More than twenty-five years after the beating of Rodney King sparked a wave of protest, riots, and fire in Los Angeles, the underlying combustible conditions that led to this explosion of violence remain.
National Geographic’s film “LA 92” starts with footage not from 1992, but from 1965.
The Watts riots were sparked by frustration over police brutality towards the black community, and lasted almost a week.
“So serious and explosive is the situation, the August riots may be only a curtain raiser to what could blow up one day in the future,” says a somber reporter for CBS, quoting the McCone Commission report on the riots. “What shall it avail our nation if we can place a man on the moon, but cannot cure the sickness in our cities?”
The commission accurately predicted that the Watts riot would not be the last, and the 1992 riot had a cause much the same as the one in 1965.
The Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates, led a department that many accused of policy brutality and excessive force.
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was pulled over for a traffic violation and ended up on the ground, getting hit, kicked, stomped, and struck with batons a total of fifty-six times by four officers, after already being shocked with a Taser. A man who lived across the street from where the stop occurred noticed the commotion and started filming the assault. If not for this video, one might wonder, would anyone have known about this case at all? Would the police officers have been charged?
Probably not, as news footage from the time featured in the film states that the ACLU received fifty-five calls a week regarding incidents of police brutality.
King was just the first person to have it happen to him on tape, forcing the police department and the public to accept the fact that people of color’s complaints about racism and brutality at the hands of police were legitimate.
There was another aspect of the frustration with the justice system that contributed to the next year’s riot which I was not aware of until seeing this film.
On March 16th, 1991, less than two weeks after King was beaten and the video went public, a fifteen-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlin was shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner, an incident that was clearly visible on the store’s surveillance cameras. The owner claimed she thought Harlin was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice.
This incident stoked ongoing tensions between the black and Korean communities in LA. There were many Korean-owned businesses in black neighborhoods, and some people felt like Koreans were unfairly profiting off of the black community.
The store owner was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a recommended sentence of sixteen years. The white woman who was the judge in the case, however, used her discretion to reduce the sentence. The punishment was community service, a small fine, and time served.
People were understandably outraged.
An unidentified man said in a news interview, “Racism is not the Korean killing her, racism is the court system that allows her to kill her,” perfectly highlighting now racism is a systemic and structural issue as much as it is an issue of individual bias.
There were protests to demand the dismissal of the judge, but she kept her position and the reduced sentence was upheld in April 1992, a week before the verdict in the trail of King’s assailants and the riot.
So by the time of the trial for the officers charged with the assault of King, the frustration of the black community was already at a breaking point.
During the trial, the defendants used now-familiar language that has since been used by people like the killers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. They said they feared for their lives (at the hands of an unarmed young man, even when in King’s case, he was on his knees or laying on the ground throughout the entire assault). They said he was acting like an animal. They said that, despite all the pain he must have endured from their repeated blows, it seemed like it wasn’t effecting him.
All the racist tropes of black men being inherently dangerous, incredibly strong, animalistic, inhuman, and not able to feel pain in the way white people do were trotted out for the predominantly-white jury.
And, like all the cases of the last few years, it worked.
On April 29th, 1992, the jury of ten white people, one Asian person, and one Latino person, found all four officers not guilty on all but one charge, for which a mistrial was declared. The men who were caught on camera beating King while he lay defenseless on the ground went free. They rushed to leave through a volatile crowd mixed with their supporters and the frustrated supporters of King and justice.
Protest rapidly broke out at police headquarters and at the Los Angeles County courthouse (the trial took place in the 88% white, 1.5% black, Simi Valley, thirty-five miles north of downtown Los Angeles).
At the First AME Church in South Central, people were invited to come for peaceful protest and speeches by faith and community leaders.
But outside, others did not feel like peace was the answer.
At an intersection in South Central, people started to gather as police arrested a couple of men. Many people were yelling at the police and protesting the arrests. Multiple police cars were there, but after they put the men they arrested in the back of their cars, orders were given for all officers to leave the area.
After the officers left, groups of young men started throwing things at cars that passed by, targeting white and Asian drivers.
A liquor store was looted. And police and fire crews were under orders not to respond in the area, which allowed the turmoil to continue and grow.
Downtown, what had started as non-violent protests escalated to building windows being broken, cars turned over, and trees and cars being set on fire.
The next morning, there were protests outside of the White House.
The Congressional Black Caucus held a press conference, and when asked if there had been any conversation with President George H.W. Bush, Congresswoman Maxine Waters was direct and to the point.
“President Bush does not talk to us. Let’s be straight about this. We have no access to the White House… There is no relationship.”
Waters continued: “I am angry, and I have a right to that anger. And the people out there have a right to that anger. We don’t want anybody killed, none of us believe in violence. But there are some angry people in America, and young black males, in my district, are feeling at this moment, if they could not get a conviction with the Rodney King video available to the jurors, that there can be no justice in America.”
As we have sadly learned through repeated acts of violence and death at the hands of police over the years, no video is apparently enough proof to convict a police officer for their acts of violence against people of color.
In Los Angeles in 1992, violence, looting, and fires continued for days. A city-wide, dusk-til-dawn curfew was implemented on the night of April 30th, but forty fires were still burning the next day. Aerial footage shows whole blocks burned out, with just the concrete walls standing.
On May 1st, King made a public statement asking people to stop the violence.
“It’s not right… It’s not gonna change anything… We’ve got to quit,” he said in a shaky voice, clearly emotional.
Over the next few days people came out and stared cleaning up the considerable damage that has been done around the city.
The unrest officially ended on May 4th when the Mayor lifted the curfew.
This review gives a much abridged version of the events, and I highly recommend watching the film to learn more details and to see the stunning and, at times, unbelievable footage.
The film ends with a montage mixing together audio and video from Watts in 1965 and Los Angeles in 1992, and leaving us again with the message from the McCone Commission: that we have a sickness in our cities, so serious that it could blow up in our faces. That sickness is racism. White supremacy is embedded in many of our institutions, including our criminal justice system, and we must work to eradicate it.
“LA 92” is currently streaming on Netflix and can also be screened on the National Geographic Channel’s website with credentials from a qualifying cable or satellite television subscription.