The LA Riots are mostly associated with the beating by police of Rodney King, but have a deeper and more complex background than that. We will start by looking at the background of Rodney King and the other causes to the LA Riots.
The early 1990s were a difficult time, especially for South Central. South Central was quickly changing. During the 1980s, many immigrants began to move in and the Crack Epidemic had a terrible effect on the area. We will learn about these events next week. Also, 1991 and 1992 were the worst on record for crime. 1992, the year of the riots, the murder rate was the highest in LA in history. At 1077 murders, it was close to three times the rate today. Many of these deaths came from gang violence in South Central. However, in Watts in the projects, gang violence came to a complete end. Right before the riots, there was a massive gang truce between the Bloods and the Crips throughout the three Watts’ projects. This came as a result of unity against the police.
Beating of Rodney King – March 3, 1991
Rodney King was severely beaten by the police on March 3, 1991. The police attempted to pull him over in Lake View Terrace in the San Fernando Valley after he was caught speeding at 110 mph. He led the police on a short pursuit because he knew being pulled over would violate his parole for a prior robbery. The police claimed that he was resisting arrest once he was pulled over. They claimed that they believed he was on drugs, although he was not. The police proceeded to beat Rodney King severely for about 15 minutes, resulting in skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage. The police did not know that they were being filmed for most of the beating. The people that filmed it brought it to the media, and the film was repeatedly shown on TV. Police brutality and racial profiling had been a problem for some time in LA, but this was the first time it was caught on tape. The four main officers involved were brought to trail on charges of using excessive force. Their trail was moved to Semi Valley. The four white officers represented for many people of color everything that was wrong with the police.
Murder of Latasha Harlins – March 16, 1991
Latasha Harlins was a 15-year old Black young woman. She entered a liquor store on Figueroa on March 16, 1991 to buy some orange juice. She picked up the juice and put it in her backpack. She took out the money to pay for it and approached the counter. The woman running the store was Soon Ja Du, the sister of the Korean Store owner. She accused the girl of stealing, and attempted to take the backpack. Latasha hit Du in response to this. As Latasha turned around, Du picked up a gun behind the counter and shot her in the back of the head. At the same time that the King video was still being shown, a video of the murder was shown on TV. Black residents in South Central were very angry, but the story did not get very much coverage outside of LA. Ice Cube wrote a song called “Black Korea,” about this murder. Du was charged with murder.
Verdict for Du – October 1991
All of South Central was enraged when the verdict came back for Du. Instead of being incarcerated, Du was given probation and forced to pay a $500 fine. She did not serve any jail time for the murder of Latasha Harlins. This put a deep strain on the relationship between Koreans and Blacks.
Verdict for Officers in King Beating – April 29, 1992
The mostly white jury in the case against the white officers came back with a verdict of “not guilty” on April 29, 1992. Nobody could believe it. The officers were on tape and they were still not convicted. The feelings of anger and disappointment had built up long enough, and within minutes of the verdict, rioting started in South Central on Florence and Normandie.
The riots happened quickly. Liquor stores, chain stores, fast-food places, and white people were the main targets of looting, fire, and violence. On the first day of the riots, the most infamous event took place. Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, was crossing Florence and Normandie. He was pulled out of his car by Damian Williams, a resident of the area. He was severely beaten while a helicopter recorded the incident. Williams took a piece of concrete and slammed it against Denny’s head and then celebrated. Denny barely survived. The police were withdrawn from South Central, and the 110 Freeway was closed from Century to King. The media concentrated on this attack throughout the riots. They did not report that Fidel Lopez, an immigrant from Guatemala, suffered similar brutality.
The riots were more organized and South LA began to burn. Korean store owners came to defend their stores and had gunbattles with rioters. There were not any police or National Guard present at this point as LA burned.
Rodney King was put on TV and asked LA, “can we all get along?” People could not at this point. The police and National Guard continued to let the city burn as a huge power outage hit South Central.
Day 4 and 5
The National Guard enters South Central and begins to restore order. There are random areas of violence for days on end.
In the end, 53 people were killed, most all were rioters or innocent victims. Over $1 billion in damages were done. People rioted because of the built up anger and frustration of recent events. Riots also occurred in San Francisco, Oakland, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Chicago. The riots were not just a collection of random acts. People were speaking out against oppression; against being held down for so long. The only way they were finally heard was through the extreme acts that came to be called the LA Riots.