By Scott Zesch
Today is the twentieth anniversary of the most recent Los Angeles race riot. On April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted four police officers charged with severely beating an African-American man named Rodney King. Within hours, protests in south central Los Angeles turned deadly. Outraged residents blocked traffic, attacked motorists, looted shops, and set buildings afire. The riot went on for three days. More than fifty people were killed in the nation’s most destructive episode of civil unrest during the twentieth century.
I was working for a publisher in midtown Manhattan at the time, and we were sent home early amid rumors that similar violence might erupt in New York. A writer friend named Steve Adams, who was living in Los Angeles, told me that he was astounded to see three separate, block-long conflagrations as he drove the 110 Freeway that first night. He was on his way to see a friend who, of all things, had scheduled her wedding the next day.
Los Angeles has a long history of race riots. The earliest one, largely forgotten today, occurred in 1871. It was the first event to place the city in the national spotlight. At that time, Los Angeles was a Wild West town of only 6,000 people. Most people outside of California had never heard of it.
Shortly before sundown on October 24, 1871, a gunfight broke out between members of rival Chinese factions. Angelenos ran to Chinatown to see what was going on. A white rancher discharged his revolver into a Chinese store and was killed by return fire. Within a short time, an angry crowd of about 500 Anglos and Latinos gathered in the streets of Chinatown. As darkness fell, the Chinese were trapped inside their homes and shops. After a three-hour standoff, the mob broke into the Chinese headquarters, seized random victims, and dragged them off to be hanged. Eighteen Chinese men were murdered in this shocking hate crime.
The Chinese massacre, as the tragedy came to be known, was the mirror opposite of the 1992 riot in that the Anglo/Latino majority vented its rage on a minority group. Still, some of the underlying problems were the same. For nearly three years beforehand, the non-Asian citizens of Los Angeles had shrugged off the increasing physical attacks on Chinese residents and the Chinese-bashing in the press. They made a mistake we hope we don’t repeat today: they witnessed injustice but didn’t speak out against it.
In modern Los Angeles, there are no material remnants of the 1871 massacre. The adobe building where the Chinese victims were captured was torn down in 1886. The city’s original Chinatown was essentially destroyed by the construction of Union Station in the 1930s and the Hollywood Freeway in the 1940s. Two of the lynching sites are now occupied by a mall. A third is overshadowed, ironically, by the Hall of Justice and the federal district courthouse. A small plaque in the sidewalk along North Los Angeles Street is all that commemorates the city’s first deadly racial uprising, arguably the most significant single event in Los Angeles’s history during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The day after the Chinese massacre of 1871, a newspaper reported that the people of Los Angeles, “sickened with last night’s horrors, are determined that no stigma of like character shall ever again rest upon us.” It would, of course, not just in 1992 but also in 1965 (the Watts Riot) and 1943 (the Zoot Suit Riots).
One of the most riveting moments of the 1992 episode was when Rodney King went on TV. The young man is remembered for having pleaded with a stunned public while the city burned: “Can’t we all just get along?” Actually, he was widely misquoted. What King really asked was, “Can we all get along?”
There is no easy answer to that question, just as there are no easy lessons to be drawn from any of Los Angeles’s race riots. After researching the Chinese massacre, I concluded: “Recalling the inhuman acts that our fellow human beings inflicted on those eighteen murdered Chinese men in Los Angeles will not prevent the recurrence of racial or ethnic hatred. Still, forgetting what happened in Chinatown that night would further diminish all of us. The very act of remembrance is one way of restoring our blemished humanity.” Today is one of those days for remembering.
Scott Zesch is the author most recently of The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 . He also wrote the historical novel Alamo Heights and the narrative history The Captured, which won the TCU Texas Book Award. His article on Chinese Los Angeles in Southern California Quarterly received the Carl I. Wheat Award. His other articles, one of which won the Western History Association’s Ray Allen Billington Award, have appeared in Southwestern Historical Quarterly, American History Magazine, and Journal of the West. A graduate of Texas A&M University and Harvard Law School, he also served as a Peace Corps teacher in Kenya.