29 Years since the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

In Los Angeles of March 1991, Rodney King, an African-American man, was brutally beaten by four policemen, Stacey Koon; Lawrence Powell; Timothy Wind; and Theodore Briseno, after a high-speed chase. Due to being hit repeatedly, King had a concussion, broken bones, and even needed facial reconstruction surgery.

A neighbor who witnessed the beating recorded the scene, and the world saw the cruelty of the Los Angeles Police Department and the growing racial divide. The video of King caused outrage amongst the country, especially African-American community, and people demanded justice.

The four officers involved in the beating were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force.

Rodney King asking for peace and an end to the rioting on May 1st, 1992. (Credit: PennLive.com)

That same month, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year old African American girl, was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean American store owner, because she thought Harlins was attempting to steal orange juice. This situation created separation and tension between the Korean and Black communities. Soon Ja Du was given 500 hours of probation after killing Latasha Harlins, which angered the black community.

A year after on April 29, 1992, the four policemen’s trial was held in Simi Valley by a 12-person jury. To surprise of many at home and despite video evidence of the event, the jury announced that all four policemen were found not guilty on all charges. The verdict impacted South Central Los Angeles greatly because a majority of the residents were African-American and this continued the feeling of injustice.

The four police officers, Stacey C. Koon, Theodore J. Briseno, Timothy E. Wind, and Officer Laurence Powell, who were charged for brutally beating Rodney King. 

People went out to protest for Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, and for the pain and suffering African-Americans have put up with for hundreds of years.

Eventually, riots broke out, and things got out of control. There was looting, fires, and complete chaos. A state of emergency was declared, which resulted in the LAPD and National Guard roaming the streets of Los Angeles.

On May 1, 1992, Rodney King spoke to the people and asked for peace, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”

The riots lasted five days. According to NPR, “…more than 50 riot-related deaths — including 10 people who were shot and killed by LAPD officers and National Guardsmen. More than 2,000 people were injured, and nearly 6,000 alleged looters and arsonists were arrested.” Several businesses were destroyed and set on fire – especially Korean-owned stores due to the tension created by the killing of Latasha Harlins.

Today, we could look back and see that racial discrimination and police brutality hasn’t changed. People of color continue to be belittled, beaten, and killed. Last year, George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, a former police officer, and this week, he was finally found guilty – a year after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes until he stopped breathing. According to NPR, Ma’Khia Bryant, a 15-year old African American girl, was shot and killed by Columbus Police. Daunte Wright, a 20-year old African American man, was killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Kim Potter after she supposedly mistook a gun for a taser.

The belittlement and cruelty against people of color must be stopped. They shouldn’t be treated as any less or seen as criminals by the police. Aren’t the police suppose to protect the people? Not kill and beat them. It’s an issue that has been around for far too long, and if they don’t try to fix it, people will continue to be killed.

April Parker, Hphs English Teacher

"The Los Angeles Rebellion. (That's what I call it for activism reasons). The rebellion was a response to the build-up of injustices that were occurring in our community. Research Latasha Harlins and then the Rodney King beating. So when the four officers were acquitted all hell broke loose.

In my neighborhood, the police were commanded to NOT go to the corner of Florence and Normandie. The intersection of Florence and Normandie was the epicenter of the rebellion. Some young men had gotten out of control. Some people said they were gangsters, but I don't know if that was the media saying that, or they were gangsters. Either way, they had started to harass drivers coming through the intersection. One person, in particular, Reginald Denny, was severely injured and had to be rushed through to the hospital. Meanwhile, things were getting really bad on the scene, and the LAPD was instructed not to go into the area to contain it. It was horrible. As community members, we watched violence live on TV, and the police were told not to do anything. To us, the law-abiding people, we felt abandoned. We felt like the police didn't care about our safety and had a "let them kill themselves" attitude."
Protesters out in the streets after the policemen were found not guilty after brutally beating Rodney King. (Credit: Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images)
Mr. Sanchez, Hphs English Teacher. 

"I guess when we talk about the riots, we have to begin with the Rodney King verdict. I remember LA being tense during the whole trial and anticipating that justice would prevail. It came as a shock that the jury was telling all those who saw the video that what we saw was NOT what we saw. It just didn't make sense, and for many people, this erupted into violence. This violence was broadcast on all the local news stations, so people (me included) were scared. The violence seemed like it was all over LA, but obviously, it was centered in South Central. One of the images that struck me (almost as famous as the video of Rodney King being beaten.) was of a truck driver named Reginald Denny being pulled out of his semi-truck by an angry mob. He was a white guy with long red hair, and I remember as he was lying on the ground, one of the rioters took a brick and threw it in his face! This was on the corner of Western and Normandie I believe, so not too far from here. People understood why people were mad but didn't understand why their anger was directed at people who had nothing to do with the trial: shop owners, normal citizens. I guess looking back on it, when you are so frustrated at the injustice, you don't care who you take it out on. Unfortunately, most of these businesses were in these predominated African-American communities, so it was like Black people were hurting themselves. I appreciate Rodney King trying to calm people down (since riots lasted a few days) by saying his famous: 'Can't we all get along?' Thirty years later, it's still a great question."
Los Angeles residents asking for the violence and rioting to stop. (Credit: Ted Soqui)
Ramon Hernandez, 56 years old. 

"I was flying in from Mexico to LA during the riots, and as the plane approached the LA basin, many fires were raging, making it look apocalyptic. Then, I flew back to Mexico the next day because of a family death. While back in Mexico, one of my uncles called me over and takes me to where he stores barrels full of beans from his harvest. He reaches into one of the barrels and pulls out an AK47, and asks me, 'Do you know how to use one of these?' and I say, 'I’ve never seen one before.' My uncle responds, 'Everyone in LA has one.'"
Juan Pina, HPHS math teacher. 

"I remember it was a scary time. School closed for few days. I was in the 5th grade, and I remember that the sky was filled with smoke. One of the most vivid memories was watching cars with trunks completely full of shoes and other looted items drive by my house. At the time, I found it amusing to see that. I didn't realize that people's businesses and lives were being destroyed."
Violeta Gonzalez, 53 years old.  

"At first, I didn't know what was going on until we dropped off your grandma at the airport, and we heard the news on the radio. When I heard everything, I decided to make a plan if things got worse. I had a bag ready to go with some clothes for the baby. I had baby formula, diapers, wipes, and everything, just in case, we had to leave out the house. I think there was a curfew, so we didn't go out, and it was scary because everything was so quiet." 
The National Guard in Los Angeles in 1992. (Credit: Ted Soqui)
Ms.Herrera, Hphs Problem Solving Data Coordinator.

“I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and during the early 1990’s I was a High School student. During that time, some areas of Los Angeles were not safe. Gang violence seemed to be escalating, and drive-by shootings were commonplace in what we use to call South Central Los Angeles and East LA. The police didn’t seem to be of help because they often targeted the wrong people. It sometimes felt that the police categorized everyone of color as gang members. My friends and I witnessed unfair treatment and racist remarks made by police to young men of color who were innocently walking down the street. We also heard horror stories of officers overusing their power and breaking the law when dealing with young men of color. The youth was tired of this treatment and started complaining in various ways. When N.W.A. launched their rap song F*** the Police in 1988, it resonated with many young Angelinos of color. Finally, someone had accurately captured their experience in rhyme. The song became a hit, and many who might not dare before were now willing to rap their sentiments to the police. The song became a new anthem for those wronged by the men in blue. As you can imagine, this aggravated the police and their supporters. Clashes continued to happen between the police and minorities. The courts always seemed to rule in their favor. It was hard at that time to get evidence against the police.
Fast forward to March 1991, a brutally beaten African American man by the LAPD was captured on video, and it went viral. The man on the video was Rodney King. The entire city of Los Angeles was outraged. I remember that when I saw that video on the news, I got so emotional. The video showed no evidence or reason for the brutal beating of the poor man who was vastly outnumbered by police. Yet, at the same time, I was glad that it had been captured on video and that the world now would bear witness to the unfair treatment that many people of color experienced by police. How would they cover this up? Although I knew that our system was not perfect, I did believe in the values our nation claims to uphold, that no man is above the law and that there is justice for all. We were all awaiting the trial. There was no way in my mind that these officers would not be held responsible.
In April 1992, a predominantly white jury acquitted the four police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. I was in disbelief. It still fills me with emotion to remember that. As a citizen, I was disgusted, and as an Angelino, I was quickly on alert. I knew the city of Angels would not easily let this go and that something was “going to go down.” I told my mother to keep an eye on my rebellious younger brother and if possible, to keep him in the house. Not much later, we learned that rioters were running around in the streets of LA looting many stores and starting fires. Among the hardest hit were Korean-owned stores. This was connected with another incident where a young African American 15-year-old girl got shot for allegedly stealing an orange juice from a female Korean store owner. The girl’s name was Latasha Harlins, and she was killed over orange juice. Investigators later found that Latasha was holding in her hand the money to pay for the juice. All these injustices, especially against African Americans, ignited the fire of the riots. For five days, Los Angeles burned. Were there people who took advantage of the situation to loot? Yes. Was it sad that mom-and-pop stores were the heaviest hit? Yes. But when the cry for justice falls on deaf ears and the institution set up to protect you fails you, what are you then to do? The Declaration of Independence states when a government fails to protect its citizens and secure their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it. Some food for thought.¨