By Adam Rosen
Sunday, April 29 marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the grimmest episodes in modern American history. For nearly five days, parts of Los Angeles transformed into a free-for-all where looting, gun battles, and arson proceeded without challenge by the city’s authorities. Only after U.S. President George H.W. Bush commanded 3,000 soldiers to occupy the city was order restored. By that time, 53 people had been killed, an estimated $ 1 billion worth of property had been destroyed, and the tenuous thread that held American race relations together had been all but severed.
The conditions in Los Angeles that led to the riot remain a subject of intense study and debate, but its spark was unmistakable: a not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King police beating trial. A year earlier, King, a black taxi driver, had been assaulted by four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department after leading them on an alcohol-fueled car chase. Despite administering over 50 baton blows and kicks, the officers were found not guilty of using excessive force after a trial of unprecedented national media attention. Perhaps only the trial of ex-football star O.J. Simpson, also a Los Angeles resident, was watched and discussed by more Americans.
The violent encounter might have passed into history like any other event, known to none except King and the police officers at the scene, but for a Los Angelino with a Handycam named George Holliday. Holliday, who lived less than 100 feet from the city’s 210 freeway, was awoken on March 3, 1991 by a swarm of police sirens gathered near his apartment. When he moved to his balcony to make out the cause of the disturbance, he saw King being struck repeatedly. He began recording the fateful event, which continued for several minutes, selling his footage to local TV news station KTLA the next day. The clip was quickly picked up by national media outlets, and began playing nearly nonstop on CNN. Within days the beating of Rodney King became a national trauma.
Despite King’s race, the beating was not initially seen as a racially-motivated assault. Even King’s attorney believed the incident represented the issue of police violence above all else. This changed, however, when it was discovered that one of the four police officers in the video, Laurence Powell, had made racist remarks to a dispatcher on the day of the assault. Immediately, this ugly incident took on an even uglier new dimension.
Although a date to try the officers was set, the venue was moved to nearby Simi Valley after successful petitioning by the defense. Contrary to media reports the jury in Simi Valley included non-whites, but the town, a politically conservative suburb, was thought to be more sympathetic to law enforcement than Los Angeles. Ironically, the very effort to publicize the assault—successful as it was in galvanizing the public against the officers—was perhaps directly responsible for granting the defendants a more receptive jury audience.
Given the new location of the trial, the prosecution was concerned that the jury would not be able to overlook King’s criminal record or his dangerous car chase the night of his assault. Their strategy was to frame the incident around the question of whether or not the officers used excessive force, not whether or not use of force was justifiable. The trial lasted nearly two months, and the jury took a week to deliberate. With dozens of news cameras standing by, the verdict was announced: not guilty.
Condemnation came swiftly and from all across the country. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, seemed to speak for much of the nation when he announced that on April 29, 1992, “the system failed.” Bradley and other city leaders forcefully appealed for calm, but within hours of the verdict the South Central neighborhood was on fire. By the next day the riot had spread to Koreatown, where newly-arrived immigrants and neighborhood residents exchanged gunshots throughout the night. The worst domestic disturbance of the second half of the twentieth century had been unleashed.
Within the past few weeks, reporters have returned to South Central on a mission to find out how the neighborhood has changed since the riots. A New York Times report concludes that the LAPD, once an emblem of police violence and pervasive corruption, has reformed. “Racial tension has also receded, at least on the surface,” says The Guardian. Nevertheless, a few small-scale development projects aside, the poverty that has dogged the neighborhood — now officially referred to as “South Los Angeles” — remains. Regardless of their various findings, all of the reports are in agreement: the shadow of the riots still covers Los Angeles.
Adam Rosen is an editor of the Oxford African American Studies Center. Read more about the Los Angeles Riots and view a photo essay of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots on Oxford African American Studies Center online. The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture. Adam Rosen has previously written about nerds on the OUPblog.