The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

Seminar Paper, 2000

13 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Introduction

2. The Case of Rodney King

3. The Los Angeles Riots
3.1. The Latasha Harlins Tragedy
3.2. The Violence
3.3. Inner City Blues
3.4. Two Nations?

4. The Situation Today
4.1. The O.J. Simpson Case
4.2. Living for the City

5. Summary

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Eight years after the Los Angeles riots, there are several reasons for an inquiry into the April 1992 violence and unrest that occurred after a jury acquitted the four police officers who were accused of using excessive force in the beating of young black male Rodney King. Widely considered to be the worst and most destructive episode of race-related violence in the United States in the 20th century, the riots highlight the problems all major U.S. cities are facing. There are three factors which I believe are the defining characteristics of the Los Angeles riots. First, the living conditions of poor, urban blacks have not improved significantly in the last decades. Next, racial tensions between blacks and whites remain high, due to both personal prejudice and institutional racism. Third, the increased foreign immigration and the resulting wider cultural diversity are leading to inter-ethnic hostilities.

This study tries to explain what happened, why it happened and what can be learned from one of the most frightening events in U.S. history.

In many respects, the 1992 riots resemble similiar events of collective violence that took place in Detroit, Washington, D.C., and other large cities in the 1960s. In all of these earlier racial disturbances, including the 1965 Watts riots[[1]], the violence was triggered by a conflict between a member of a minority communitiy and the justice system, the violence was initiated by local residents within the minority community, and the looting and burning of businesses were the major forms of property crime. Plus, most people killed in the clashes were black.

Interestingly, most residents and experts were surprised by the intensity and force of the 1992 uprising. Despite the obvious problems in the urban black communities, almost everyone had been convinced that the days of violent race conflicts of such epic proportions belonged to the past.

They were completely wrong ...

2. The Case of Rodney King

An eighty-one second video tape, captured by a concerned citizen, sparked the controversy that would eventually lead to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The tape shows four Los Angeles police officers, Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno, as they brutally beat and arrest black Rodney Glen King while 19 others stand by and do nothing. On March 4, 1991, only one day after he had filmed the event from his appartment across the street, George Holiday delivered the tape to a local television station. It was broadcast around the world, focusing attention on racism in general, and the Los Angeles Police Department in particular.

"The Rodney King Beating Verdicts" by Hiroshi Fukurai, Richard Krooth, and Edgar W.

Butler[[2]] gives a detailed report on what happened that night. The incident began shortly past midnight on Sunday morning, March 3, 1991. Rodney King, accompanied by two black male passengers (both of whom later died in an unrelated car crash), was speeding with his white Hyundai in the Pacoima area of the northeastern San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. After his car was signaled to stop by a police car, King failed to stop. He was then pursuited by several police cars before finally coming to a stop. Sergeant Koon later admitted that he had ordered fellow police men Powell and Wind to hit King with power strokes. One of King`s passengers was also injured. He received treatment at Huntington Memorial Hospital the next morning. King, who had been taken to Pacifica Hospital for initial treatment, was held for three days and then released after prosecuters determined there was no sufficient evidence to prosecute him.

According to transcripts of the incident both Powell and Wind bragged about their brutality, claiming they had not beaten anyone that bad in a long time. The day the beating took place King`s brother, Paul, complained to the police about how they had treated his brother but was not taken seriously. Neither did the police take interest into a call by George Holiday, who then saw himself forced to go public with the tape, which was televised around the world and caused shock and anger everywhere, though nowhere as much as in the black community.

Many African Americans have always believed that institutional racism exists and now they had confirmation on tape. As if the incident itself wasn`t bad enough, things from then on got worse. The four men responsible for the beating were charged with assault among other crimes related to the incident but the other 19 (among them two blacks and four Hispanics) who stood by and watched were not indicted. On March 14, the officers pled not guilty to all charges. On May 1st, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed a comission headed by Warren Christopher, who had previously been part of the McCone Commision (1965 Watts riots) and who would later serve under the Clinton administration. The Christopher Commision was to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.). The comission released its report on July 9, 1991. It documents the systematic use of excessive force by a relatively small number of officers, who all went unpunished. It calls for structural reforms of the L.A.P.D. and the resignation of Police Chef Daryl Gates, who a couple of days later announced he would retire in 1992. Mayor Bradley announced that Willie Williams, a black man from Philadelphia, was to succeed Gates in office.

After the black Judge Kamins had been replaced with white Judge Weisberg, the trial of the four officers was moved to the conservative Ventura County, whose population was almost entirely white. Thus, the jury comprised of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian. If the trial had taken place in the Central Superior Court District in Los Angeles, greater representation of members of ethnic minorities could have been ensured because 63 percent of city residents are not white. Apparently, jurors were convinced by the defense attorneys, because they returned from deliberations with not-guilty verdicts on all charges with the exception of one count against Powell, where the jury was hung. The only sceptic juror was the Hispanic. If it was racism on the part of the jurors or not, it cannot be denied that the "responsibility for this verdict falls on the jury. Frankly, the people in Simi Valley worship the police", said Los Angeles Loyola Law School Professor Laurie L. Levenson[3]. Strong reactions to the more than unfortunate verdicts had been anticipated but no one was able to predict the violent storm that was about to unfold in the City of Angels.3. The Los Angeles Riots While there is no doubt that the Rodney King verdict was the initial cause for the violence to erupt, there were other controversial events leading up to the civil unrest, among them the murder of Latasha Harlins. Another chapter later in the study will focus on social, ethnic and economic problems, which prepared the ground for this uprising.

3.1. The Latasha Harlins Tragedy

When the Los Angeles riots erupted, a lot of the violence was targeted against Korean Americans. Relations between Asians and African Americans had already been tense for some time, but the shooting of a young black woman by a Korean store owner caused additional hatred.

On March 16, 1991 in South Central Los Angeles, Soon Ja Do shot and killed thirteen year- old African American girl, Latasha Harlins, in a dispute over a container of orange juice worth $ 1.97. The shooting was taped on video. The media took this new case to illustrate the long-standing animosity between the two races. Blacks objected to the large number of Korean American stores in their neighborhoods[4] and complained of having worse living conditions and opportunities than the Asians. Indeed, Korean Americans in Los Angeles have a far higher income then blacks and the unemployment rate among their people is much lower.

Although originally charged with murder, Soon Ja Do is only convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years probation, four hundred hours of community service, and a five hundred dollar fine. She had faced eleven years in prison.

Viewed as a history of mistreatment of black customers, the Harlins shooting and the killing of Lee Arthur Mitchell in John`s Liquor Store lead to occasional and, later, organized boycotts of Korean American stores in 1991. There were protesters with signs that read, "GET OUT OF OUR COMMUNITY!"[5], and Los Angeles based rapper Ice Cube had a hit with the anti-Korean song "Black Korea"[6] (1991).

3.2. The Violence

In response to the Rodney King verdict on April 29, 1992, numerous citizens of the predominantly black Southeast and Southcentral area of Los Angeles decided to take the law into their own hands. Unwilling to wait any longer for justice, they took to the streets and burned down the neighborhoods. Television pictures showed a deadly outburst of arson and shooting. The air filled with smoke, Los Angeles was barely able to breathe. Police forces were apparently caught by surprise and did not react in time to stop the violence. Police Chief Gates attended a fund-raising dinner.

That night, at least 140 fires were set in the Southeast and Southcentral parts of the city.

Firefighters fighting the blazes were shot from rooftops surrounding the fire scenes. The police evacuated the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles, which was a tinder box for the riots and rebellion. Reginald Denny, a white man, whose case got famous, was being pulled from his truck and beaten. Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant, was beaten near the same intersection as were others.

During the next two days the violence spread from Southcentral Los Angeles to Downtown, to Pasadena, to Hollywood, and to Koreatown. Reports of rioting also were received from other large cities, including New York City and San Francisco. The situation was described as being out of control.

A curfew was imposed by Mayor Bradley, schools were closed and the Bank of America brought its money to safer locations. Los Angeles was in a state of emergency as thousands of men from the National Guard entered the city to support the local police. President Bush called for an end to the senseless violence and destruction.

By the time the riots were over three days later, at least 53 people had been killed, hundreds were injured and about 1,000 buildings burned down to the ground. 5,000 people had been arrested and Los Angeles had suffered $1 billion in damages.

But the damage in the hearts and minds of people was much more dangerous. Houses could be rebuild but could walls between the races be torn down? Or as Rodney King said, "Can we all get along?" (1992).

3.3. Inner City Blues

[7] The Los Angeles riots were much more than a conflict between black and white. It was an implosion (of the melting polt) that reached extraordinary proportions and involved all races and ethnic groups: whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

America was no longer what it used to be. The system was clearly not working as it should. Only the initial blame can be put on the jurors in the Rodney King case. The real reasons for the unrest are buried deep within the American society: racism, social injustice, poverty. The city is the center of the society, and the 1992 riots could have erupted in almost any American town. Los Angeles with its diverse population that consists of all races, of rich and poor, liberal and conservative, good and bad was the perfect place for the riots to happen. While in earlier riots the protests were directed entirely at the white majority, the 1992 Los Angeles riots mark a changing point in history. Minority groups now blame and fight each other. Forced to compete for jobs, housing, resources, and political power, these groups have drifted apart.

Like residents of other large American cities, Los Angeles residents experienced a worsening economic situation in the two decades leading up to the unrest. In South Central Los Angeles, which had never really recovered from the Watts riots, per capita income was less than half that of Los Angeles as a whole, and poverty and unemployment rates were more than twice as high. The City government had developed the mostly white westside but forgotten about the South, where jobs were lost on a massive scale. Large retail stores and supermarket chains avoided South Central Los Angeles, which was one reason for the countless Korean stores.[8] On top of that, the government had not been able to fulfill its promise of making available more jobs for large cities and taxes were high. Communities were no longer in a situation to provide sufficient public welfare. Drugs, crime and gang violence were visible problems in areas like South Central but Federal programs addressing these problems had been systematically cut during the Reagan and Bush era.

Police forces had been reduced dramatically[9], resulting in stressed and often overburdened officers. Not surprisingly, the L.A.P.D, originally responsible for the King beating, was too short-handed and disorganized to contain the unrest when it escalated.

3.4. Two Nations?

The question remains whether the 1992 Los Angeles riots were mainly a protest by black people against unfair living conditions and the Rodney King verdict or a way of engaging in looting and street crime. Opinions on that count differ. While two thirds of blacks said their response was a way of protest, most members of other ethnic groups believed blacks only wanted to engage in crime.[10] A large majority of African Americans also believe they are not treated fairly by the criminal justice system and have worse opportunities than white Americans. They also object to interracial marriages more than any other ethnic group. As Andrew Hacker put it in his book Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal:

Black Americans are Americans, yet they still subsist as aliens in the only land they know. Other groups may remain outside the mainstream - some religious sects, for example - but they do so voluntarily. In contrast, blacks must endure a segregation that is far from freely chosen. So America may be seen as two separate nations (Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,p. 3).[11]

While one must not agree with everything Hacker has said it is true that after the 1992 unrest African Americans felt even more unease at the country that was to be their home. Black residents of Los Angeles became more pessimistic about the problem of discrimination and whether they will ever be treated fairly in the United States of America. In addition, Asians developed a more negative image of blacks, and Hispanics, adopting black policies, started to dislike Asians.

As frightening as Hacker`s theory seems, America may not be far from being a nation consisting of many nations, which hardly get along.

4. The Situation Today

As Bill Clinton finishes his last year in office, the United States look into a bright future. A booming economy and world leadership are just some of the achievements made since the end of the Cold War.

But even now, with the sun shining over America, the problems in the inner cities are far from being solved. The country is still divided on the race issue.

4.1. The O.J. Simpson Case

Only two years after the Los Angeles riots, former football star Orenthal James Simpson was arrested for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her boyfriend, Ronald Goldman. After a trial that brought America to a standstill, Simpson was eventually found not guilty despite massive evidence against him.

Simpson probably owes his acquittal to the Rodney King verdict and the following civil unrest. A mainly black jury[12] listened to the evidence collected by white district attorneys, who had such unfortunate witnesses as police man Mark Fuhrman[13], and simply refused to trust the police.

Polls showed that a majority of black people believed Simpson was innocent, while most white people thought he was guilty.

Who knows what would have happened in Los Angeles if Simpson had been convicted?

Johnnie Cochran, leader of the defense team, rightly said that "the Fuhrman tapes are to the criminal justice system in America, what Watergate was to the political system" (Cochran, 1995).[14]

If justice was served, remains a mystery. Clearly, America, and especially Los Angeles, were afraid for history to repeat itself. It may very well be that national order was bought at the expense of a murderer not being punished.[15]

4.2. Living for the City

[16] Today, almost eight years after the Los Angeles riots, urban problems are an essential part of the present. Homelessness, poverty, crime and racism[17] exist as does police brutality.[18] The new-found wealth of America should not overshadow the fact that there are still many poor people who do not profit from a sky-rocketing Wallstreet. De-facto racial segregation is evident in all major U.S. cities with white people living in wealthier suburbs and black people living in downtown areas plagued by crime and bad living conditions.

The devastation of cities is nowhere more visible than in Detroit or Gary, Indiana.[19] Even cities that have successfully revitalized their downtown economies in recent years, primarily by serving as administrative centers for service industries, have not been able to reduce urban poverty. To avoid fiscal collapse, many cities have closed schools, hospitals or fire stations. The problems America is facing are the globalization and deindustrialization of the economy, the widening gap between rich and poor as well as the persistence of racism. Unlesss these problems are approached soon, the American cities are to experience further decline.[20]

5. Summary

The wounds caused by the Los Angeles riots are slowly healing but the events surrounding the Rodney King case and verdict have left deep scars on America. It was a painful reminder that racism exists; not just in the white community but in all areas and places where people from different ethnic backgrounds are coming together.

In Los Angeles, a new mayor, white Richard J. Riordan, was elected in 1993. He was reelected in 1997 with more than 60 percent of the vote. Due to his commitment to increasing the number of LAPD officers, the department has grown from 7,400 in 1993 to nearly 10,000 today. Serious crime is down 45 percent from 1995. The Mayor's Minority Business Opportunity Committee has championed the participation of women and minority-owned business in the city's economic growth and generated 42,000 new jobs.[21] Nevertheless, South Central Los Angeles still has the highest crime rates of the whole city.

Many Hispanics have moved into this area, which leads to new tensions. The poverty rate of blacks and Hispanics have remained steady at about 25 percent during the last 30 years. In comparison, only 7 percent of white people and 11 percent of Asians live below the poverty level.[22]

Los Angeles continues to be a city of immigrants and ethnic diversity. Unfortunately, there are almost no diverse communities. Instead, ethnic groups live next to each other. The future of the City of Angels (or any other American town) depends on how soon it can solve its urban problems and tear down the walls between its residents.

6. Bibliography

Primary Literature:

Garcia, Robert , Time Line. Civil Rights and Police Reform in Los Angeles: 1965 to 1997, 1997, February 2000, <>.

0 Dreier, Peter, "The Struggle for our Cities", Social Policy,Vol. 26 Issue 4 (1996), p. 9 - 24. 1

2 Gross, Jane, "In Simi Valley, Defense Of a Shared Way of Life", New York Times (May 4, 1997).

3 Hacker, Andrew, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (New York: Scribners, 1992).

5 Paul Ong, The Widening Divide: Income Inequality in Los Angeles, (US Census, Current Population Report, Consumer Income, 1989).

6 Ong, Paul M. with Belcher, Wendy and Lee, Ji-Young, The Economic Base of South

Central Los Angeles. Unfinished draft report, (Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, 1992).

Secondary Literature:

The Los Angeles Riots. Lessons for the Urban Future, edited by Mark Baldassare (Westview Press, 1994).

From CNN International:

"CNN Presents" and Correspondent Art Harris , Unequal Justice, September 24, 1995, March 2000 <>.

From the Los Angeles Times Archive <>:

"Call for More Patrol Units Faces Hurdles", Los Angeles Times (October 22, 1992), p. A1.

"Diary of a War of Attrition in Volatile Urban Disputes", Los Angeles Times (July 2, 1991), p. A1.

Song Lyrics:

Ice Cube, Black Korea (Death Certificate, 1991) March 2000,


The Office of the Mayor, City of Los Angeles <>


1 [[1]] The Watts riots erupted in Los Angeles when a white police officer arrested a black man for drunk driving. After six days of rioting, four people were dead, over 1,000 hurt, nearly 4,000 arrested, and property damage was estimated at about $40,000,000. The National Guard was called in to restore order. The Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots (the McCone Commission) later issued a report, Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?, citing hatred and resentment of the police as symbols of authority, the absence of jobs for blacks, and the lack of good schooling for black children as the fundamental causes of the Watts riots. Robert Garcia , Time Line. Civil Rights and Police Reform in Los Angeles: 1965 to 1997, 1997, February 2000, <>.

2 3 Hiroshi Fukurai, Richard Krooth, and Edgar W. Butler, "The Rodney King Beating Verdicts", in The Los Angeles Riots. Lessons for the Urban Future, edited by Mark Baldassare (Westview Press, 1994), p. 77-78.

3 4 Jane Gross, "In Simi Valley, Defense Of a Shared Way of Life", New York Times (May 4, 1997).

4 5 Spike Lee portrays the conflict of a Korean American merchant and a black customer in his controversial movie Do the right thing (1989).

5 6 "Diary of a War of Attrition in Volatile Urban Disputes", Los Angeles Times (July 2, 1991), p. A1.

6 [[7]] "Black Korea" by Ice Cube (1991). Lyrics: Everytime I wanna go get a fuckin brew I gotta go down to the store with the two oriental one-penny countin motherfuckers that make a nigga made enough to cause a little ruckus / Thinkin every brother in the world's out to take / So they watch every damn move that I make / They hope I don't pull out a gat and try to rob they funky little store, but bitch, I got a job / ("Look you little Chinese motherfucker I ain't tryin to steal none of yo' shit, leave me alone!" "Mother-fuck you!") / Yo yo, check it out / So don't follow me, up and down your market / Or your little chop suey ass'll be a target of the nationwide boycott / Juice with the people, that's what the boy got / So pay respect to the black fist or we'll burn your store, right down to a crisp / And then we'll see ya! / Cause you can't turn the ghetto - into Black Korea / "I do fuck you!" This song has a dialogue from Do the right thing as its intro. Although the words of the song are harsh, one-sided and racist, Ice Cube certainly speaks a lot of black people`s mind. "Black Korea" is taken from the 1991 Ice Cube album Death Certificate. March 2000, <>.

7 1 Inner City Blues is a song written and performed by Marvin Gaye. It addresses political, economical and social problems of black people.

8 2 Compare: Paul M. Ong with Wendy Belcher and Ji-Young Lee, The Economic Base of South Central Los Angeles. Unfinished draft report, (Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, 1992); Taken from The Los Angeles Riots. Lessons for the Urban Future, edited by Mark Baldassare (Westview Press, 1994), p. 160 - 161.

9 [[1]] Police forces were down from 8,400 in 1990 to 7,800 in 1992. New York at the time had six times as many officers per square mile as Los Angeles. 3 "Call for More Patrol Units Faces Hurdles", Los Angeles Times (October 22, 1992), p. A1.

10 1 Kathleen J. Tierney, "Property Damage and Violence: A Collective Behavior Analysis", in The Los Angeles Riots. Lessons for the Urban Future, edited by Mark Baldassare (Westview Press, 1994), p. 111.

11 1 Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (New York: Scribners, 1992), p. 3.

12 1 The jury would probably not have comprised of a black majority hadn`t it been for the 1992 riots and the fame of the suspect.

13 2 Fuhrman lied to the court about using the word nigger.

14 1 "CNN Presents" and Correspondent Art Harris , Unequal Justice, September 24, 1995, March 2000 <>. Listen to audio of Johnnie Cochran.

15 1 On a personal note: I was living in a white American family at the time of the verdict and could therefore closely monitor how the case and the acquittal affected them. To say the least, they were shocked and made clearly racist remarks. The same goes for my almost entirely white school that reacted with frustration and anger. One day after the verdict, I went to the predominantly black downtown of Rochester, N.Y., and found out that black people were cheering at the verdict. Even those of them that believed in Simpson`s guilt did not want him to be convicted. None of them had any trust into the justice system. My observations then tell me that America may indeed be seen as Two Nations.

16 1 Living for the City is a song by Stevie Wonder about the struggle of black people in the city. Written in the 1970s the song has become an anthem of inner city residents.

17 1 New independent studies prove that black people in New York City are often ignored by cab drivers.

18 2 Just last month, four New York police officers, who had gunned down with 41 bullets an unarmed African immigrant, were acquitted of all criminal charges. There were minor protests in the Bronx but no major uprising like the one that followed the King verdict.

19 1 On a visit to Chicago, last year, a friend of mine and I, out of curiosity, visited Gary. Knowing only that it was Michael Jackson`s home town and the city with the highest murder rate in the whole country, nothing could have prepared us for what we saw with our own eyes: poverty, homelessness, no white people at all, destroyed buildings. Gary looked like it had just been through a war, when in fact the only thing that had happened was the collapse of Gary`s economy.

20 1 Peter Dreier, "The Struggle for our Cities", Social Policy,Vol. 26 Issue 4 (1996), p. 9 -

21 1 Information from the Office of the Mayor, Los Angeles City. <>

22 1 Figures from: Paul Ong, The Widening Divide: Income Inequality in Los Angeles, (US Census, Current Population Report, Consumer Income, 1989), p. 16.

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The 1992 Los Angeles Riots
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Proseminar: The North American City
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Term paper on the 1992 Los Angeles riots. What happened, why it happened and what can be learned.
Angeles, Riots, Proseminar, North, American, City
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Anne Hübner (Author), 2000, The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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