Los Angeles Riots

Yet across the United States, the domestic issues of racially motivated police brutality and the growing wealth gap in urban communities clouded the triumphs of the South African freedom movement, in which democracy seemed fulfilled. On 3 March 1991, four Los Angeles police officers arrested motorist Rodney King for reckless driving and other infractions. After pulling him from his car, they restrained and brutally beat him while he was lying on the ground. An observer captured the beating on videotape from his apartment building. The 81-second amateur tape showed the officers striking the defenseless King fifty-six times with their batons. The tape was given to a local television station in Los Angeles, and almost immediately broadcast across the world. Four days later, all charges against King were dropped. By early April of 1992, the white officers who had beaten King beyond recognition were all acquitted, despite the findings of the Christopher Commission, which stated that the LAPD had exhibited patterns of excessive force and racist profiling. The black and Latino community of Los Angeles was outraged.

Some months before the King verdict, a Korean grocer shot and killed Latisha Harlins, a fifteen year old black girl, outside of his store. Although the grocer was found guilty, he received a probation sentence and was released. African American residents of South Central were angered by what they saw as a sliding justice system in which different groups were given different treatment. Almost immediately after the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King case, Los Angeles police officers retreated from a number of South Central LA neighborhoods in anticipation of rioting. Young blacks and Latinos destroyed property and looted stores, primarily owned by whites and Asians. After six days of civil unrest, forty-two people had been killed and over 5,000 arrested. Property damage exceeded one billion dollars. Only 38 percent of those arrested were African American; the majority were Latino and 9 percent were Anglo whites. In the wake of these civil disturbances, Los Angeles Police Commissioner Daryl Gates resigned, and was replaced by an African American, Willie Williams.

Although it was categorized by media and government officials as a senseless riot, this uprising, like those of the 1960s, exposed the anger and frustration of hundreds of thousands of black and Latino citizens to the growing economic disparities, the perseverance of racist violence and attacks by cops that mirrored the King beating, the policing and containment of poor neighborhoods, and the cuts in educational and social resources. The new post-Civil Rights Movement urban landscape was not the “melting pot” that politicians celebrated, but a new convergence of racially and economically driven conflicts that divided the community as individuals and groups struggled against poverty.

Related Resources

Rodney King Appeals for Calm in Wake of L.A. Riots.
Rodney King makes his first appearance since the verdict that acquitted his accused attackers and sparked riots in Los Angeles. He appeals for an end to the violence and asks all people to get along. Source: NBC News / iCue.