans. Many African Americans were angry toward a growing Korean migrant community in South Central Los Angeles earning a living in their communities, and felt disrespected and humiliated by many Korean merchants. Cultural differences and a language barrier further fueled tensions. 
On March 16, 1991, a year prior to the Los Angeles riots, storekeeper Soon Ja Du shot and killed black ninth-grader Latasha Harlins. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and the jury recommended the maximum sentence of 16 years, but the judge decided against prison time and sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine instead. Relations between the African-American and Korean communities significantly worsened after this, and the former became increasingly mistrustful of the criminal justice system. A state appeals court later unanimously upheld Judge Karlin’s sentencing decision in April 1992, a week before the riots.
The Los Angeles Times reported on several other significant incidents of violence between the communities at the time:
Other recent incidents include the May 25  shooting of two employees in a liquor store near 35th Street and Central Avenue. The victims, both recent emigrants from Korea, were killed after complying with robbery demands made by an assailant described by police as an African-American. Last Thursday, an African-American man suspected of committing a robbery in an auto parts store on Manchester Avenue was fatally wounded by his accomplice, who accidentally fired a shotgun round during a struggle with the shop’s Korean-American owner. “This violence is disturbing too,” store owner Park said. “But who cries for these victims?
Rodney King incident
On the evening of March 3, 1991, Rodney King and two passengers were driving west on the Foothill Freeway (I-210) through the Sunland-Tujunga neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) attempted to initiate a traffic stop and a high-speed pursuit ensued with speeds estimated at up to 115 mph (185 km/h), before King eventually exited the freeway at Foothill Boulevard. The pursuit continued through residential neighborhoods of Lake View Terrace in San Fernando Valley before King stopped in front of the Hanson Dam recreation center. When King finally stopped, LAPD and CHP officers surrounded King’s vehicle and married CHP officers Timothy and Melanie Singer arrested him and two other occupants of the car.
After the two passengers were placed in the patrol car, five white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers – Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano – surrounded King, who came out of the car last. They tasered him, struck him dozens of times with side-handled batons, kick stomped him in his back and tackled him to the ground before handcuffing him and hogtying his legs. Sergeant Koon later testified at trial that King resisted arrest and that he believed King was under the influence of PCP at the time of the arrest, which caused him to be very aggressive and violent toward the officers. Video footage of the arrest showed that King attempted to get up each time he was struck and that the police made no attempt to cuff him until he lay still. A subsequent test of King for the presence of PCP in his body at the time of the arrest was negative.
Unbeknownst to the police and King, the incident was captured on a camcorder by local civilian George Holliday from his nearby apartment across from Hansen Dam. The tape was roughly 12 minutes long. While the tape was presented during the trial, some clips of the incident were not released to the public. In a later interview, King, who was on parole for a robbery conviction and had past convictions for assault, battery and robbery, said that he had not surrendered earlier because he was driving while intoxicated under the influence of alcohol, which he knew violated the terms of his parole.
The footage of King being beaten by police became an instant focus of media attention and a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States. Coverage was extensive during the first two weeks after the incident: the Los Angeles Times published 43 articles about it,The New York Times published 17 articles, and the Chicago Tribune published 11 articles. Eight stories appeared on ABC News, including a sixty-minute special on Primetime Live.
Upon watching the tape of the beating, LAPD chief of police Daryl Gates said:
I stared at the screen in disbelief. I played the one-minute-50-second tape again. Then again and again, until I had viewed it 25 times. And still I could not believe what I was looking at. To see my officers engage in what appeared to be excessive use of force, possibly criminally excessive, to see them beat a man with their batons 56 times, to see a sergeant on the scene who did nothing to seize control, was something I never dreamed I would witness.
Before the release of the Rodney King tape, minority community leaders in Los Angeles had repeatedly complained about harassment and excessive use of force by LAPD officers. An independent commission (the Christopher Commission) formed after the release of the tape concluded that a “significant number” of LAPD officers “repetitively use excessive force against the public and persistently ignore the written guidelines of the department regarding force,” and that bias related to race, gender, and sexual orientation were regularly contributing factors in the use of excessive force. The commission’s report called for the replacement of both Chief Daryl Gates and the civilian Police Commission.
Charges and trial
The Los Angeles County District Attorney subsequently charged four police officers, including one sergeant, with assault and use of excessive force. Due to the extensive media coverage of the arrest, the trial received a change of venue from Los Angeles County to Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County. The jury had no full-blood African-American members, and was composed of nine white Americans (three women, six men), one bi-racial man, one Latina woman, and one Asian-American woman. The prosecutor, Terry White, was African-American.
On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury acquitted all four officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. The jury could not agree on a verdict for the fourth officer charged with using excessive force. The verdicts were based in part on the first three seconds of a blurry, 13-second segment of the videotape that, according to journalist Lou Cannon, had not been aired by television news stations in their broadcasts.
The first two seconds of videotape, contrary to the claims made by the accused officers, show King attempting to flee past Laurence Powell. During the next one minute and 19 seconds, King is beaten continuously by the officers. The officers testified that they tried to physically restrain King prior to the starting point of the videotape, but King was able to physically throw them off.
Afterward, the prosecution suggested that the jurors may have acquitted the officers because of becoming desensitized to the violence of the beating, as the defense played the videotape repeatedly in slow motion, breaking it down until its emotional impact was lost.
Outside the Simi Valley courthouse where the acquittals were delivered, county sheriff’s deputies protected Stacey Koon from angry protesters on the way to his car. Movie director John Singleton, who was in the crowd at the courthouse, predicted, “By having this verdict, what these people done, they lit the fuse to a bomb.”
The riots began the day the verdicts were announced and peaked in intensity over the next two days. A dusk-to-dawn curfew and deployment by California National Guardsmen, U.S. troops, and Federal law enforcement personnel eventually controlled the situation.
A total of 63 people died during the riots, including nine shot by law enforcement personnel and one by National Guardsmen. As many as 2,383 people were reported injured. Estimates of the material losses vary between about $800 million and $1 billion. Approximately 3,600 fires were set, destroying 1,100 buildings, with fire calls coming once every minute at some points. Widespread looting also occurred. Rioters targeted stores owned by Koreans and other ethnic Asians, reflecting tensions between them and the African-American communities.
Many of the disturbances were concentrated in South Central Los Angeles, where the population was majority African-American and Hispanic. Fewer than half of all the riot arrests and a third of those killed during the violence were Hispanic.
The riots caused the Emergency Broadcast System and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be activated on April 30, 1992, on KCAL-TV.
Day 1 – Wednesday, April 29
Prior to the verdicts
In the week before the Rodney King verdicts were reached, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates set aside $1 million for possible police overtime. Even so, on the last day of the trial, two-thirds of the LAPD’s patrol captains were out of town in Ventura, California, on the first day of a three-day training seminar.
At 1 p.m. on April 29, Judge Stanley Weisberg announced that the jury had reached its verdict, which would be read in two hours’ time. This was done to allow reporters, but also police and other emergency responders, time to prepare for the outcome, as unrest was feared if the officers were acquitted. The LAPD had activated its Emergency Operations Center, which the Webster Commission described as “the doors were opened, the lights turned on and the coffee pot plugged in”, but taken no other preparatory action. Specifically, the people intended to staff that Center were not gathered until 4:45 p.m. In addition, no action was taken to retain extra personnel at the LAPD’s shift change at 3 p.m., as the risk of trouble was deemed low.
The acquittals of the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers came at 3:15 p.m. local time. By 3:45 p.m., a crowd of more than 300 people had appeared at the Los Angeles County Courthouse protesting the verdicts.
Meanwhile, at approximately 4:15–4:20 p.m., a group of people approached the Pay-Less Liquor and Deli on Florence Avenue just west of Normandie in South Central. A member of the group in an interview said that the group “just decided they weren’t going to pay for what they were getting.” The store owner’s son was hit with a bottle of beer, and two other youths smashed the glass front door of the store. Two officers from the 77th Street Division of the LAPD responded to this incident and, finding that the instigators had already left, completed a report.
Mayor Bradley speaks
At 4:58 p.m.,Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley held a news conference to discuss the verdicts. He both expressed anger about the verdicts and appealed for calm.
“Today, the jury told the world that what we all saw with our own eyes was not a crime. My friends, I am here to tell the jury … what we saw was a crime. No, we will not tolerate the savage beating of our citizens by a few renegade cops.
… We must not endanger the reforms we have achieved by resorting to mindless acts. We must not push back progress by striking back blindly.”
— Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, post-verdict press conference
Assistant Los Angeles police chief Bob Vernon later said he believed Bradley’s remarks invited a riot and were perhaps taken as a signal by some citizens. Vernon said that the number of police incidents rose in the hour after the mayor’s press conference.
71st and Normandie
At Florence and Halldale, two officers issued a plea for assistance in apprehending a young suspect who had thrown an object at their car and whom they were pursuing on foot. Approximately two dozen officers, commanded by 77th Street Division LAPD officer Lieutenant Michael Moulin, arrived and arrested the youth, 16-year old Seandel Daniels, forcing him into the back of a car. The rough handling of the young man, a minor who was well known in the community, further agitated an uneasy and growing crowd, who began taunting and berating the police. Among the crowd were Bart Bartholomew, a freelance photographer for The New York Times, and Timothy Goldman, who began to record events with a camcorder.
The police formed a perimeter around the arresting officers as the crowd grew more hostile, leading to further altercations and arrests (including that of Damian Williams’ older brother, Mark Jackson). One member of the crowd stole the flashlight of an LAPD officer. Fearing police would resort to deadly force to repel the growing crowd, Lieutenant Moulin ordered officers out of the area altogether. Moulin later said that officers on the scene were outnumbered and unprepared to handle the situation because their riot equipment was stored at the police academy.
Hey, forget the flashlight, it’s not worth it. It ain’t worth it. It’s not worth it. Forget the flashlight. Not worth it. Let’s go.— Lieutenant Michael Moulin, bullhorn broadcast as recorded by the Goldman footage at 71st and Normandie
Moulin made the call for reporting officers to retreat from the 71st and Normandie area entirely at approximately 5:50 p.m. They were sent to an RTD bus depot at 54th and Arlington and told to await further instructions. The command post formed at this location was set up at approximately 6 p.m., but had no cell phones or computers other than those in squad cars. It had insufficient numbers of telephone lines and handheld police radios to assess and respond to the situation. Finally, the site had no televisions, which meant that as live broadcasts of unrest began, command post officers could not see any of the coverage.
Unrest moves to Florence and Normandie
Emboldened by the retreat of officers at 71st and Normandie, many proceeded one block south to the intersection of Florence and Normandie. Just after 6 p.m., a group of young men broke the padlock and windows to Tom’s Liquor, allowing a group of more than 100 people to raid the store and loot it. Concurrently, the growing number of rioters in the street began attacking civilians of non-black appearance, throwing debris at their cars, pulling them from their vehicles when they stopped, smashing window shops, or assaulting them while they walked on the sidewalks. As Goldman continued to film the scene on his camcorder, the Los Angeles News Service team of Marika Gerrard and Robert Tur arrived in a news helicopter, broadcasting from the air. The LANS feed appeared live on numerous Los Angeles television venues.
At approximately 6:15 p.m., as reports of vandalism, looting, and physical attacks continued to come in, Moulin elected to “take the information”, but not to respond with personnel to restore order or rescue people in the area. Moulin was relieved by a captain, ordered only to assess the Florence and Normandie area, and, again, not to attempt to deploy officers there. Meanwhile, Tur continued to cover the events in progress live at the intersection. From overhead, Tur described the police presence at the scene around 6:30 p.m. as “none”.
At 6:43 p.m., a white truck driver, Larry Tarvin, driving down Florence, stopped at a red light at Normandie in a large white delivery truck. He was pulled from the truck by a group of men including Henry Watson, who proceeded to kick and beat him, before striking him unconscious with a fire extinguisher taken from his own vehicle. He lay unconscious for more than a minute as his truck was looted, before getting up and staggering back to his vehicle. With the help of an unknown African-American, Tarvin drove his truck out of further harm’s way. Just before he did so, another truck, driven by Reginald Denny, entered the intersection.
Attack on Reginald Denny
At 6:46 p.m., Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, was dragged from his semi-trailer truck and severely beaten by a mob of local black residents. The LANS news helicopter piloted by reporter Tur broadcast live footage of the attack. Damian Williams threw a brick at Denny that struck him in the skull, fracturing it in 91 places.
Tur’s live reports resulted in Denny being rescued by Bobby Green Jr., a local black resident of South Central Los Angeles. After seeing the assault, Green rushed to the scene. He found Denny had climbed back into the cab of his truck and was trying to drive away, but was drifting in and out of consciousness. Green moved Denny out of the driver’s seat and drove him to Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood. Upon arriving at the hospital, Denny went into a seizure.
Fidel Lopez attack
Around 7:40 p.m., almost an hour after Denny was rescued, another beating was filmed on videotape in that location. Fidel Lopez, a self-employed construction worker and Guatemalan immigrant, was pulled from his GMC pickup truck and robbed of nearly $2,000. Rioters, including Damian Williams, smashed his forehead open with a car stereo and one tried to slice his ear off. After Lopez lost consciousness, the crowd spray-painted his chest, torso, and genitals black. He was eventually rescued by Reverend Bennie Newton, who told the rioters: “Kill him, and you have to kill me too.” Lopez survived the attack, but it took him years to fully recover and re-establish his business. Newton and Lopez became close friends.
Sunset on the first evening of the riots was at 7:36 p.m. The first call reporting a fire came in soon after, at approximately 7:45 p.m. Police did not return in force to Florence and Normandie until 8:30 p.m., by which time the intersection was in ruins and most rioters had left.
Numerous factors were later blamed for the severity of rioting in the 77th Street Division on the evening of April 29. These included:
- No effort made to close the busy intersection of Florence and Normandie to traffic.
- Failure to secure gun stores in the Division (one in particular lost 1,150 guns to looting on April 29).
- The failure to issue a citywide Tactical Alert until 6:43 p.m., which delayed the arrival of other divisions to assist the 77th.
- The lack of any response – and in particular, a riot response – to the intersection, which emboldened rioters. Since attacks, looting, and arson were broadcast live, viewers could see that none of these actions were being stopped by police.
As noted, after the verdicts were announced, a crowd of protesters formed at the Los Angeles police headquarters at Parker Center in Downtown Los Angeles. The crowd grew as the afternoon passed, and became violent. The police formed a skirmish line to protect the building, sometimes moving as protesters advanced. In the midst of this, before 6:30 p.m., police chief Daryl Gates left Parker Center, on his way to the neighborhood of Brentwood. There, as the situation in Los Angeles deteriorated, Gates attended a political fundraiser against Los Angeles City Charter Amendment F, intended to “give City Hall more power over the police chief and provide more civilian review of officer misconduct”. The amendment would limit the power and term length of his office.
The Parker Center crowd grew riotous at approximately 9 p.m., eventually making their way through the Civic Center, attacking law enforcement, overturning vehicles, setting objects ablaze, and blocking traffic on U.S. Route 101 going through downtown Los Angeles. Nearby Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) firefighters were shot at while trying to put out a blaze set by looters. The mayor had requested the California Army National Guard from Governor Pete Wilson; the first of these units, the 670th Military Police Company, had traveled almost 300 miles (480 km) from its main armory and arrived in the afternoon to assist local police. They were first deployed to a police command center, where they began handing out bulletproof vests to the firefighters after encountering the unit whose member had been shot. Later, after receiving ammunition from the L.A. Police Academy and a local gun store, the MPs deployed to hold the Martin Luther King Shopping Mall in Watts.
Lake View Terrace
In the Lake View Terrace district of Los Angeles, 200–400 protesters gathered about 9:15 p.m. at the site where Rodney King was beaten in 1991, near the Hansen Dam Recreation Area. The group marched south on Osborne Street to the LAPD Foothill Division headquarters. There they began rock throwing, shooting into the air, and setting fires. The Foothill division police used riot-breaking techniques to disperse the crowd and arrest those responsible for rock throwing and the fires.
Day 2 – Thursday, April 30
Mayor Bradley signed an order for a dusk-to-dawn curfew at 12:15 a.m. for the core area affected by the riots. At 10:15 a.m., he expanded the area under curfew. By mid-morning, violence appeared widespread and unchecked as extensive looting and arson were witnessed across Los Angeles County. Rioting moved from South Central Los Angeles, going north through Central Los Angeles decimating the neighborhoods of Koreatown, Westlake, Pico-Union, Mid-City and Mid-Wilshire before reaching Hollywood. The looting and fires engulfed Hollywood Boulevard, and eventually rioting erupted in the neighboring independent cities of Inglewood, Hawthorne, Gardena, Compton and Long Beach.
Destruction of Koreatown
Koreatown is a rectangular area which covers about 150 blocks between Eighth Street and Irolo Street, west of MacArthur Park. Korean immigrants had begun settling in the Mid-Wilshire area in the 1960s after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It was here that many opened successful businesses.
As the riots spread, roads between Koreatown and wealthy white neighborhoods were blocked off by police and official defense lines were set up around the independent cities such as Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. A Korean-American resident later told reporters: “It was containment. The police cut off traffic out of Koreatown, while we were trapped on the other side without help. Those roads are a gateway to a richer neighborhood. It can’t be denied.” Koreans also said that emergency responders ignored their calls for help.
The lack of law enforcement forced Koreatown civilians to organize their own armed security teams, mainly composed of store owners, to defend their businesses from rioters. Many had military experience from serving in the Republic of Korea Armed Forces before emigrating to the United States. Open gun battles were televised, including an incident in which Korean shopkeepers armed with M1 carbines, Ruger Mini-14s, pump-action shotguns, and handguns exchanged gunfire with a group of armed looters, and forced their retreat. But there were casualties, such as 18-year-old Edward Song Lee, who was accidentally shot to death by Korean shopkeepers while protecting a pizza shop with three friends. Hyungwon Kang captured a now-famous photograph of Lee’s body in the street.
After events in Koreatown, the 670th MP Company from National City, California were redeployed to reinforce police patrols guarding the Korean Cultural Center and the Consulate-General of South Korea in Los Angeles.
Out of the $850 million worth of damage done in L.A., half of it was on Korean-owned businesses because most of Koreatown was looted and destroyed.
Many Korean Americans who survived the riot have argued that this showed that people of minority races and ethnicities must group together for protection from a system that does not protect non-whites with the commitment or vigor given to whites. The effects of the riots, which displaced Korean Americans and destroyed their sources of income, and the little aid given to those who suffered, still affects today’s LA-based Koreans who struggle with economic hardship created by the riots.
The LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) organized response began to come together by mid-day. The LAFD and Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) began to respond backed by police escort; California Highway Patrol reinforcements were airlifted to the city. U.S. President George H. W. Bush spoke out against the rioting, stating that “anarchy” would not be tolerated. The California Army National Guard, which had been advised not to expect civil disturbance and had, as a result, loaned its riot equipment out to other law enforcement agencies, responded quickly by calling up about 2,000 soldiers, but could not get them to the city until nearly 24 hours had passed. They lacked equipment and had to pick it up from the JFTB (Joint Forces Training Base), Los Alamitos, California, which at the time was mainly a mothballed former airbase.
Air traffic control procedures at Los Angeles International Airport were modified, with all departures and arrivals routed to and from the west, over the Pacific Ocean, avoiding overflights of neighborhoods affected by the rioting.
Bill Cosby spoke on the local television station KNBC and asked people to stop the rioting and watch the final episode of his The Cosby Show. The U.S. Justice Department announced it would resume federal investigation of the Rodney King beating as a violation of federal civil rights law.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who criticized rioters for burning down their own neighborhoods, received death threats and was taken to the Los Angeles Police Academy for protection.
Day 3 – Friday, May 1
Rodney King gave an impromptu news conference in front of his lawyer’s office, tearfully saying, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” That morning, at 1:00 am, Governor Wilson had requested federal assistance. Upon request, Bush invoked the Insurrection Act with Executive Order 12804, federalizing the California Army National Guard and authorizing federal troops and federal law enforcement officers to help restore law and order. With Bush’s authority, the Pentagon activated Operation Garden Plot, placing the California Army National Guard and federal troops under the newly formed Joint Task Force Los Angeles (JTF-LA). The deployment of federal troops was not ready until Saturday, by which time the rioting and looting were under control.
Meanwhile, the 40th Infantry Division (doubled to 4,000 troops) of the California Army National Guard continued to move into the city in Humvees; eventually 10,000 Army National Guard troops were activated. That same day, 1,000 federal tactical officers from different agencies across California were dispatched to L.A. to protect federal facilities and assist local police. This was the first federal law enforcement response to a civil disorder in any U.S. city since the Ole Miss riot of 1962. Later that evening, Bush addressed the country, denouncing “random terror and lawlessness”. He summarized his discussions with Mayor Bradley and Governor Wilson, and outlined the federal assistance he was making available to local authorities. Citing the “urgent need to restore order”, he warned that the “brutality of a mob” would not be tolerated, and he would “use whatever force is necessary”. He referred to the Rodney King case, describing talking to his own grandchildren and noting the actions of “good and decent policemen” as well as civil rights leaders. He said he had directed the Justice Department to investigate the King case, and that “grand jury action is underway today”, and justice would prevail. The Post Office announced that it was unsafe for their couriers to deliver mail. The public were instructed to pick up their mail at the main Post Office. The lines were approximately 40 blocks long, and the California National Guard were diverted to that location to ensure peace.
By this point, many entertainment and sports events were postponed or canceled. The Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Portland Trail Blazers in an NBA playoff basketball game on the night the rioting started, but the following game was postponed until Sunday and moved to Las Vegas. The Los Angeles Clippers moved a playoff game against the Utah Jazz to nearby Anaheim. In baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers postponed games for four straight days from Thursday to Sunday, including a whole three-game series against the Montreal Expos; all were made up as part of doubleheaders in July. In San Francisco, a city curfew due to unrest forced the postponement of a May 1, San Francisco Giants home game against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The horse racing venues Hollywood Park Racetrack and Los Alamitos Race Course were also shut down. L.A. Fiesta Broadway, a major event in the Latino community, was canceled. In music, Van Halen canceled two concert shows in Inglewood on Saturday and Sunday. Metallica and Guns N’ Roses moved their concert to the Rose Bowl as the Coliseum and its surrounding neighborhood were still damaged. Michael Bolton canceled his scheduled performance at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday. The World Wrestling Federation canceled events on Friday and Saturday in the cities of Long Beach and Fresno.
Day 4 – Saturday, May 2
On the fourth day, 3,500 federal troops — 2,000 soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division from Fort Ord and 1,500 Marines of the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton — arrived to reinforce the National Guardsmen already in the city. The Marine Corps contingent included the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, commanded by John F. Kelly. It was the first significant military occupation of Los Angeles by federal troops since the 1894 Pullman Strike, and also the first federal military intervention in an American city to quell a civil disorder since the 1968 King assassination riots.
These federal military forces took 24 hours to deploy to Huntington Park, about the same time it took for the National Guardsmen. This brought total troop strength to 13,500, making L.A. the largest military occupation of any U.S. city since the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots. Federal troops joined National Guardsmen to directly support local police in restoring order; the combined force contributed significantly to containing and stopping the violence. With most of the violence under control, 30,000 people attended an 11 a.m. peace rally in Koreatown to support local merchants and racial healing.
Day 5 – Sunday, May 3
Mayor Bradley assured the public that the crisis was, more or less, under control as areas became quiet. Later that night, Army National Guardsmen shot and killed a motorist who tried to run them over at a barrier.
In another incident, the LAPD and Marines intervened in a domestic dispute in Compton, in which the suspect held his wife and children hostage. As the officers approached, the suspect fired two shotgun rounds through the door, injuring some of the officers. One of the officers yelled to the Marines, “Cover me,” as per law enforcement training to be prepared to fire if necessary. However, per their military training, the Marines mistook the wording as providing cover by establishing a base of firepower, resulting in a total of 200 rounds being sprayed into the house. Remarkably, neither the suspect nor the woman and children inside the house were harmed.
Although Mayor Bradley lifted the curfew, signaling the official end of the riots, sporadic violence and crime continued for a few days afterward. Schools, banks, and businesses reopened. Federal troops did not stand down until May 9. The Army National Guard remained until May 14. Some National Guardsmen remained as late as May 27.
Many Korean Americans in Los Angeles refer to the event as Sa-I-Gu, meaning “four-two-nine” in the Korean language (4.29), in reference to April 29, 1992, which was the day the riots started. Over 2,300 mom-and-pop shops run by Korean business owners were damaged through ransacking and looting during the riots, sustaining close to $400 million in damages.
During the riots, Korean Americans received very little aid or protection from police authorities, due to their low social status and language barriers. Many Koreans rushed to Koreatown after Korean-language radio stations called for volunteers to guard against rioters. Many were armed, with a variety of improvised weapons, handguns, shotguns, and semi-automatic rifles.
David Joo, a manager of the gun store, said, “I want to make it clear that we didn’t open fire first. At that time, four police cars were there. Somebody started to shoot at us. The LAPD ran away in half a second. I never saw such a fast escape. I was pretty disappointed.” Carl Rhyu, also a participant in the Koreans’ armed response, said, “If it was your own business and your own property, would you be willing to trust it to someone else? We are glad the National Guard is here. They’re good backup. But when our shops were burning we called the police every five minutes; no response.” At a shopping center several miles north of Koreatown, Jay Rhee, who said he and others fired five hundred shots into the ground and air, said, “We have lost our faith in the police. Where were you when we needed you?” Koreatown was isolated from South Central Los Angeles, yet despite this, it was the most severely damaged in the riots.
Television coverage of two Korean merchants firing pistols repeatedly at roving looters was widely seen and controversial. The New York Times said: “that the image seemed to speak of race war, and of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands.” The merchants were reacting to the shooting of Mr. Park’s wife and her sister by looters who had converged on the shopping center where the shops were located.
The riots have been considered a major turning point in the development of a distinct Korean American identity and community. Korean Americans responded in various ways, including the development of new ethnic agendas and organization and increased political activism.
One of the largest armed camps in Los Angeles’s Koreatown was at the California Market. On the first night after the officers’ verdicts were returned, Richard Rhee, the market owner, set up camp in the parking lot with about 20 armed employees. One year after the riots, fewer than one in four damaged or destroyed businesses had reopened, according to the survey conducted by the Korean-American Inter-Agency Council. According to a Los Angeles Times survey conducted eleven months after the riots, almost 40 percent of Korean Americans said they were thinking of leaving Los Angeles.
Before a verdict was issued in the new 1993 Rodney King federal civil rights trial against the four officers, Korean shop owners prepared for the worst. Gun sales went up, many to persons of Korean descent; some merchants at flea markets removed merchandise from shelves, and they fortified storefronts with extra Plexiglas and bars. Throughout the region, merchants readied to defend themselves. College student Elizabeth Hwang spoke of the attacks on her parents’ convenience store in 1992. She said at the time of the 1993 trial, they had been armed with a Glock 17 pistol, a Beretta, and a shotgun, and they planned to barricade themselves in their store to fight off looters.
Some Koreans formed armed militia groups following the 1992 riots. Speaking just prior to the 1993 verdict, Yong Kim, leader of the Korea Young Adult Team of Los Angeles, which purchased five AK-47s, said “We made a mistake last year. This time we won’t. I don’t know why Koreans are always a special target for African-Americans, but if they are going to attack our community, then we are going to pay them back.”
Korean Americans not only faced physical damage to their stores and community surroundings, but they also suffered emotional, psychological, and economic despair. About 2,300 Korean-owned stores in southern California were looted or burned, making up 45 percent of all damages caused by the riot. According to the Asian and Pacific American Counseling and Prevention Center, 730 Koreans were treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, which included symptoms such as insomnia, a sense of helplessness, and muscle pain. In reaction, many Korean Americans worked to create political and social empowerment.
As a result of the L.A. riots, Korean Americans formed activist organizations such as the Association of Korean-American Victims and built collaborative links with other ethnic groups through groups like the Korean American Coalition. A week after the riots, in the largest Asian-American protest ever held in a city, about 30,000 mostly-Korean and Korean-American marchers walked the streets of L.A. Koreatown, calling for peace and denouncing police violence. This cultural movement was devoted to the protection of Koreans’ political rights, ethnic heritage, and political representation. New leaders arose within the community, and second-generation children spoke on behalf of the community. Korean Americans began to have different occupation goals, from storeowners to political leaders. Korean Americans worked to gain governmental aid to rebuild their damaged neighborhoods. Countless community and advocacy groups have been established to further fuel Korean political representation and understanding. After suffering from isolation, they worked to gain new understanding and connections. The representative voice that was created remains present in South Central Los Angeles, as such events as the riots contributed to the shaping of identities, perceptions and political and social representation.
Edward Taehan Chang, a professor of ethnic studies and founding director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside, has identified the LA riots as a turning point for the development of a Korean American identity separate from that of Korean immigrants and that was more politically active. “What was an immigrant Korean identity began to shift. The Korean-American identity was born … They learned a valuable lesson that we have to become much more engaged and politically involved and that political empowerment is very much part of the Korean-American future.”
According to Edward Park, the 1992 violence stimulated a new wave of political activism among Korean-Americans, but it also split them into two camps. The liberals sought to unite with other minorities in Los Angeles to fight against racial oppression and scapegoating. The conservatives emphasized law and order and generally favored the economic and social policies of the Republican Party. The conservatives tended to emphasize the differences between Koreans and other minorities, specifically African Americans.
According to a report prepared in 1993 by the Latinos Futures Research Group for the Latino Coalition for a New Los Angeles, one third of those who were killed and one half of those who were arrested in the riots were Latino; moreover, between 20% and 40% of the businesses that were looted were owned by Latino owners. Hispanics were considered a minority despite their increasing numbers, and thus lacked political support and were poorly represented. Their lack of representation, both socially and politically, within the area additionally silenced their acknowledgment of participation. Many of the individuals of the area were new immigrants; they often did not speak English.
Gloria Alvarez claims the riots did not create social distance between Hispanics and black people but rather united them. Although the riots were perceived in different aspects, Alvarez argues it brought a greater sense of understanding between Hispanics and blacks. Even though Hispanics now heavily populate the area that was once predominantly black, such transition has improved over time. The building of a stronger and more understanding community could help to prevent social chaos arising between the two groups. Hate crimes and widespread violence between the two groups continue to be a problem in the L.A. area, however.
Almost as soon as the disturbances broke out in South Central, local television news cameras were on the scene to record the events as they happened. Television coverage of the riots was near continuous, starting with the beating of motorists at the intersection of Florence and Normandie broadcast live by television news pilot and reporter Bob Tur and his camera operator Marika Gerrard.
In part because of extensive media coverage of the Los Angeles riots, smaller but similar riots and other anti-police actions took place in other cities throughout the United States. The Emergency Broadcast System was also utilized during the rioting.
Coverage came from the American media, which gave an extensive portrayal of the riots, Korean-American media, and Korea itself. One of the most prominent sources for news about the coverage came from the Korea Times, a Korean-American newspaper run entirely independently from American newspapers, such as The New York Times.
Articles presented from the Korean-American side stated that “Korean American merchants were apparently targeted by looters during the LA. Riots, according to the FBI official who directed federal law enforcement efforts during the disturbance.” The Korean American newspaper focused on the 1992 riots with Korean Americans being the center of the violence. Initial articles from late April and early May were about the stories depicting victims’ lives and the damage done to the LA Korean Community. Interviews with Koreatown merchants, such as Chung Lee, drew sympathy from its readers. Chung Lee, the model example of good merchant watched, helplessly, as his store was burned down. “I worked hard for that store. Now I have nothing,” said Lee.
While several articles included the minorities involved when citing damages or naming victims, few actually incorporated them as a significant part of the struggle.
One story framed the race riots as occurring at a “time when the wrath of blacks was focused on whites.” They acknowledged the fact that racism and stereotyped views contributed to the riots; articles in American newspapers portrayed the LA riots as an incident that erupted between black and white people who were struggling to coexist with each other, rather than include all of the minority groups that were involved in the riots.
Korean-Americans and their stores throughout LA’s Korea town were hit the hardest by the riots, with an estimated $400 million done in damages. Despite claims that Koreatown had not been intentionally targeted during the riots, by Sunday, over 1,600 Korean-American owned stores had been completely destroyed.
A major criticism of the mainstream media’s coverage of the riots was its pitting of Koreans and blacks against one another and its framing of the LA riots as having been caused by a black-Korean conflict. As filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, who created the 1993 documentary “Sa-I-Gu”, described, “Black-Korean conflict was one symptom, but it was certainly not the cause of that riot. The cause of that riot was black-white conflict that existed in this country from the establishment of this country.”
After the riots subsided, an inquiry was commissioned by the city Police Commission, led by William H. Webster (special advisor), and Hubert Williams (deputy special advisor, president of the Police Foundation). The findings of the inquiry, The City in Crisis: A Report by the Special Advisor to the Board of Police Commissioners on the Civil Disorder in Los Angeles, also colloquially known as the Webster Report or Webster Commission, was released on October 21, 1992.
LAPD chief of police Daryl Gates, who had seen his successor Willie L. Williams named by the Police Commission days before the riots, was forced to resign on June 28, 1992. Some areas of the city saw temporary truces between the rival gangs the Crips and the Bloods, which fueled speculation among LAPD officers that the truce was going to be used to unite them against the department.
Scholars and writers
In addition to the catalyst of the verdicts in the excessive force trial, various other factors have been cited as causes of the unrest. In the years preceding the riots, several other highly controversial incidents involving alleged police brutality or other perceived injustices against minorities had been criticized by activists and investigated by media. Thirteen days after the beating of King was widely broadcast, African Americans were outraged when Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, was killed by a Korean-American shopkeeper in the course of an ostensible shoplifting incident. Soon Ja Du was sentenced to five years’ probation and 400 hours of community service but no jail time.
Rioters targeted Korean-American shops in their areas, as there had been considerable tension between the two communities. Such sources as Newsweek and Time suggested that blacks thought Korean-American merchants were “taking money out of their community”, that they were racist as they refused to hire blacks, and often treated them without respect. There were cultural and language differences, as some shopowners were immigrants.
There were other factors for social tensions: high rates of poverty and unemployment among the residents of South Central Los Angeles, which had been deeply affected by the nationwide recession. Articles in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times linked the economic deterioration of South Central to the declining living conditions of the residents, and reported that local resentments about these conditions helped to fuel the riots. Other scholars compare these riots to those in Detroit in the 1920s, when whites rioted against blacks.But instead of African-Americans as victims, the race riots “represent backlash violence in response to recent Latino and Asian immigration into African-American neighborhoods.”
Social commentator Mike Davis pointed to the growing economic disparity in Los Angeles, caused by corporate restructuring and government deregulation, with inner city residents bearing the brunt of such changes. Such conditions engendered a widespread feeling of frustration and powerlessness in the urban populace. They reacted to the King verdicts with a violent expression of collective public protest. To Davis and other writers, the tensions between African-Americans and Korean-Americans had as much to do with the economic competition between the two groups caused by wider market forces as with cultural misunderstandings and Black anger about the killing of Latasha Harlins.
Davis noted that the 1992 Los Angeles Riots are still remembered over 20 years later, and yet not many changes have occurred. Conditions of economic inequality, lack of jobs available for Black and Latino youth, and civil liberty violations by law enforcement have remained largely unaddressed years later. Davis dubbed this a “conspiracy of silence”, especially with claims made by the Los Angeles Police Department that they would make reforms coming to little fruition. Davis also argued that the rioting was different than in the 1965 Watts Riots, which had been more unified among all minorities living in Watts and South Central. The 1992 riots, on the other hand, were characterized by divided uproars that defied description of a simple uprising of Black against White, and involved the destruction and looting of many businesses owned by racial minorities.
A Special Committee of the California Legislature also studied the riots, producing a report entitled To Rebuild is Not Enough. The Committee concluded that the inner city conditions of poverty, racial segregation, lack of educational and employment opportunities, police abuse and unequal consumer services created the underlying causes of the riots. It also noted that the decline of industrial jobs in the American economy and the growing ethnic diversity of Los Angeles had contributed to urban problems. Another official report, The City in Crisis, was initiated by the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners; it made many of the same observations as the Assembly Special Committee about the growth of popular urban dissatisfaction. In their study Farrell and Johnson found similar factors, which included the diversification of the L.A. population, tension between the successful Korean businesses and other minorities, use of excessive force on minorities by LAPD, and the effect of laissez-faire business on urban employment opportunities.
Rioters were believed to have been motivated by racial tensions but these are considered one of numerous factors. Urban sociologist Joel Kotkin said, “This wasn’t a race riot, it was a class riot.” Many ethnic groups participated in rioting, not only African Americans. Newsweek reported that “Hispanics and even some whites; men, women and children mingled with African-Americans.” “When residents who lived near Florence and Normandie were asked why they believed riots had occurred in their neighborhoods, they responded of the perceived racist attitudes they had felt throughout their lifetime and empathized with the bitterness the rioters felt. Residents who had respectable jobs, homes, and material items still felt like second class citizens. A poll by Newsweek asked whether black people charged with crimes were treated more harshly or more leniently than other ethnicities; 75% of black people responded “more harshly”, versus 46% of white people.
In his public statements during the riots, Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader, sympathized with the anger of African-Americans about the verdicts in the King trial, and noted root causes of the disturbances. He repeatedly emphasized the continuing patterns of racism, police brutality, and economic despair suffered by inner city residents.
Several prominent writers expressed a similar “culture of poverty” argument. Writers in Newsweek, for example, drew a distinction between the actions of the rioters in 1992 with those of the urban upheavals in the 1960s, arguing that “[w]here the looting at Watts had been desperate, angry, mean, the mood this time was closer to a manic fiesta, a TV game show with every looter a winner.”
According to a 2019 study in the American Political Science Review found that the riots caused a liberal shift, both in the short-term and long-term, politically.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton said that the violence resulted from the breakdown of economic opportunities and social institutions in the inner city. He also berated both major political parties for failing to address urban issues, especially the Republican Administration for its presiding over “more than a decade of urban decay” generated by their spending cuts. He also maintained that the King verdicts could not be avenged by the “savage behavior” of “lawless vandals” and stated that people “are looting because … [t]hey do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.” While Los Angeles was mostly unaffected by the urban decay the other metropolitan areas of the nation faced since the 1960s, racial tensions had been present since the late 1970s, becoming increasingly violent as the 1980s progressed.
Democrat Maxine Waters, the African-American Congressional representative of South Central Los Angeles, said that the events in L.A. constituted a “rebellion” or “insurrection”, caused by the underlying reality of poverty and despair existing in the inner city. This state of affairs, she asserted, were brought about by a government that had all but abandoned the poor and failed to help compensate for the loss of local jobs, and by the institutional discrimination encountered by racial minorities, especially at the hands of the police and financial institutions.
Conversely, President Bush argued that the unrest was “purely criminal”. Though he acknowledged that the King verdicts were plainly unjust, he said that “we simply cannot condone violence as a way of changing the system … Mob brutality, the total loss of respect for human life was sickeningly sad … What we saw last night and the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It’s not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple.”
Vice President Dan Quayle blamed the violence on a “Poverty of Values” – “I believe the lawless social anarchy which we saw is directly related to the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society” Similarly, the White House Press Secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, alleged that “many of the root problems that have resulted in inner city difficulties were started in the ’60s and ’70s and … they have failed … [N]ow we are paying the price.”
Writers for former Congressman Ron Paul framed the riots in similar terms in the June 1992 edition of the Ron Paul Political Newsletter, billed as a special issue focusing on “racial terrorism.” “Order was only restored in LA”, the newsletter read, “when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began … What if the checks had never arrived? No doubt the blacks would have fully privatized the welfare state through continued looting. But they were paid off and the violence subsided.”
In the aftermath of the riots, public pressure mounted for a retrial of the officers. Federal charges of civil rights violations were brought against them. As the first anniversary of the acquittal neared, the city tensely awaited the decision of the federal jury.
The decision was read in a court session on Saturday, April 17, 1993 at 7 a.m. Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon were found guilty, while officers Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind were acquitted. Mindful of criticism of sensationalist reporting after the first trial and during the riots, media outlets opted for more sober coverage. Police were fully mobilized with officers on 12 hour shifts, convoy patrols, scout helicopters, street barricades, tactical command centers, and support from the Army National Guard, the active duty Army and the Marines.
All four of these officers have since quit or have been fired from the LAPD. Briseno left the LAPD after being acquitted on both state and federal charges. Wind, who was also twice acquitted, was fired after the appointment of Willie L. Williams as Chief of Police and both Briseno and Wind have since left California earlier in this century. Chief Williams’ tenure was short lived to just one term. The Los Angeles Police Commission declined to renew his contract, citing Williams’ failure to fulfill his mandate to create meaningful change in the department.
Susan Clemmer, an officer who gave a crucial testimony for the defense during the first trial of the officers, died by suicide in July 2009 in the lobby of a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station. She had ridden in the ambulance with King and testified that he was laughing and spat blood on her uniform. She had remained in law enforcement and was a Sheriff’s Detective at the time of her death.
Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in damages from the City of Los Angeles. He invested most of this money in founding a hip-hop record label, “Straight Alta-Pazz Records”. The venture was unable to garner success and soon folded. King was later arrested at least eleven times on a variety of charges, including domestic abuse and hit and run. King and his family moved from Los Angeles to San Bernardino County’s Rialto suburb in an attempt to escape the fame and notoriety and begin a new life.
King and his family later returned to Los Angeles, where they ran a family owned construction company. Until his death on June 17, 2012, King rarely discussed the night of his beating by police or its aftermath, preferring to remain out of the spotlight. King died of an accidental drowning; authorities said that he had alcohol and drugs in his body. Renee Campbell, his most recent attorney, described King as ” … simply a very nice man caught in a very unfortunate situation.”
On May 3, 1992, in view of the very large number of persons arrested during the riots, the California Supreme Court extended the deadline to charge defendants from 48 hours to 96 hours. That day, 6,345 people were arrested. Nearly one third of the rioters arrested were released because police officers were unable to identify individuals in the sheer volume of the crowd. In one case, officers arrested around 40 people stealing from one store; while they were identifying them, a group of another 12 looters were brought in. With the groups mingled, charges could not be brought against individuals for stealing from specific stores, and the police had to release them all.
In the weeks after the rioting, more than 11,000 people were arrested. Many of the looters in black communities were turned in by their neighbors, who were angry about the destruction of businesses who employed locals and providing basic needs such as groceries. Many of the looters, fearful of prosecution by law enforcement and condemnation from their neighbors, ended up placing looted items curbside in other neighborhoods to get rid of them.
Rebuilding Los Angeles
After three days of arson and looting some 3,767 buildings were affected and damaged. and property damage was estimated at more than $1 billion. Donations were given to help with food and medicine. The office of State Senator Diane E. Watson provided shovels and brooms to volunteers from all over the community who helped clean. Thirteen thousand police and military personnel were on patrol, protecting intact gas stations and food stores; they reopened along with other businesses areas such as the Universal Studios tour, dance halls, and bars. Many organizations stepped forward to rebuild Los Angeles; South Central’s Operation Hope and Koreatown’s Saigu and KCCD (Korean Churches for Community Development), all raised millions to repair destruction and improve economic development. Singer Michael Jackson “donated $1.25 million to start a health counseling service for inner-city kids”. President George H.W. Bush signed a declaration of disaster; it activated Federal relief efforts for the victims of looting and arson, which included grants and low-cost loans to cover their property losses. The Rebuild LA program promised $6 billion in private investment to create 74,000 jobs.
The majority of the local stores were never rebuilt. Store owners had difficulty getting loans; myths about the city or at least certain neighborhoods of it arose discouraging investment and preventing growth of employment. Few of the rebuilding plans were implemented, and business investors and some community members rejected South L.A.
Many Los Angeles residents bought weapons for self-defense against further violence. The 10-day waiting period in California law stymied those who wanted to purchase firearms while the riot was going on.
In a survey of local residents in 2010, 77 percent felt that the economic situation in Los Angeles had significantly worsened since 1992. From 1992–2007, the black population dropped by 123,000, while the Latino population grew more than 450,000. According to the Los Angeles police statistics, violent crime fell by 76 percent between 1992 and 2010, which was a period of declining crime across the country. It was accompanied by lessening tensions between racial groups. In 2012, sixty percent of residents reported racial tension had improved in the past 20 years, and the majority said gang activity had decreased.
Simultaneous 1992 riots:
Previous Los Angeles riots:
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