On April 29 1992, African-American communities were shocked by the acquittal of four white police officers for assault and extreme use of force against Rodney King. Following this, Los Angeles erupted into rioting on a scale not seen since. For five days, the city was subject to unprecedented levels of assault, looting and arson, resulting in a militaristic response by the US government. By May 3 there were 63 dead, 2,300 injured and nearly one billion dollars of damage caused.
Public opinion surrounding King’s case was clear. As news stations across the US broadcast harrowing footage showing police striking, kicking and tasering an already restrained King, it seemed to be an open and shut case of police brutality. The country was stunned when a predominantly white jury from neighbouring Simi Valley acquitted all officers involved of any charges, bringing years of racial animosity to a head in the predominantly black South Central LA. Director John Singleton, present as the verdict was announced, warned “By having this verdict, what these people done, they lit the fuse to a bomb.”
Following the verdict, crowds of protestors descended upon the LA County Courthouse, the LAPD headquarters and Lake View Terrace, the original site of the incident. Sporadic acts of violence gripped the city, with indiscriminate assault and looting. In these early hours, the now infamous attack on white truck driver Reginald Denny took place, which saw him dragged from his vehicle and brutally beaten. Police quickly found themselves unable to control the rapidly spiralling situation.
By the next day, a curfew had been put in place and federal authorities mobilised in an effort to curtail rioting, but the city had already descended into chaos. Limited resources focused efforts on wealthy, predominantly white communities, leaving many people to protect themselves against anarchic chaos. Koreatown had been specifically targeted by rioters, the culmination of animosity between Black and Korean communities, leading to armed battles between the two groups with police intervention a glaring absence. At the time, Korean sociologist Eui-Young Yu stated “Desperate calls for help to city authorities were not answered… At the time of crisis, no one provided us with police protection. We had to stand alone in times of danger.”
Rioting continued to tear the city apart at the start of May, leading to a de facto military occupation of LA by the national guard and US military, utilising upwards of 13,000 troops in the process. Public services ground to a halt as major sports and entertainment events were cancelled. President George H.W. Bush took to the nations TV screens to denounce rioters. By May 3, aside from sporadic incidents, the city had been brought mostly under control. A military presence would be maintained until the end of the month, with harsh reprisals against would be rioters.
Almost 30 years later, what lessons has America taken from these riots? The initial killing and the subsequent response demonstrated a clear adversarial relationship between government authorities and impoverished minority ethnic communities, and this relationship has only deteriorated since. Police actions in the riots were rewarded with the implementation of the 1033 Program in 1997, giving local police access to powerful, military equipment. The 2015 shooting of Michael Brown sparked a national debate surrounding police and minority relations, and the militarisation of law enforcement but measures put in place to address such issues were repealed in 2017 by President Trump.
African American’s are still being disproportionately targeted by US police, being three times more likely to be shot compared to whites. Violent police responses are still encouraged over de-escalation techniques. America has had opportunities time and time again to re-evaluate its law enforcement, but instead has consistently chosen to reward police aggression with greater power and greater force. The events of 1992 were re-enacted in the 2001 Cincinnati riots, 2009 Oakland Riots and 2015 riots in Baltimore and Ferguson. The story of America’s institutionalised violence against minorities is far from over, and there will be more bloodshed before it ends.