LOS ANGELES — It was a Wednesday, a Simi Valley jury verdict in the case of four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with brutally beating a black man after a felony traffic stop the year before was expected at any time and tensions ran high in minority neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Rodney King, who was on parole for theft, was beaten by LAPD officers during his arrest after a high-speed chase on March 3, 1991, for driving while intoxicated on the 210 Freeway. LAPD and California Highway Patrol cruisers eventually stopped him, King was ordered out of the car.
What happened next was caught on camera by a bystander as four LAPD officers then repeatedly kicked him and beat him with their batons for about 15 minutes. Video showed more than a dozen other officers standing there watching and some even commenting on the beatings.
King’s injuries resulted in skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage.
Graphic video of the attack was played in homes across Southern California, then across the country and around the world, sparking outrage and calling for the immediate removal of LAPD Chief Darryl Gates.
Emotions were so high that the trial of the four officers arrested on brutality and other criminal charges was moved to Ventura County after a state appeals court panel ruled that the political fallout and anger of the community were such that the officers could not get a fair hearing. in Los Angeles due to “excessive publicity and a highly charged political climate”, noted the Los Angeles Times, and the trial was therefore moved. Simi Valley was geographically more convenient than Alameda County, a location favored by the prosecution.
The trial began in early February 1992, and in the last week of April the jury heard the case. On April 29, 1992, a jury of 12 residents of outlying suburban Ventura County – nine white, one Latino, one biracial, one Asian – found all four officers not guilty.
The acquittals were announced around 3 p.m. and less than three hours later the unrest began.
A news helicopter piloted by Trans reporter-photojournalist Hanna Zoey Tur, then working for Los Angeles News Service/KCOP 13 TV, captured what arguably became the epic ground center of what would become a series of mobs moving rioters spreading civil unrest and massive property damage during the seven-day period beginning that afternoon of May 29, until May 4, 1992, when authorities finally regained control of the city and county.
The civil unrest had begun with rallies by angry Angelenos, particularly black residents, shortly after the verdict was announced. But by 5:30 p.m., crowds had begun roaming the streets of South Central LA with some limited property damage and vandalism. Then around 6:46 p.m., a truck drove into the crossroads of Florence and Normandy.
Tur and his Los Angeles News Service/KCOP 13 helicopter team captured what happened next and the live feed from the helicopter was broadcast to the nation and the world. A group of black men known as the “LA Four” grabbed 39-year-old truck driver Reginald Oliver Denny and dragged him out of the truck.
Denny was punched, kicked and hit with a cinder block, a man threw a five-pound oxygenator at Denny’s head and the other kicked him and hit him with a claw hammer. As the beatings continued, Tur and his helicopter continued to circle the scene, with Tur noting on air that there were hardly any LAPD units in sight of the attack.
After the beatings ended, men threw beer bottles at the unconscious body and one man searched Denny’s back pockets, taking his wallet. The attackers were driven away by residents who ran to help the seriously injured truck driver.
Denny suffered a fractured skull and impaired speech and ability to walk, for which he underwent years of rehabilitation therapy.
The riots spread to other areas of the city as residents set fire to, looted and destroyed liquor stores, grocery stores, retail stores and fast food restaurants. Fair-skinned motorists — white and Latino — were targeted; some were taken out of their cars and beaten.
There was more than the Rodney King case that heightened racial tensions in Los Angeles that spring.
The same month as Rodney King’s beating the year before, a Korean store owner in South Los Angeles shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American girl named Latasha Harlins, accused of attempting to steal Orange juice. It was later discovered that Harlins was holding money to pay for the juice when she was killed. The store owner was given probation and a $500 fine, NPR reported in 2017.
The incident heightened tensions between Koreans and African Americans and heightened frustration in the black community with the criminal justice system.
The other contributing factor was that the LAPD was viewed by the city’s minority populations as little more than an army of occupation. In a 2017 interview with NPR’s Grigsby Bates, lawyer and civil rights activist Connie Rice said; “What we had was aggressive paramilitary policing with a mean and cruel, racist and abusive culture of force in communities of color, especially poor communities of color.”
“It was an open campaign to suppress and contain the black community,” she added, noting; “LAPD didn’t even think it necessary to distinguish between pruning a suspected criminal where he had probable cause to stop and simply arresting African American judges and senators, athletes and celebrities. prominent just because they drove nice cars.”
When 911 calls about the violence started coming in, LAPD units were not immediately deployed. In fact, LAPD Chief Gates announced early in the afternoon of April 29 that his officers had the situation under control.
“One of the most amazing things about the Los Angeles riots of 1992 was the response from the LAPD, meaning no response at all,” says author Joe Domanick, who researched and written about the riotsin an interview with NPR’s Grigsby Bates.
That night, Gates went to speak at a fundraiser in West Los Angeles and reportedly ordered the cops to retreat. Police did not respond to incidents of looting and violence in the city until nearly three hours after the riots began.
For the rest of the night, the scene in Florence and Normandy was repeated with rioters across the city. Just before 9 p.m. that evening, Mayor Tom Bradley called for a state of emergency and California Governor Pete Wilson ordered 2,000 National Guard troops to report to the city.
On May 1, the third day of the riots, Rodney King himself tried to publicly call on the people of Los Angeles to stop the fighting. He stood outside a Beverly Hills courthouse with his attorney and asked, “People, I just wanna say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?
Ultimately, there were more than 50 riot-related deaths, including 10 people who were shot by LAPD officers and National Guardsmen. More than 2,000 people were injured and nearly 6,000 looters and suspected arsonists were arrested.
More than 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and about 2,000 Korean-run businesses were also damaged or destroyed. In total, approximately $1 billion worth of property was destroyed.
The Arlington, Va.-based think tank, the Rand Corporation, found that of those arrested during the riots, 36% were African Americans and 51% were Latinos.
The beating of Rodney King and the riots that resulted from social issues that remain unresolved, most recently evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement propelled by the continued killings of unarmed black men by the forces order across the country.
The relationship between the black community and law enforcement remains icy. According to a Los Angeles Times analysisBlacks make up less than 10% of LA County’s population, but 24% of law enforcement killings.
The economic disparities that worried black people in 1992 also persist today, including vast inequalities in wealth that affects multiple non-white groups. Remnants of the uprising still come in the form of destroyed buildings never repaired.
The Los Angeles Times noted Thursday that despite all the progress made since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, many Angelenos believe their city may still be a powder keg, according to a survey by the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
The share of Los Angeles residents who expect another wave of ‘riots and unrest’ to occur has reached its highest level since the survey was launched in 1997, with 68% of them stating that it was very or somewhat likely. Nearly 40% believe race relations in the city have deteriorated over the past four years.
Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, who is currently running to replace Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, in an interview with NBC News reporter Curtis Bunn said some elements of black life have improved over the past three decades, but not to the point that an unpopular verdict involving a black person and white law enforcement wouldn’t trigger another outburst of emotions in the streets.
“There is always potential for riots or uprisings in the future,” he said. “Right now, inflation is running wild, largely due to things happening in the world that we can’t control. Covid has not gone away. And so, I think there’s always an opportunity for things to get so bad that people repeat history.
That history can repeat itself, Rhambo saidbecause the potential for violence against black people by law enforcement — with no one held accountable — remains strong.
“We just want to stop being mistreated by the police” he said. “It’s just basic common decency of how we treat people. That was the tipping point in 1992. If George Floyd’s verdict had been different, I wouldn’t have been surprised if something happened. In the Watts riots of 1965 and 1992, it was the perfect storm that led to violence. We now have a perfect storm creating this powder keg. So there is always potential for that in the future.
27 photos from the horrific Los Angeles riots of 1992:
Additional reporting from NPR, Los Angeles Times and NBC News Los Angeles