On the evening of March 3, 1991, Rodney King and two passengers were driving west on the Foothill Freeway (I-210) through the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) attempted to initiate a traffic stop. A high-speed pursuit ensued with speeds estimated at up to 115 mph (185 km/h), first over freeways and then through residential neighborhoods. When King finally came to a stop, CHP Officer Timothy Singer and his wife, CHP Officer Melanie Singer, ordered the occupants under arrest.
After the two passengers were placed in the patrol car, five white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers - Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano - attempted to subdue King, who came out of the car last. King was tasered, struck with side-handled batons, then tackled to the ground and handcuffed. Sgt. Koon later testified at trial that King resisted arrest, and that he believed King was under the influence of PCP at the time of the arrest, which caused him to be very aggressive and violent toward the officers. Video footage of the arrest showed that he was attempting to get up each time he was struck, and that the police made no attempt to cuff him until he lay still.
A subsequent test for the presence of PCP in Rodney King's body at the time of the arrest turned up negative. The incident was captured on a camcorder by local resident George Holliday from his apartment in the vicinity. The tape was roughly 12 minutes long. While the tape was presented during trial, some clips of the incident were not released to the public.
In a later interview, King, who was on parole for a robbery conviction and had past convictions for assault, battery and robbery, said that he had not surrendered earlier because he was driving while intoxicated under the influence of alcohol, which he knew violated the terms of his parole.
The footage of King being beaten by police while lying on the ground became an instant focus of media attention and a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States. Coverage was extensive during the first two weeks after the incident: the Los Angeles Times published forty-three articles about the incident, The New York Times published seventeen articles, and the Chicago Tribune published eleven articles. Eight stories appeared on ABC News, including a sixty-minute special on Primetime Live.
Upon watching the tape of the beating, LAPD chief of police Daryl Gates said:
I stared at the screen in disbelief. I played the one-minute-50-second tape again. Then again and again, until I had viewed it 25 times. And still I could not believe what I was looking at. To see my officers engage in what appeared to be excessive use of force, possibly criminally excessive, to see them beat a man with their batons 56 times, to see a sergeant on the scene who did nothing to seize control, was something I never dreamed I would witness.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney subsequently charged four police officers, including one sergeant, with assault and use of excessive force. Due to the heavy media coverage of the arrest, the trial received a change of venue from Los Angeles County to Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County. The jury was composed of nine whites, one bi-racial male, one Latino, and one Asian. The prosecutor, Terry White, was black.
On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury acquitted all four officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. The jury could not agree on a verdict for the fourth officer charged with using excessive force. The verdicts were based in part on the first three seconds of a blurry, 13-second segment of the videotape that, according to journalist Lou Cannon, was edited out by television news stations in their broadcasts.
The first two seconds of videotape, contrary to the claims made by the accused officers, show King attempting to flee past Laurence Powell. During the next one minute and 19 seconds, King is beaten continuously by the officers. The officers testified that they tried to physically restrain King prior to the starting point of the videotape, but King was able to physically throw them off himself.
Another theory offered by the prosecution for the officers' acquittal is that the jurors may have become desensitized to the violence of the beating, as the defense played the videotape repeatedly in slow motion, breaking it down until its emotional impact was lost.
Outside the Simi Valley courthouse where the acquittals were delivered, county sheriff's deputies protected Stacey Koon from angry protesters on the way to his car. Director John Singleton, who was in the crowd at the courthouse, predicted, "By having this verdict, what these people done, they lit the fuse to a bomb."
The riots, beginning the day the verdicts were announced, peaked in intensity over the next two days. A dusk-to-dawn curfew and deployment of the California Army National Guard eventually controlled the situation.
A total of 55 people died during the riots, including eight who were killed by police officers and two who were killed by guardsmen. As many as 2,000 people were reported injured. Estimates of the material losses vary between about $800 million and $1 billion. Approximately 3,600 fires were set, destroying 1,100 buildings, with fire calls coming once every minute at some points. Widespread looting also occurred. Stores owned by Koreans and other Asian ethnicities were widely targeted.
Many of the disturbances were concentrated in South Central Los Angeles, which was primarily composed of African-American and Hispanic residents. Less than half of all the riot arrests and a third of those killed during the violence were Hispanic.
In the week before the Rodney King verdicts were reached, Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates set aside $1 million for possible police overtime. Even so, two thirds of the LAPD's patrol captains were out of town in Ventura, California, on the first day of a scheduled three-day training seminar.
At 1:00 pm on April 29, Judge Stanley Weisberg announced that the jury for the Rodney King assault charges had reached its verdict, and that they would be read in two hours time. This was done to allow reporters, but also police and other emergency responders, time to prepare for the outcome. The only specific action taken by the LAPD in advance to prepare was to activate its Emergency Operations Center, which the Webster Commission described as "the doors were opened, the lights turned on and the coffee pot plugged in" and nothing more. Specifically, assembling the people meant to man that Center was not done until 4:45 pm. In addition, no action was taken to retain extra personnel at the LAPD's shift change at 3:00 pm, as the risk of trouble was deemed too low to do so at that time.
The acquittals of the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers came at 3:15 pm local time. By 3:45, a crowd of more than 300 people had appeared at the Los Angeles County Courthouse protesting the verdicts passed down a half-hour earlier.
Meanwhile, at approximately 4:15-4:20 pm, a group of people approached the Pay-Less Liquor and Deli on Florence Avenue just west of Normandie. A gang member in an interview explains that the group "just decided they weren’t going to pay for what they were getting." The store owner's son was hit with a bottle of beer, and two other youths smashed the glass front door of the store. Two officers from the 77th Street Division of the LAPD reported to this incident and, finding that the instigators had already left, completed a report.
At 4:58 pm, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley held a news conference to discuss the verdicts handed down for the four LAPD police officers. Incensed, his statement showed both anger toward the verdicts and made an appeal for calm.
Today, the jury told the world that what we all saw with our own eyes was not a crime. My friends, I am here to tell the jury...what we saw was a crime. No, we will not tolerate the savage beating of our citizens by a few renegade cops.
...We must not endanger the reforms we have achieved by resorting to mindless acts. We must not push back progress by striking back blindly.
Assistant Los Angeles police chief Bob Vernon believed Bradley's opening remarks invited a riot, and were perhaps taken as a signal by some citizens to act in violence. Vernon backed this statement with the assertion that the number of police incidents rose in the hour after the mayor's press conference.
As the officers completing the police report at the Pay-Less Liquor and Deli left that location, they heard another report of a disturbance at Florence and Halldale, arrived there at 5:27 pm to find a crowd, and requested assistance. Approximately two dozen officers, commanded by 77th Street Division LAPD officer Lieutenant Michael Moulin, arrived. One gang member who was throwing rocks was chased to 71st and Normandie by officers, where he was arrested. An uneasy crowd, taunting and berating police, also gathered in this location. Among them was New York Times freelance photographer Bart Bartholemew and Timothy Goldman, who began to record events with a camcorder.
Goldman's footage shows the arrest of the gang member, then police forming a perimeter around the arresting officers as the crowd grows more hostile. Bart Bartholemew is attacked, and an individual takes one LAPD officer's flashlight, causing another large altercation between officers and the crowd. As the crowd continues to grow, Lieutenant Moulin ordered officers out of the area altogether. Moulin later says that officers on the scene were outnumbered and unprepared to handle the situation.
Forget the flashlight. It's not worth it. It ain't worth it. It's not worth it, forget the flashlight. It's not worth it. Let's go.
Moulin made the call for reporting officers to retreat from the 71st and Normandie area entirely at approximately 5:50 pm. They were sent to an RTD bus depot at 54th and Arlington and told to await further instructions. The command post formed at this location was activated at approximately 6:00 pm, but once set up had no cellular phones or computers other than those in squad cars. It had insufficient numbers of telephone lines and handheld police radios to assess and respond to the situation. Finally, the site had no televisions, which meant that as live broadcasts of unrest began, command post officers did not see any of the coverage for themselves.
Jubilant and empowered by the retreat of officers at 71st and Normandie, many proceeded one block south to the busy intersection of Florence and Normandie. As Timothy Goldman continued to record the scene on a personal camcorder, the Los Angeles News Service team of Marika and Robert Tur arrived overhead in a news helicopter, broadcasting from the air. The LANS feed appeared live on numerous Los Angeles television venues. At approximately 6:15 pm, as reports of vandalism, looting, and physical attacks continued to come in, Moulin elected to "take the information", but not to respond with personnel to restore order or rescue people in the area. Moulin was relieved by a captain, ordered only to assess the Florence and Normandie area, and, again, not to attempt to deploy officers there. Meanwhile, Tur continued to cover the events in progress live at the intersection. Overhead, Tur described the police presence at the scene around 6:30 pm as "none".
At 6:43 pm, truck driver Larry Tarvin, driving down Florence, stopped at a red light at Normandie in a large white delivery truck. He was pulled from the truck, kicked and beaten, and struck unconscious with a fire extinguisher taken from his own vehicle. He lay unconscious for more than a minute as his truck was looted, before staggering back to his vehicle. With the help of an unknown African American named Rodney, Tarvin was able to drive his truck out of further harm's way. Just before he did so, another truck entered the intersection. This was the truck of Reginald Denny.
Attack on Reginald Denny
At 6:46 pm, Reginald Oliver Denny, a white truck driver who stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, was dragged from his semi-trailer truck and severely beaten by a mob of local black residents. The LANS news helicopter piloted by reporter Tur, was still overhead, and broadcast live footage of the attack. Damian "Football" Williams threw a cinderblock at Denny that struck him in the skull, fracturing it in 91 places.
It was Tur's live reports that led to Denny being rescued by two black civilians, Curtis Yarbrough of Compton and Bobby Green Jr. of South Central Los Angeles. Both separately saw Denny's assault live on television and rushed to the scene. Upon arriving, they found Denny had climbed back into the cab of his truck and was attempting to drive away, but was unable to go far because he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Curtis Yarbrough put Denny in his car and drove him to Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood. Green states that he took over and drove Denny's truck back to the work location in Inglewood. Upon arriving at the hospital Denny went into a seizure. Denny's ability to speak and drive were affected by the attack, and he had to undergo years of rehabilitative therapy.
Fidel Lopez beating
Around 7:40 pm, almost an hour after Reginald Denny was rescued at Florence and Normandie, another beating was captured on videotape in that location. Fidel Lopez, a self-employed construction worker and Guatemalan immigrant, was pulled from his GMC pickup truck and robbed of nearly $2,000. Members of rioters in a group including Damian Williams smashed his forehead open with a car stereo as another rioter attempted to slice his ear off. After Lopez lost consciousness, the crowd spray-painted his chest, torso and genitals black. He was eventually rescued by Rev. Bennie Newton, who told the rioters: "Kill him, and you have to kill me too." Lopez survived the attack, but it took him years to fully recover and re-establish his business. Newton and Lopez became close friends until the death of the former in 1993.
Sunset on the first evening of the riots was at 7:36 pm. The first call reporting a fire came in shortly after, at approximately 7:45 pm. Police did not return in force to the Florence and Normandie area until 8:30 pm local time, by which time the intersection was in ruins and the instigators of the rioting had gone elsewhere.
Numerous factors were later blamed for the severity of rioting in the 77th Street Division on the evening of April 29. These included:No effort made to close the busy intersection of Florence and Normandie to traffic.
Failure to secure gun stores in the Division (one in particular lost 1,150 guns to looting on April 29).
The failure to issue a citywide Tactical Alert until 6:43 pm, which then allowed other Divisions to assist the 77th.
The lack of any response - and in particular, a riot response - to the intersection, which emboldened rioters. Since attacks, looting, and arsons were broadcast live, it also demonstrated to viewers that none of this behavior was being stopped by police.
After the verdicts were announced, a crowd of protesters formed at the Los Angeles police headquarters at Parker Center in Downtown Los Angeles. The crowd grew as the afternoon passed, and as this group grew and became violent, a moving skirmish line formed between police protecting the building and protesters advancing on it. In the midst of this, before 6:30 pm, police chief Daryl Gates left Parker Center, on his way to the neighborhood of Brentwood. There, as the situation in Los Angeles deteriorated, Gates attended a political fundraiser against Los Angeles City Charter Amendment F, which was stated to "give City Hall more power over the police chief and provide more civilian review of officer misconduct", and would limit the power and term length of his own position.
Regardless, the Parker Center crowd grew riotous at approximately 9:00 pm, eventually making their way through the Civic Center, attacking law enforcement, turning over vehicles, setting objects ablaze and blocking traffic on U.S. Route 101. Nearby firefighters were shot at while trying to put out a blaze set by looters. One firefighter was shot in the stomach. The first of the National Guard units, the 670th Military Police Company, had traveled almost 300 miles (480 kilometers) from its main armory and arrived in the afternoon to assist local police. They were initially deployed to a police command center and they began handing out bulletproof vests to the firefighters after encountering the unit whose member had been shot. Later the same evening, after receiving ammunition from the LA Police Academy and a local gun store, the MPs deployed to hold the Martin Luther King Shopping Mall in Watts.
In the Lake View Terrace district of Los Angeles, 200-400 protesters gathered near the Hansen Dam Recreation Center (at the site Rodney King was beaten in 1991) around 9:15 pm. The group marched south on Osborne Street to the LAPD Foothill Division headquarters. At that location, incidents of rock throwing, shooting into the air, and fires occurred. The Foothill division police used riot breaking techniques to disperse the crowd and arrest those responsible for rock throwing and the fires.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley signed an order for a dusk-to-dawn curfew at 12:15 am for the core area affected by the riots. The curfew area was expanded at 10:15 am.
By mid-morning on the second day violence appeared widespread and unchecked as heavy looting and arson were witnessed across Los Angeles County, as rioting began to make its way from South Central Los Angeles going north through the neighborhoods of Central Los Angeles before reaching Hollywood as looting and fires engulfed Hollywood Boulevard, as well as making its way south to the neighboring cities of Inglewood, Hawthorne, Compton and Long Beach. Korean Americans, seeing the law enforcement's abandonment of Koreatown, as police forces created lines of defense for places like Beverly Hills and West Hollywood instead (both cities are heavily linked to the American film industry and several movie stars and studios requested increased police presence), organized armed security teams composed of store owners, who defended their livelihoods from assault by the mobs. Open gun battles were televised, as in one well-publicized incident where Korean shopkeepers armed with M1 carbines, Ruger Mini-14s, pump-action shotguns, and handguns exchanged gunfire with, broke up, and forced a retreat of a group of armed looters. Tommy Lasorda's statement criticizing rioters burning down their own neighborhoods resulted in death threats. He was relocated to the LAPD academy for protection where the 670th MP Company had been redeployed to reinforce police patrols and to guard the Korean Cultural Center and Embassy after events in Koreatown. That evening at the Korean Cultural Center, two men out past curfew were nearly shot after attempting to take a rifle from a 670th MP member. The men had mistakenly believed the media, who had been reporting that soldiers had no ammunition.
The LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) organized response began to come together by midday. The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) and Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) began to respond backed by police escort; California Highway Patrol reinforcements were airlifted to the city. President George H. W. Bush spoke out against the rioting, stating that "anarchy" would not be tolerated. The California Army National Guard, which had been advised not to expect civil disturbance and had, as a result, loaned its riot equipment out to other law enforcement agencies, responded quickly by calling up about 2,000 soldiers, but could not get them to the city until nearly 24 hours had passed because of a lack of proper equipment, training, and available ammunition which had to be picked up from the JFTB (Joint Forces Training Base), Los Alamitos, California, which at the time was a primarily mothballed former airbase.
In an attempt to end hostilities, Bill Cosby spoke on the NBC affiliate television station KNBC and asked people to stop what they were doing and instead watch the final episode of The Cosby Show. The U.S. Justice Department announced it would resume federal investigation of the Rodney King beating as a violation of civil rights.
The third day was punctuated by live footage of Rodney King at an impromptu news conference in front of his lawyer's Los Angeles offices on Wilshire & Doheny, tearfully saying, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" That morning, at 1:00 am, California Governor Pete Wilson had requested federal assistance. Upon request, President George H. W. Bush invoked the Insurrection Act via Executive Order 12804, federalizing the California Army National Guard and authorizing federal military personnel to help restore law and order, but it was not ready until Saturday, by which time the rioting and looting was under control. Meanwhile, the 40th Infantry Division (doubled to 4,000 troops) of the California Army National Guard continued to move into the city in Humvees, eventually seeing 10,000 Army National Guard troops activated. Additionally, a varied contingent of 1,700 federal law enforcement officers from different agencies across the state began to arrive, to protect federal facilities and assist local police. As darkness fell, the main riot area was further hit by a power cut.
Friday evening, President George H. W. Bush addressed the country, denouncing "random terror and lawlessness", summarizing his discussions with Mayor Bradley and Governor Wilson, and outlining the federal assistance he was making available to local authorities. Citing the "urgent need to restore order", he warned that the "brutality of a mob" would not be tolerated, and he would "use whatever force is necessary". He then turned to the Rodney King case and a more moderate tone, describing talking to his own grandchildren and pointing to the reaction of "good and decent policemen" as well as civil rights leaders. He said he had already directed the Justice Department to begin its own investigation, saying that "grand jury action is underway today" and that justice would prevail.
By this point, many entertainment and sports events were postponed or canceled. The Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Portland Trail Blazers in a basketball playoff game on the night the rioting started, but the following game was postponed until Sunday and moved to Las Vegas. The Los Angeles Clippers moved a playoff game against the Utah Jazz to nearby Anaheim. In baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers postponed games for four straight days from Thursday to Sunday, including a whole 3-game series against the Montreal Expos; all were made up as part of doubleheaders in July. In San Francisco, a city curfew due to unrest forced the postponement of a May 1 San Francisco Giants home game against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The horse racing venues Hollywood Park Racetrack and Los Alamitos Race Course were also shut down. L.A. Fiesta Broadway, a major event in the Latino community, was not held in the first weekend in May as scheduled. In music, Van Halen canceled two concert shows in Inglewood on Saturday and Sunday. Michael Bolton cancelled his scheduled performance at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday. The World Wrestling Federation also canceled events on Friday and Saturday in the cities of Long Beach and Fresno.
The Southern California Rapid Transit District (now Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) suspended all bus and Metro rail service throughout the Los Angeles area. Some major freeways were closed down.
On the fourth day, 3,500 federal military personnel — 2,000 soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division from Fort Ord and 1,500 Marines of the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton — arrived to reinforce the California Army National Guard soldiers already in the city. The Marine Corps contingent included the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, commanded by John F. Kelly. This federal force took twenty-four hours to deploy to Huntington Park, about the same time it took for the California Army National Guard soldiers. This brought total troop strength associated with the effort to stop the breakdown in civil order to 13,500. Federal military personnel and California Army National Guardsmen directly supported local police in restoring order and had a major effect of first containing, then stopping the violence. With most of the violence under control, 30,000 people attended a peace rally in Koreatown to support local merchants and support racial healing, around 11 am.
Quiet began to set in and Mayor Bradley assured the public that the crisis was, more or less, under control. In one incident, Army National Guardsmen shot and killed a motorist who tried to run them over at a barrier.
Although Mayor Bradley lifted the curfew, signaling the official end of the riots, sporadic violence and crime continued for a few days afterward. Schools, banks, and businesses reopened. Federal troops did not stand down until May 9; the Army National Guard remained until May 14; and some soldiers remained as late as May 27.
Many Korean-Americans in Los Angeles refer to the event as Sa-I-Gu, meaning "four-two-nine" in Korean, in reference to April 29, 1992, which was the day the riots started. The riots prompted various responses from Korean-Americans, including the formation of activist organizations such as the Association of Korean-American Victims, and increased efforts to build collaborative links with other ethnic groups.
During the riots, many Korean immigrants from the area rushed to Koreatown, after Korean-language radio stations called for volunteers to guard against rioters. Many were armed, with a variety of improvised weapons, shotguns, and semi-automatic rifles.
According to Professor Edward Park, director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University, the 1992 violence stimulated a new wave of political activism among Korean-Americans, but it also split them into two camps. The liberals sought to unite with other minorities in Los Angeles to fight against racial oppression and scapegoating. The conservatives emphasized law and order and generally favored the economic and social policies of the Republican Party. The conservatives tended to emphasize the political differences between Koreans and other minorities, specifically African Americans.
On March 16, 1991, a year prior to the Los Angeles riots, storekeeper Soon Ja Du physically confronted black ninth-grader Latasha Harlins by grabbing her sweater and backpack over whether the 15-year-old had been trying to steal a bottle of orange juice from Empire Liquor, the store Du's family owned in Compton. After Latasha hit Du, Du shot Latasha in the back of the head, killing her. (Security tape showed the girl, already dead, was still clutching $2 in her hand when investigators arrived.) Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and forced to pay a fine of $500, but not sentenced to any prison time. This was the catalyst that fueled much of the rage against Koreans and Korean store-owners in the Los Angeles community. Racial tensions had been simmering underneath the surface for several years. Many African-Americans were angry toward a growing Korean merchant community in South Central Los Angeles earning a living in their communities, and felt disrespected and looked down on by many Korean merchants. Cultural differences and a language barrier further fueled tensions in an already fragile environment. With the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating trial and the aftermath of the Soon Ja Du trial where she was sentenced to probation for killing Latasha Harlins, the Los Angeles riots ensued and much of the anger was directed at Koreans.
One of the most iconic and controversial television images of the violence was a scene of two Korean merchants firing pistols repeatedly at roving looters. The New York Times said "that the image seemed to speak of race war, and of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands." The merchants, jewelry store and gun shop owner Richard Park and his gun store manager, David Joo, were reacting to the shooting of Mr. Park's wife and her sister by looters who converged on the shopping center where the shops were located.
Due to their low social status and language barrier, Korean Americans received very little if any aid or protection from police authorities. David Joo, a manager of the gun store, said, "I want to make it clear that we didn't open fire first. At that time, four police cars were there. Somebody started to shoot at us. The LAPD ran away in half a second. I never saw such a fast escape. I was pretty disappointed." Carl Rhyu, a participant in the Korean immigrants' armed response to the rioting, said, "If it was your own business and your own property, would you be willing to trust it to someone else? We are glad the National Guard is here. They're good backup. But when our shops were burning we called the police every five minutes; no response." At a shopping center several miles north of Koreatown, Jay Rhee, who estimated that he and others fired five hundred shots into the ground and air, said, "We have lost our faith in the police. Where were you when we needed you?". Koreatown was isolated from South Central Los Angeles, yet despite such exclusion it was the heaviest hit.
One of the largest armed camps in Los Angeles' Koreatown was at the California Market. On the first night after the verdicts were returned in the trial of the four officers charged in the beating of Rodney King, Richard Rhee, the market owner, posted himself in the parking lot with about 20 armed employees. One year after the riots fewer than one in four damaged or destroyed businesses reopened, according to the survey conducted by the Korean-American Inter-Agency Council. According to a Los Angeles Times survey conducted eleven months after the riots, almost 40% of Korean-Americans said they were thinking of leaving Los Angeles.
Before a verdict was issued in the new 1993 Rodney King federal civil rights trial against the four officers, Korean shop owners prepared for the worst as fear ran throughout the city, gun sales went up, virtually all of them by those of Korean descent, some merchants at flea markets removed their merchandise from their shelves, storefronts were fortified with extra Plexiglas and bars. Throughout the region, merchants readied to defend themselves as if on the eve of a war. College student Elizabeth Hwang spoke of the attacks on her parents' convenience store in 1992 and the fact that if trouble erupted following the 1993 trial, that they were armed with a Glock 17 pistol, a Beretta and a shotgun and they planned to barricade themselves in their store to fight off looters.
Some Koreans formed armed self-defense groups following the 1992 riots. Speaking just prior to the 1993 verdict, Mr. Yong Kim, leader of the Korea Young Adult Team of Los Angeles, which purchased five AK-47s, stated, "We made a mistake last year. This time we won't. I don't know why Koreans are always a special target for African-Americans, but if they are going to attack our community then we are going to pay them back."
Korean Americans not only faced physical damages to their stores and community surroundings, but they also suffered emotional, psychological, and economic despair. About 2,300 Korean owned stores in Southern California and Koreatown were looted or burned, thus contributing to 45 percent of all damages caused by the riot. According to the Asian and Pacific American Counseling and Prevention Center, 730 Koreans were treated for post-traumatic suffering, which included symptoms such as insomnia, sense of inactivity, and muscle pain. Such physical and psychological trauma created a positive movement as Korean Americans established their political and social empowerment.
The L.A. riots contributed to the creation of new ethnic agenda and organization. A week after the riots, the largest Asian American protest ever held in a city, about 30,000 mostly Korean and Korean American marchers walked the streets of L.A. Koreatown, calling for peace and denouncing police violence. This cultural movement was devoted to the protection of Koreans' political rights, ethnic heritage, and political representation. It created a new form of leaders within the community, in which second generation children spoke on behalf of the community. Korean Americans saw a shift in occupation goals, from storeowners to political leaders. Such political voice aided Korean Americans in receiving governmental aid in the reconstruction of their damaged neighborhoods. Countless community and advocacy groups have been established to further fuel Korean political representation and understanding. They experienced firsthand the severity of such isolation, as they were forced to endure the physical and psychological aftermath. The representative voice that was created remains present in South Central Los Angeles, as such events as the riots contributed to the shaping of identities, perceptions and political and social representation.
According to a report prepared in 1993 by the Latinos Futures Research Group for the Latino Coalition for a New Los Angeles, one third of those who were killed and one half of those who were arrested in the riots were Latino; moreover, between 20% and 40% of the businesses that were looted were owned by Latino owners. Hispanics were considered a minority despite their increasing numbers, and thus lacked political support and were poorly represented. Their lack of knowledge, both socially and politically, within the area additionally silenced their acknowledgment of participation. Since many of the individuals of the area were new immigrants; they did not speak English and were further silenced by the language barrier and were seen as unimportant and "different" from blacks.
Many Hispanics were not even aware of the Rodney King case but still participated in the chaos surrounding them. Other Hispanics participated in the violence because they felt the same racial and economic conditions that blacks felt as well as the unfair treatment by the LAPD and LASD throughout the years.
Gloria Alvarez claims the riots did not create social distance between Hispanics and blacks, but rather united them. Although the riots were perceived in different aspects, Alvarez argues it brought a greater sense of understanding between Hispanics and blacks. Even though Hispanics now heavily populate the area that was once predominantly black, such transition has improved over time. The building of a stronger and more understanding community could help to prevent social chaos arising between the two groups. Hate crimes and widespread violence between the two groups continue to be a problem in the L.A. area, however.
Almost as soon as the disturbances broke out in South Central, local television news cameras were on the scene to record the events as they happened. Television coverage of the riots was near-continuous, starting with the beating of motorists at the intersection of Florence and Normandie broadcast live by television news pilot/reporter Bob Tur and his camera operator Marika Gerrard. By virtue of their extensive coverage, mainstream television stations provided a vivid, comprehensive and valuable record of the violence occurring on the streets of Los Angeles.
In part because of extensive media coverage of the Los Angeles riots, smaller but similar riots and other anti-police actions took place in other cities throughout the United States. The Emergency Broadcast System was also utilized during the rioting.
Coverage came from the American media, which gave an extensive portrayal of the riots, Korean-American media, and Korea itself. One of the most prominent sources for news about the coverage came from the Korea Times, a Korean-American newspaper run entirely independently from American newspapers, such as the New York Times. The Korea Times helped to stabilize and balance the stories that erupted from the 1992 race riots, as well as give insight to the responses from the Korean-American victims.
Articles presented from the Korean-American’s side stated that “Korean American merchants were apparently targeted by looters during the LA. Riots, according to the FBI official who directed federal law enforcement efforts during the disturbance.” The Korean American newspaper focused on the 1992 riots with Korean Americans being the center of the violence. Initial articles from late April and early May were about the stories depicting victims’ lives and the damage done to the LA Korean Community. Interviews with Korea Town merchants, such as Chung Lee, drew sympathy from its readers. Chung Lee, the model example of good merchant watched, helplessly, as his store was burned down. I worked hard for that store. Now I have nothing," wailed Lee, who had can I go?
While several articles included the minorities involved when citing damages or naming victims, few actually incorporated them as a significant part of the struggle. American news coverage was mainly directed at the oppression of African American citizens especially at white hands. One story framed the race riots as “time when the wrath of blacks was focused on whites”. They acknowledged that racism and stereotyped views contributed to the riots, the articles from American newspapers made the LA riots about black and whites struggling to coexist, rather than include all minorities involved.
While both blacks and whites were active participants in the 1992 riots, they were not the only races involved. Other articles compare to the LA riots to the Watts riots of the 1960s. Once again the article’s focus shifts to the tension between black and white residents of America, drawing the history as far back as slavery and deep set racial divides. A commercial on racial tolerance produced in the aftermath of the riots featured black and white youth playing basketball together. This Nike commercial sparked a wave of movements intended to spread the message that race was not meant to be a barrier. New York began posting a series of posters featuring black children with their face whitened only one week after the riots. Like the racial tolerance commercial, it did not address the Asian or Hispanic communities that were also involved in the riots, even though it appeared to be a direct response to them. The difference in coverage suggests a divide in the thought process of these two groups: Americans wanted to showcase the racial tensions in an attempt to address them. National distribution of the riots brought forward the injustice present.
The Korean-Americans and their stores throughout LA’s Korea town were hit the hardest by the riots, with an estimated $400 million done in damages. Despite claims that Koreatown had not been intentionally targeted during the riots, by Sunday, over 1,600 Korean-American-owned stores had been completely destroyed. Hispanic-owned stores and African-American-owned stores were also destroyed during the riots. The diversity among victims has earned the 1992 LA riots the title of "America's First Multiethnic 'Riots'", though this title did not come into existence until years after the riots occurred. Media focused exclusively on select groups rather than observing the overall picture. Newspapers acknowledged the presence of other groups within the riots but listed them as “minorities” instead of giving the details.
The rioting ended after members of the California Army National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division, and the 1st Marine Division were called in to stop the rioting when the local police could not control the situation. In total, 55 people were killed during the riots and over 2,000 people were injured.
After the riots subsided, an inquiry was commissioned by the city Police Commission, led by William H. Webster (special advisor), and Hubert Williams (deputy special advisor, the then president of the Police Foundation). The findings of the inquiry, The City in Crisis: A Report by the Special Advisor to the Board of Police Commissioners on the Civil Disorder in Los Angeles, also colloquially known as the Webster Report or Webster Commission, was released on October 21, 1992.
LAPD chief of police Daryl Gates, who had seen his successor Willie L. Williams named by the Police Commission only days before the riots, was forced to resign on June 28, 1992. Some areas of the city saw temporary truces between the Crips and Bloods gangs, which fueled speculation among LAPD officers that the two gangs' truce was going to be used to unite against the department.
In addition to the immediate trigger of the Rodney King verdicts, various other factors have been cited as causes of the unrest. In the years preceding the riots, several other highly controversial incidents involving alleged police brutality or other perceived injustices against minorities were intensely scrutizined by the media and activist groups. The fatal shooting of black teenager Latasha Harlins by Korean American shop-owner Soon Ja Du, during a scuffle after Du mistakenly assumed Harlins was trying to steal a small container of orange juice, came just 13 days after the beating of Rodney King. Du's sentence of 5 years probation and 400 hours of community service but no jail time was pointed to as a potential reason for the riots, particularly for the aggression rioters expressed toward Korean Americans. Publications such as Newsweek and Time suggested that the source of these racial antagonisms was derived from perceptions amongst blacks that Korean-American merchants were 'taking money out of their community' and refusing to hire blacks to work in their shops. According to this view, these tensions were subsequently intensified by Du's light sentence for manslaughter.
Another explanation offered for the riots was the extremely high unemployment among the residents of South Central Los Angeles, which had been hit very hard by the nationwide recession, and the high levels of poverty there. Articles in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times linked the economic deterioration of South Central to the declining living conditions of the residents, and suggested that local resentments about these conditions helped to fuel the riots. Other scholars compare these riots with the riots of the 1920s in Detroit. But instead of African-Americans as victims, the race riots "represent backlash violence in response to recent Latino and Asian immigration into African-American neighborhoods."
Social commentator Mike Davis pointed to the growing economic disparity in Los Angeles in the years leading up to the riots caused by corporate restructuring and government deregulation, with inner-city residents bearing the brunt of these changes. Such conditions engendered a widespread feeling of frustration and powerlessness in the urban populace, with the King verdicts eventually setting off their resentments in a violent expression of collective public protest. To Davis and other writers, the tensions witnessed between African-Americans and Korean-Americans during the unrest was as much to do with the economic competition forced on the two groups by wider market forces as with either cultural misunderstandings or blacks angered about the killing of Latasha Harlins.
One of the more detailed analyses of the unrest was a study produced shortly after the riots by a Special Committee of the California Legislature, entitled To Rebuild is Not Enough. After extensive research, the Committee concluded that the inner-city conditions of poverty, segregation, lack of educational and employment opportunities, police abuse and unequal consumer services created the underlying causes of the riots. It also pointed to changes in the American economy and the growing ethnic diversity of Los Angeles as important sources of urban discontent, which eventually exploded on the streets following the King verdicts. Another official report, The City in Crisis, was initiated by the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners and made many of the same observations as the Assembly Special Committee about the growth of popular urban dissatisfaction leading up to the unrest. In their study Farrell and Johnson found similar factors which included the diversification of the L.A. population, tension between the successful Korean businesses and other minorities, use of excessive force on minorities by LAPD, and the effect of laissez-faire business on urban employment opportunities.
Initially, the motive of the rioters was attributed to racial tensions but now they are considered one factor in a larger status quo conflict. Urban sociologist Joel Kotkin agrees, "This wasn't a race riot, it was a class riot." Supporting this is the large misconception that rioters were only African-American; many groups in fact participated. Newsweek reported that "Hispanics and even some whites-men, women and children—mingled with African-Americans." "When residents who lived near Florence and Normandie were asked why they believed riots had occurred in their neighborhoods, they responded of the perceived racist attitudes they had felt throughout their lifetime and empathized with the bitterness the rioters felt. Residents who had respectable jobs, homes, and material items still felt like second-class citizens. A poll by Newsweek asked whether black people charged with crimes were treated more harshly or more leniently and results revealed that 75% of blacks voted more harshly versus 46% of whites.
In his public statements during the riots, civil rights activist and Baptist minister Jesse Jackson sympathized with the anger experienced by African-Americans regarding the verdicts in the King trial, and pointed to certain root causes of the disturbances. Although he suggested that the violence was not justified, he repeatedly emphasized that the riots were an inevitable result of the continuing patterns of racism, police brutality and economic despair suffered by inner-city residents—a tinderbox of seething frustrations which was eventually set off by the verdicts.
Several prominent writers expressed a similar "culture of poverty" argument. Writers in Newsweek, for example, drew a distinction between the actions of the rioters in 1992 with those of the urban upheavals in the 1960s, arguing that "[w]here the looting at Watts had been desperate, angry, mean, the mood this time was closer to a manic fiesta, a TV game show with every looter a winner." Meanwhile, in an article published in Commentary entitled "How the Rioters Won", conservative columnist Midge Decter referred to African-American city youths and asked "[h]ow is it possible to go on declaring that what will save the young men of South-Central L.A., and the young girls they impregnate, and the illegitimate babies they sire, is jobs? How is it possible to look at these boys of the underclass ... and imagine that they either want or could hold on to jobs?"
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton said that the violence resulted from the breakdown of economic opportunities and social institutions in the inner city. He also berated both major political parties for failing to address urban issues, especially the Republican Administration for its presiding over "more than a decade of urban decay" generated by their spending cuts. He maintained that the King verdicts could not be avenged by the "savage behavior" of "lawless vandals". He also stated that people "are looting because ... [t]hey do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support." While Los Angeles was mostly unaffected by the urban decay the other metropolitan areas of the nation faced since the 1960s, racial tensions had been present since the late 1970s, becoming increasingly violent as the 1980s progressed.
The African-American Congressional representative of South Central Los Angeles, Democrat Maxine Waters, said that the events in L.A. constituted a "rebellion" or "insurrection" caused by the underlying reality of poverty and despair existing in the inner city. This state of affairs, she asserted, were brought about by a government which had all but abandoned the poor through the loss of local jobs and by the institutional discrimination encountered by people of racial minorities, especially at the hands of the police and financial institutions.
Conversely, President Bush argued that the unrest was "purely criminal". Though he acknowledged that the King verdicts were plainly unjust, he maintained that "we simply cannot condone violence as a way of changing the system ... Mob brutality, the total loss of respect for human life was sickeningly sad ... What we saw last night and the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It's not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It's not a message of protest. It's been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple."
Vice President Dan Quayle blamed the violence on a "Poverty of Values" – "I believe the lawless social anarchy which we saw is directly related to the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society" Similarly, the White House Press Secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, alleged that "many of the root problems that have resulted in inner city difficulties were started in the '60s and '70s and ... they have failed ... [N]ow we are paying the price."
Writers for former Congressman Ron Paul framed the riots in similar terms in the June 1992 edition of the Ron Paul Political Newsletter, billed as a special issue focusing on "racial terrorism." "Order was only restored in LA", the newsletter read, "when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began... What if the checks had never arrived? No doubt the blacks would have fully privatized the welfare state through continued looting. But they were paid off and the violence subsided."
In the aftermath of the riots, public pressure mounted for a retrial of the officers, and federal charges of civil rights violations were brought against them. As the first anniversary of the acquittal neared, the city tensely awaited the decision of the federal jury; seven days of deliberations raised fears of further violence in the event of another not guilty verdict.
The decision was read in an atypical 7:00 am Saturday court session on April 17, 1993. Two officers—Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon—were found guilty, while officers Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind were acquitted. Mindful of accusations of sensationalist reporting in the wake of the first trial and the resulting chaos, media outlets opted for more sober coverage, which included calmer on-the-street interviews. Police were fully mobilized with officers on 12-hour shifts, convoy patrols, scout helicopters, street barricades, tactical command centers, and support from the Army National Guard, the active-duty Army and the Marines.
All four of the officers involved have since quit or have been fired from the LAPD. Officer Theodore Briseno left the LAPD after being acquitted on federal charges. Officer Timothy Wind, who was also acquitted a second time, was fired after the appointment of Willie L. Williams as Chief of Police. Chief Williams' tenure was also short-lived. The Los Angeles Police Commission declined to renew his contract, citing Williams' failure to fulfill his mandate to create meaningful change in the department in the wake of the Rodney King disaster. Susan Clemmer, an officer who gave crucial testimony for the defense at the initial trial, committed suicide in July 2009 in the lobby of a Los Angeles Sheriff's Station. She rode in the ambulance with King and testified that he was laughing and spat blood on her uniform. She had remained in law enforcement and was a Sheriff's Detective at the time of her death.
Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in damages from the City of Los Angeles for the attack. He invested most of this money in founding a hip-hop record label, "Straight Alta-Pazz Records". The venture was unable to garner any success and soon folded. Since the arrest which culminated in his severe beating by the four police officers, King was arrested at least a further eleven times on a variety of charges, including domestic abuse and hit-and-run. King and his family moved from Los Angeles to Rialto, California, a suburb in San Bernardino County, in an attempt to escape the fame and notoriety and to begin a new life. King and his family later returned to Los Angeles, where they ran a family-owned construction company. King, until his death on June 17, 2012, rarely discussed the incident or its aftermath, preferring to remain out of the spotlight. Renee Campbell, his most recent attorney, described King as "... simply a very nice man caught in a very unfortunate situation."
On May 3, 1992, in view of the very large number of arrests, the California Supreme Court extended the charging defendants' 48-hour deadline to 96 hours. That day, 6,345 people were arrested and 44 dead bodies were still being identified by the coroner using fingerprints, driver's license, or dental records.
At the end of the riot, 53 people were killed. 35 died from gunfire (including eight shot by law enforcement officers and two by National Guardsmen), six died due to arson, two died from attackers armed with sticks or boards, two died from stabbings, six died in car accidents (including two hit-and-runs), and one died from strangling.
Nearly a third of the rioters arrested were released because police officers were unable to identify individuals in the sheer volume of the crowd. In one case, officers arrested around 40 people stealing from one store; while they were identifying them, a group of another 12 looters were brought in. With the groups mingled, charges could not be brought against individuals for stealing from specific stores, and the police were forced to release them all.
In the weeks after the rioting, over 11,000 people were arrested. Many of the looters in black communities were turned in by their neighbors who were angry about the destruction of businesses employing and providing basic needs such as groceries to communities in the area. Many of the looters, fearful of prosecution by law enforcement and condemnation from their neighbors, ended up placing the looted items curbside to rid themselves of the items.
After three days of arson and looting, 3,767 buildings were burned with over $1 billion in property damage. Donations were given to help with food and medicine and the office of State Senator Diane E. Watson provided shovels and brooms as racially mixed volunteers from all over the community helped clean. 13,000 police and military personnel patrolled the area protecting gas stations and food stores that were not affected by the looting, which were able to reopen along with other areas such as the Universal Studios tour, dance halls, and bars. Many organizations stepped forward to rebuild Los Angeles; South Central's Operation Hope and Koreatown's Saigu and KCCD (Korean Churches for Community Development), all raised millions to repair destruction and improve economic development. President George H.W. Bush signed a declaration of disaster; it activated Federal relief efforts for the victims of the looting and arson which included grants and low-cost loans to cover their property losses, the Rebuild LA program promised $6 billion, in private investment to create 74,000 jobs.
The majority of the local stores were never rebuilt because, even though store owners had great desire to rebuild, they had trouble getting loans; myths about the area arose discouraging investment in the area and preventing growth of employment. Few of the rebuilding plans came to be because business investors as well as the community members rejected South L.A.
Many Los Angeles residents were motivated to buy weapons for self-defense against further violence, though the 10-day waiting period in California law stymied those who wanted to purchase firearms while the riot was going on.
In a survey of local residents in 2010, 77% felt that the economic situation in Los Angeles had significantly worsened. From 1992–2007, the black population dropped by 123,000, and the Latino population grew more than 450,000. According to the Los Angeles police statistics, violent crime fell by 76% between 1992 and 2010 and tensions between racial groups have lessened; 60% of residents reported racial tension has improved in the past 20 years with decreasing gang activity.