Los Angeles Riots (1992)

The Los Angeles riots of April 1992 are considered among the most violent, deadly and destructive in United States history. The riots began after a predominantly white jury acquitted four white police officers of charges of police brutality against a black motorist named Rodney King. The officers had been videotaped surrounding King and beating his wrists, knees, elbows and ankles with their batons, as he lay handcuffed and defenseless on the ground. The officers also fired tasers at King.

The incident began in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, when two officers from the California Highway Patrol observed King's car speeding along a road in northeastern Los Angeles. Two other black males were also in the car, which officers reported was traveling at 110 miles per hour. The officers signaled for King to stop, but he allegedly continued to drive, trying to evade his pursuers. A short time later, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) units joined in the chase. King finally stopped at an intersection, where a local resident caught the beating on videotape.

After the not-guilty verdict was announced, disturbances erupted in two black neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles. The disturbances quickly escalated into three days of full-scale riots. The violence spread throughout an area measuring just less than 60 square miles. The riots were marked by arson, mob violence and looting. Looters targeted retail stores, convenience stores, discount houses and supermarkets. A disproportionate number of the victimized shop owners were Korean.

Rioters began throwing stones and broken concrete at light-skinned motorists. A news helicopter filmed one beating, in which a white truck driver was pulled from the cab of his vehicle and severely beaten. One of the assailants stuck the truck driver in the head with a piece of concrete, nearly killing him. Several black bystanders rescued the driver and drove him to the hospital in his own truck.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared a state of emergency. The chief of the LAPD, who was at a personal social event at the time the riots erupted, was slow to respond and the department as a whole was unprepared and ill equipped to handle the riot. In some instances, the rioters, many carrying firearms, outnumbered police officers. The police lost control over much of the city, prompting the mayor to impose a dawn-to-dusk curfew the day after the riots began.

The LAPD's inability to control the riot forced California Governor Wilson to activate 2,000 National Guard reservists. Nearly 14,000 law enforcement personnel were brought in from outside the city in order to restore order.

The riots were attributed to several factors. These included the high rate of unemployment among inner-city black teens, the violence of inner-city neighborhoods, a history of police and judicial injustice toward blacks, and demographic changes in the South Central area of Los Angeles that resulted in inter-ethnic conflict between blacks and immigrant Hispanics and Asians. On the other hand, Hispanics joined with blacks in the looting and accounted for over half of those arrested. About 80 percent of those detained by police were young adults between the ages of 18 and 34, 60 percent were high school dropouts and two thirds were unemployed.

More than 50 people lost their lives in the riots and over 2,000 were injured. More than 16,000 people were arrested and 694 were eventually convicted of riot-related felonies. The rioters set about 3,600 fires, which destroyed 1,100 buildings. Damage from the riots was estimated at close to $1 billion.

One year after the riot, the Los Angeles political environment began to change when voters elected Richard Riordan, a conservative Republican, mayor. Willie Williams, a former Philadelphia police official, replaced white police chief Daryl Gates. Moreover, the LAPD's poor performance in handling the riots led to drastic changes in the way the department trained recruits for crowd control and riot control operations.

The police academy began to incorporate diversity training in its curriculum. A program was established to sends LAPD officers to Guadalajara, Mexico, to improve their Spanish and learn more about Hispanic culture. The LAPD, which had long been accused of racism, began to be perceived as a department with an exemplary program of diversity training.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Los Angeles Riots: Lessons for the Urban Future
Mark Baldassare.
Westview Press, 1994
Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots
Nancy Abelmann; John Lie.
Harvard University Press, 1995
Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD
Lou Cannon.
Westview Press, 1999
Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King
Ronald N. Jacobs.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Rodney King 1992"
No Fire Next Time: Black-Korean Conflicts and the Future of America's Cities
Patrick D. Joyce.
Cornell University Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Los Angeles: Fire Without Smoke"
Trial and Error: Learning from L.A.'S Riot
Biggs, Michael.
Security Management, Vol. 36, No. 10, October 1992
A Fire in a Crowded Theatre: Anna Deavere Smith Relives the Los Angeles Riots
Stayton, Richard.
American Theatre, Vol. 10, No. 7-8, July-August 1993
L.A. Times Coverage of Korean Americans before, after 1992 Riots
Ban, Hyun; Adams, R. C.
Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 18, No. 3-4, Summer-Fall 1997
(Mis)interpretations and (In)justice: The 1992 Los Angeles "Riots" and "Black-Korean Conflict"
Cheung, King-Kok.
MELUS, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall 2005
Home Is Where the 'Han' Is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals
Kim, Elaine H.
Social Justice, Vol. 20, No. 1-2, Spring-Summer 1993
Orgy of Looking: The Construction of the L.A. Rebellion in the British Press
Bate, David.
Afterimage, Vol. 22, No. 3, October 1994
The Poverty of Corporatism; Los Angeles - a Year after (I)
Mann, Eric.
The Nation, Vol. 256, No. 12, March 29, 1993
Los Angeles - a Year after (II); the Left and the City's Future
Mann, Eric.
The Nation, Vol. 256, No. 17, May 3, 1993
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