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Historical Reflections: Los Angeles Riots of 1992
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Editor's Note: Given the death of Sean Bell by bullets shot by NYPD cops and their recent aquittal in courts. It's vividly reminding of the beatings of Amadou Diallo, Rodney King and Arthur McDuffie and the acquittal of the officers in those cases. Here we remember the Los Angeles Riots and especially what sparked it.

The Los Angeles riots of 1992, also known as the Rodney King uprising or the Rodney King riots, were sparked on April 29, 1992 when a jury acquitted four police officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people in the Los Angeles area rioted over the six days following the verdict. Widespread looting, assault, arson, and murder occurred. Many of the crimes were gang-motivated or perpetrated. In all, 53 people died during the riots.

In addition to the immediate trigger of the verdict, many other factors were cited as reasons for the unrest, including extremely high unemployment among residents of South Central Los Angeles, which had been hit very hard by the nation-wide recession; a long-standing perception that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) engaged in racial profiling and used excessive force, subsequently supported by the Christopher Commission, an investigation led by Warren Christopher (who two years later would become Secretary of State under president Bill Clinton); and specific anger over the sentence given to a Korean American shop-owner for the killing of Latasha Harlins, an African American girl. Additionally, in the time between the public revelation of King's arrest and the trial verdict, the two L.A. street gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, agreed to a truce with each other, and began working together to make political demands of the police and the L.A. political establishment. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was heavily beaten with clubs, tackled, and tasered by four L.A.P.D. officers. The incident, minus the first few minutes when police claim King was violently resisting arrest, was captured on video by a private citizen, George Holliday, from his apartment in the vicinity. The footage of King being beaten by police officers while lying on the ground became an international media sensation and a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States.

The police officers claimed that King appeared to be under the influence of PCP. King had also led police on a high-speed pursuit. After driving through several red lights and boulevard stops, he pulled over in the Lake View Terrace district. In a later interview, King, who was on parole from prison on a robbery conviction, and had past convictions for assault, battery and robbery said that, being on parole, he feared apprehension and being returned to prison for parole violations.

One small example of the damages done to Los Angeles during the riots.

The Los Angeles district attorney subsequently charged the police officers with the use of excessive force in the arrest. Due to the media coverage of the arrest, the trial received a change of venue from Los Angeles County to a newly constructed courthouse in the predominantly white city of Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County. No Simi Valley residents served on the jury, which was drawn from the nearby San Fernando Valley, a predominantly white and Hispanic area. The prosecutor who failed to obtain convictions for three of the officers in this case, Terry White, was black.On April 29, 1992, three of the officers were acquitted by a jury of ten Caucasians, one Latino, and an Asian. The jury could not agree on a verdict for one of the counts on one of the officers. The acquittal was based in part on a 13-second segment of the video tape that was edited out by television news stations in their broadcast. It was not previously seen by the public. Those first 13 seconds of videotape are very blurry. It shows Rodney King getting up off the ground and charging in the general direction of one of the police officers, Ofc. Laurence Powell. Prior to that, the testimony of the officers indicated that they tried to physically restrain King but, according to the officers, King was able to physically throw them off himself. That alleged incident was not caught on tape. Based on this testimony and the previously unseen segment of the videotape, the officers were acquitted on almost all charges. The general public was largely unaware of the testimony and the unedited videotape footage.

The riots, beginning in the evening after the verdict, peaked in intensity over the next two days, but would ultimately continue for several days. Continuous television coverage, especially by helicopter news crews, riveted the country and shocked viewers around the world. People watched as parts of the city went up in flames, stores were openly looted, innocent bystanders were beaten, and rioters shot at police.[citation needed] A curfew and deployment of California National Guard troops began to control the situation; eventually federal troops from the 7th Infantry Division in Fort Ord and United States Marines from the 1st Marine Division in Camp Pendleton would be sent to the city to quell disorder.

Estimates of the number of lives lost during the unrest vary between 50 and 60, with as many as 2,000 people injured. Estimates of the material damage done 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. About 10,000 people were arrested. Stores owned by Korean and other Asian immigrants were widely targeted, although stores owned by whites and blacks were also targeted. Despite the race riot image the event retains, much of the looting and violence was done by young men, mostly black,[citation needed] and much of the looting was opportunistic theft of luxury goods.[citation needed] Criminals used the chaos to their own benefit, and street gangs settled scores with each other and fought the police.

By the time the riots ended, pressure mounted for a retrial of the officers, and federal charges of civil rights violations were brought against the officers. Near the first anniversary of the acquittal, the city tensely awaited the decision of the federal jury; seven days of deliberations raised speculative fear of an incendiary outcome in the event of a not guilty verdict.

Precautionary measures were taken by the government and media. The decision was read in an atypical 7:00 a.m. Saturday court session on April 17, 1993. Two officers--Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon were found guilty and the other two were acquitted. Mindful of accusations of sensationalist reporting following the first jury decision, media outlets opted for more sober coverage which included calmer on-the-street interviews.Police were fully mobilized with officers on 12-hour shifts, convoy patrols, scout helicopters, street barricades, tactical command centers, and support from the National Guard and Marines.

The four officers have since quit or have been fired from the LAPD. Officer Theodore Briseno left the LAPD after being acquitted on federal charges. Officer Timothy Wind, who was also tried twice and acquitted twice, was fired after Willie L. Williams became Chief of Police. Chief Williams himself did not have his contract renewed by the Los Angeles Police Commission, who said Williams had failed his primary task of remaking the city's police force in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating.

Rodney King has since been arrested eleven times on a variety of charges including spousal abuse, hit-and-run, and being under the influence of PCP.

According to insurance records, the riots caused far wider destruction than was televised or noted in contemporary news reports.

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The brutal beating of Rodney King (above) at the hands of the police and the acquittal of the four officers involved was the straw that broke the camel's back in the Los Angeles area and helped to start the historic riots



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