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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

Documentary Review: LA 92 tells the story of the riots that tore apart the Southland

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.

LA 92 Release Poster

LA 92
Release Year: 2017
Direc­tors: Daniel Lind­say, T. J. Mar­tin
Run­ning time: 114 min­utes
Watch trail­er

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.

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