Mapping Narratives: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots as a Case Study for Narrative-Based Geovisualization

Article excerpt

In this paper, I demonstrate that narrative-based geovisualization contributes to a broader understanding of complex social and inherently spatial phenomena, such as riots, when combined with other data. Past spatial scholarship on riots has analyzed point-distribution data representing damaged structures caused by fires and vandalism. Although this approach is insightful, the analysis of damaged structures engages with just one type of many other significant occurrences during a riot. Since riots are a result of human actions, I am interested in representing other significant occurrences through the eyewitness, on-the-ground accounts--or narratives--that reveal individual observations and experiences. Using the 1992 Los Angeles riots as a case study, I combine point-distribution data and narrative data as a complementary, multiple-methods approach to investigate human actions during riots.

Keywords: narrative; geovisualization; qualitative data; multiple-methods; riots; Los Angeles


On 29 April 1992, from Simi Valley, California, the media broadcasted a jury's not-guilty verdicts of the four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers on trial for beating Rodney King. What followed was nearly three days of riots in Los Angeles resulting in at least 42 deaths, more than 700 businesses burned, over 4,300 firearms looted from retail stores, 5,002 people arrested, and approximately one billion dollars in property damage (Webster and Williams 1992a).

In this paper, I demonstrate that the geovisualization (1) of narrative data can lead to a different understanding of complex social and inherently spatial phenomena, such as riots, than quantitative data alone. I begin by covering the relevant literature on riots in Los Angeles, followed by scholars' quantitative spatial analyses using variables such as fatalities, structural fires, and vandalism to examine the 1992 Los Angeles riots. After a brief discussion of my own point-distribution map showing the riots' damaged structures, I advocate for combining complementary narrative data to represent other significant occurrences during the riots in addition to destruction. I then give a brief overview of work by geographers that have combined qualitative-based data with geographic information systems (GIS) and other mapping techniques. As a way to map qualitative data, I present three case studies, each using narratives to represent observations and experiences during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. I close with a discussion on the limitations and challenges I encountered while mapping narratives for this paper.

Riots in Los Angeles

Los Angeles (Figure 1) has endured two destructive riots: the Watts riots in 1965 and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (2) Both riots had multiple fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and widespread property damage extending over dozens of square miles. Following the Watts riots, then Governor Edmund G. Brown appointed a commission of "distinguished Californians" to produce a riot chronology, investigate the causes, and "develop recommendations for action designed to prevent a recurrence of these tragic disorders" (Brown, quoted in McCone 1965, pgs. i, iii, respectively), which drew criticism (see Fogelson 1969). Scholarly work on the Watts riots primarily examined the socioeconomic conditions of Los Angeles's black underclass (Cohen 1970; Sears and McConahay 1973). Additional work includes Home's (1995) general overview, Crump's (1966) pictorial chronology, and Canot's (1967) compilations of government documents, personal interviews, and on-the-street observations.


For the 1992 Los Angeles riots, officials working with the City of Los Angeles produced a comprehensive, two-volume overview, including a chronology of events, responses by law enforcement, and structural damage and arrest analysis (Webster and Williams 1992a, 1992b). Academic work in edited collections represents a range of scholars from the humanities and social sciences (Gooding-Williams 1993; Baldassare 1994). …