This past weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a violent outburst in response to a more violent system of white supremacy that continues to inflict harm to this day.
The outrage was sparked by the graphic beating of Rodney King by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). King was driving under the influence when police officers attempted to stop him. After a high-speed chase, four officers pulled King from the video and savagely beat him long after he was restrained (History). King was hit with batons over 50 times, kicked, and shot twice with a Taser. He suffered a fractured leg, multiple facial fractures, and numerous bruises and contusions. The officers downplayed the incident in their official report, noting that, during the arrest, King suffered “minor cuts and bruises.”
They were unaware that the graphic video of the attack was recorded by a bystander with a camcorder from a nearby apartment building. The two-minute video he captured clearly showed the attack was unwarranted. The bystander, George Holliday, sold his video to a local news station, which broadcasted it. The footage quickly gained attention worldwide. The attack on Rodney King is considered the first viral video of police brutality and sparked a national conversation on the racial inequities in policing (Time).
• Listen to “Florence and Normandie: 25 Years After the L.A. Riots,” a 30-minute audio segment that interviews include Rodney King’s daughter and his first wife, the aunt of Latasha Harlins, and several community activists on the impact of the L.A. Riots in South Central L.A.
• Watch “A Love Song for Latasha,” a short documentary that celebrates the life of Latasha Harlins.
• Use this toolkit to organize against police abuse in your community.
• Consider: What narratives about the 1992 Los Angeles riots sound similar to conversations about police brutality today?
Two weeks later, another act of violence shattered the South L.A. community. 15-year-old Latasha Harlins went to her local grocer to buy a bottle of orange juice. The clerk, Soon Ja Du, suspected Harlins of stealing and accosted her. After a struggle, she gave the bottle of juice to Du and walked away. But as she did, Du shot her in the back of the head. Harlins was killed instantly. A security camera on location recorded the incident, which clearly showed that Harlins posed no threat to Du when she was shot. In addition, Harlins was clutching two dollars in her hand and clearly intended to pay for it. Later that year, Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. She was ordered to pay a fine and perform community service; sentencing was considered extremely light given the scope of the crime (LA Times). This story did not receive the same level of national attention as the injustice against Rodney King but deeply impacted the South L.A. community.
Months later, LAPD officers and sheriff’s deputies gunned down two young Latino teenagers in two separate incidents, fueling more anti-police sentiment (Time). Then, on April 22, 1992, an appeals court upheld the ruling for the murder of Latasha Harlins (LA Times). On April 29, 1992, a nearly all-white jury acquitted all four officers involved in the beating of King of assault – and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force.
Minutes after the Rodney King trial verdict was announced, tensions erupted. Protestors flooded the streets, looted stores, and attacked motorists. Others rallied around the LAPD headquarters chanting “no justice, no peace” and smashing windows. Over the next three days, over 60 people were killed, over 2,000 were injured, and nearly $1 billion in property was destroyed – an event marked “the most destructive U.S. civil disturbance” in the 20th century (History). Most of the destruction was concentrated in Koreatown, and other sites related to the Rodney King injustice were targeted, too. Curbed has a detailed map outlining the destruction, referencing other comprehensive journalism on the event.
As the scope of the violence grew, the police retreated from areas of conflict and protected the boundaries of wealthy white neighborhoods, leaving Korean business owners to fend for themselves (MTV). The president sent federal officials to intervene and quell the unrest.
Participants in the Los Angeles riots were multiethnic and multiracial. But both the media and law enforcement blamed the tensions on inter-ethnic violence between Black people and Korean people, casting both in a negative light and perpetuating long-held stereotypes of conflict between Black and Asian communities. In addition, the Latine community that joined were labeled as “illegal aliens” and “gang members,” fueling anti-immigrant and racist sentiment and fostering a rise in arrests and deportations (Time). But this was a convenient way to deflect from what was truly responsible. First, the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. Two acts of violence against Black people, each clearly captured on camera, weren’t held to the extent of the law. Video recordings of violence against Black people (particularly by the police) were relatively new at the time. To have proof and still no accountability was maddening, especially considering the decades of abuse that had gone unchecked and un-recorded.
More broadly, mislabeling the Los Angeles riots ignores how white supremacy systemically disenfranchises communities of color and caused the conditions that sparked the riots. Kyeyoung Park, a professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at UCLA, breaks it down:
Park notes that it wasn’t a Korean judge who gave a lenient sentence in the killing of Latasha Williams. It wasn’t a Korean jury that declared the four police officers not guilty in the beating of Rodney King. And it was banks, not Korean grocers, who denied loans to Black businesses so that most businesses in Black communities were owned by outsiders.”Sandhya Dirks, NPR
Despite their notoriety, the Los Angeles riots did little to create comprehensive change in L.A. The head of the LAPD was ousted and replaced with the force’s first Black chief. But broader calls for reform went unheeded, and little funds were invested in rebuilding the impacted communities (Time). And similar patterns were evident nationwide. Although the video of officers beating Rodney King may have been the first to go “viral,” it certainly wasn’t the last. Decades later, we’re still grappling with the injustices of our system and the importance of protecting people of color and their neighborhoods.
• The 1992 Los Angeles riots were sparked by a series of serious injustices inflicted by the criminal justice system against marginalized people.
• The recording of the beating of Rodney King is considered the first viral video of police brutality, and sparked a national conversation on racist policing that persists to this day.
• Despite the outrage, little has changed to address white supremacy in the decades that follow the 1992 riots.