The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, also known as the Rodney King Riots, the South Central Riots, the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Disturbance, and the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, were a race riot and the subsequent lootings, arsons and civil disturbance that occurred in Los Angeles County, California in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers on trial regarding a videotaped, and widely covered police brutality incident. They were the largest riots seen in the United States since the 1960s and the worst in terms of death toll after the New York City draft riots in 1863.
The riot was first started in South Los Angeles and then eventually spread out into other areas over a six-day period within the Los Angeles metropolitan area in California beginning in April 1992. The riots started on April 29 after a trial jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers of assault and use of excessive force. The mostly white officers were videotaped beating an African-American man named Rodney King following a high-speed police pursuit. Thousands of people throughout the metropolitan area in Los Angeles rioted over six days following the announcement of the verdict.
Widespread looting, assault, arson and murder occurred during the riots, and estimates of property damages topped one billion dollars. The rioting ended after soldiers from the California Army National Guard, along with U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton were called in to stop the rioting after the local police could not handle the situation. In total, 53 people were killed during the riots and over two thousand people were injured.
After the riots subsided significant actions were undertaken in the Los Angeles Police Department including the retrial of the police officers involved, increasing minority officers in the police department, analyzing excessive force, resignation of the police chief, loss of support for the Mayor of Los Angeles, and analyzing the general political and economic atmosphere that contributed to the riots.
On 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 first over freeways and then through residential neighborhoods. When King came to a stop, CHP Officer Timothy Singer and his wife, CHP Officer Melanie Singer, ordered the occupants under arrest.
After 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. In a departure from the usual procedure, which is to tackle and cuff a suspect, King was tasered, kicked in the head, beaten with PR-24 batons for over one minute, then tackled and cuffed. The officers claimed that King was under the influence of PCP at the time of arrest, which caused him to be very aggressive and violent towards the officers. The video showed that he was crawling on the ground during the beating and that the police made no attempt to cuff him.
A subsequent test for the presence of PCP turned up negative. The incident was captured on a camcorder by resident George Holliday from his apartment in the vicinity. The tape was roughly ten minutes long. While the case was presented to the court, clips of the incident were not released to the public.
In a later interview, King, who was on parole from prison on a robbery conviction and who had past convictions for assault, battery and robbery, said that he had not surrendered earlier because he knew that an arrest for DUI would violate the terms of his parole.
The footage of King being beaten by police while lying on the ground became a focus for media attention and a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States. Coverage was extensive during the initial 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.
Charges and trial
The Los Angeles 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 black, one Latino, and one Asian. The prosecutor, Terry White, is 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 video tape that, according to journalist Lou Cannon, was edited out by television news stations in their broadcasts.
During the first two seconds of videotape, in confirmation of claims by the police, the video showed King aggressing toward 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, according to the officers, 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 protest 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 of the verdicts, peaked in intensity over the next two days. A dusk-to-dawn curfew and deployment of the National Guard eventually controlled the situation.
Fifty-three people died during the riots, including ten who were shot dead by police and military forces, with as many as 2,000 people 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 Korean and other Asian immigrants were widely targeted.
Many of the disturbances were concentrated in South Central Los Angeles, which was primarily composed of African American and Hispanic residents. Half of all riot arrestees and more than a third of those killed during the violence were Hispanic.
First day (Wednesday, April 29, 1992)
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 an hour earlier. Between 5 and 6 pm, a group of two dozen officers, commanded by Los Angeles Police officer, Lieutenant Michael Moulin, confronted a growing crowd at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles. Outnumbered, the police officers retreated. By about 6:30 pm, a new group of protesters appeared at the Los Angeles Police Department's headquarters at Parker Center, and fifteen minutes later, the crowd at Florence and Normandie had started looting, attacking vehicles and people.
Attack on Reginald Denny
At approximately 6:45 pm, Reginald Oliver Denny, a white truck driver who stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, was dragged from his vehicle and severely beaten by a mob of local black residents as a television news helicopter hovered above, piloted by reporter Bob Tur, who broadcast live pictures of the attack, including a concrete brick that was thrown by 'Football' Damian Williams that struck Denny in the temple, causing a near-fatal seizure. As Tur continued his reporting, it was clear that local police had deserted the area.
It was Tur's live reports that led to Denny being rescued by an unarmed, black civilian named Bobby Green Jr. who, seeing the assault live on television, rushed to the scene and drove Denny to the hospital using the victim's own truck. Denny had to undergo years of rehabilitative therapy, and his speech and ability to walk were permanently damaged. Although several other motorists were brutally beaten by the same mob, Denny remains the best-known victim of the riots because of the live television coverage.
Fidel Lopez beating
At the same intersection, just minutes after Denny was rescued, another beating was captured on video tape. Fidel Lopez, a self-employed construction worker and Guatemalan immigrant, was pulled from his truck and robbed of nearly $2,000. 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.
Lopez survived the attack, undergoing extensive surgery to reattach his partially severed ear, and months of recovery.
Second day (Thursday, April 30)
Although the day began relatively quiet, by mid-morning on the second day violence appeared widespread and unchecked as heavy looting and fires were witnessed across Los Angeles County. Korean-Americans, seeing the police force's abandonment of Koreatown, organized armed security teams composed of store owners, who defended their livelihoods from assault by the mobs. Open gun battles were televised as Korean shopkeepers exchanged gunfire with armed looters.
Organized law-enforcement response began to come together by midday. Fire crews began to respond backed by police escort; California Highway Patrol reinforcements were airlifted to the city; and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew at 12:15 am. President George H. W. Bush spoke out against the rioting, stating that "anarchy" would not be tolerated. The California 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 Camp Roberts, California (near Paso Robles).
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.
Third day (Friday, May 1)
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, but it was not ready until Saturday, by which time the rioting and looting was under control. National Guard units (doubled to 4,000 troops) continued to move into the city in Humvees, eventually seeing 10,000 National Guard troops activated. Additionally, a varied contingent of 1,700 federal law-enforcement officers from different agencies from 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, U.S. 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 there 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 was scheduled to perform at the Hollywood Bowl for Sunday, but the concert was canceled. 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 service throughout the Los Angeles area. Some major freeways were closed down.
Fourth day (Saturday, May 2)
On the fourth day, 2,000 7th Infantry Division (L) 2nd BDE soldiers, and a company's worth of military policemen from Fort Ord, along with 1,500 U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton, arrived to reinforce the California Army National Guard soldiers already in the city. 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. U.S. military forces directly supported Los Angeles Police officers 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. On the same day, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would begin a federal investigation of the Rodney King beating.
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Fifth day (Sunday, May 3)
Overall quiet set in and Mayor Bradley assured the public that the crisis was, more or less, under control. In one incident, National Guardsmen shot and killed a motorist who tried to run them over at a barrier.
Sixth day (Monday, May 4)
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.