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The L.A. Riots Erupted 20 Years Ago Today

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The Los Angeles Riots began on April 29, 1992, after officers in the Rodney King case were acquitted of almost all charges. Here is an excerpt from The Mental Floss History of the United States about the riots and the events leading up to the violence.

© David Butow/CORBIS SABA, 1992

While there had always been an African-American class hierarchy, beginning in 1970, the internal divisions became increasingly pronounced, forming two distinct communities that continued to drift further apart. Following the earlier pattern of "white flight" from cities to suburbs, the African-American middle class left ghettoes for suburban neighborhoods with lower crime rates, better schools, and higher property values.

From 1970 to 1990, the number of African-Americans living in suburbs jumped from 3.6 million to 10.2 million. However "black flight" contributed to an even greater concentration of poverty in central cities. The total number of African-Americans living in poverty in the ghettoes increased from 2.9 million in 1970 to 5.3 million in 1990, from 13 percent to 18 percent of the African-American population.

In many cities the tax base tumbled to new lows, inevitably sending public education, transportation, law enforcement, and sanitation into a nosedive. Although the phenomenon was widespread, some cases stand out for sheer awfulness. From 1970 to 1990, the unfortunate city of East St. Louis, Illinois, saw its population dwindle from 70,000 to 40,000, while tax revenues plunged from $175 million to under $50 million. Thirty percent of the city's buildings were abandoned, and garbage collection simply ceased from 1987 to 1992. As mountains of stinking garbage piled up, the city pumps broke, backing up raw sewage into schools and forming a sewage "lake" in the courtyard of one housing project. Police and firemen went on strike for unpaid wages, city hall was sold to pay down the debt, and traffic lights were turned off because of overdue bills.

As if things weren’t bad enough, the arrival of crack in 1984 took U.S. urban blight to the next level, transforming ghettoes into burnt-out, post-apocalyptic war zones in just a few short years. By 1990 half a million people reported using crack in the previous month, almost all in urban areas. Crime rates surged, with the number of young African-American men murdered each year tripling between 1985 and 1992. From 1975 to 1992, the number of African-American men in prison almost quadrupled to 425,000, or 50 percent of the total prison population. In 1991 the Justice Department estimated that an African-American male born that year had a 28 percent chance of one day going to prison.

Most Americans did their best to ignore deteriorating conditions in inner cities. But there were occasional updates in the form of eruptions of civil disorder: clearly expressions of discontent with this crushing urban poverty.

Riots during a blackout in New York on July 13-14, 1977, left two dead, 200 injured, 1,616 stores looted, and 40 city blocks destroyed, for a total $290 million in damage (about $1 billion today). In 1985, Philadelphia police laid siege to a heavily armed commune called MOVE, triggering a 90-minute firefight that only ended when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof, killing eleven commune members and burning down a city block.

© Peter Turnley/CORBIS, 1992

The most spectacular outbreak of civil disorder occurred in Los Angeles in 1992. Racial tensions were already running high following news broadcasts of a videotape showing six white LAPD officers beating an African-American motorist, Rodney King, who they pulled over after a high-speed chase on the night of March 3, 1991. The police later testified that King -- whose blood alcohol limit was twice the legal level -- hit one of the officers, lunged for another's gun, and didn't stop after two shocks from a Taser, leading them to conclude he was on PCP.

All this allegedly occurred before George Holliday, a resident in a nearby apartment block, began videotaping the incident; the video showed King being kicked six times while receiving 56 blows from nightsticks, attempting to crawl out of the circle of police officers and on one occasion rising to his knees before being knocked over again. King was treated for a broken ankle, a facial fracture, and many cuts and bruises; a nurse later testified she heard the officers joking about the beating.

After the LAPD declined to investigate Holliday's complaint, he took the video to a local TV station, KTLA, which aired it on the local news. The video was soon picked up by CNN and other national news outlets. The resulting outcry prompted L.A.'s district attorney to charge four of the officers with using excessive force. At first, a guilty verdict seemed like a foregone conclusion -- until the trial venue was moved to Simi Valley, a white, conservative suburb northwest of L.A. There, a jury composed of 10 whites, one Asian, and one Latino acquitted the officers of almost all charges.

The verdicts were handed down at 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29, 1992, and by 3:45 p.m. an angry crowd of several hundred had gathered in front of the L.A. County Courthouse. The first reports of looting came around 6:15 p.m. LAPD helicopters took fire from rooftop snipers (who also forced LAX air traffic control to reroute planes until flights were cancelled), but TV news helicopters went unmolested, and for the first time ever Americans could watch a riot unfold, live, with a bird's-eye view of the action.

"Gangs in earlier years were rather benign. They settled their differences with chains, baseball bats, and knives; guns were comparatively rare. In 1992 they had literally thousands of guns, many of them better than ours."
—Major General James Delk, California National Guard

The first report of arson came at 7:45 p.m. and soon south central L.A. was ablaze. By nightfall, there were over 500 fires ravaging the city. L.A.'s African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew in south central L.A., and California governor Pete Wilson ordered the mobilization of 2,000 National Guardsmen.

On Thursday, April 30, the sun rose over a paralyzed city, as all public transportation in L.A. was suspended and all public schools were closed. The second day of rioting brought more arson and looting, and on Friday, May 1, President George H.W. Bush mobilized federal troops to restore order. Still, the violence continued unabated until Saturday, when 8,000 local law enforcement officers were reinforced by a total 10,000 National Guardsmen, 3,500 Army soldiers, 1,500 Marines, and 1,000 U.S. Marshals.

By Monday evening the riots were over, leaving 53 dead, 2,400 injured, and 12,100 in jail. Seven thousand fires had destroyed 613 buildings and damaged another 960, while looters robbed and vandalized 2,700 businesses, many of which never reopened. The total cost of the damage was $1.5 billion, almost all in African-American neighborhoods. As in previous riots, most of the victims were also minorities: the death toll included 25 African-Americans, 16 Latinos, eight whites, two Asians, and two immigrants from the Middle East.

Erik Sass is the author of The Mental Floss History of the United States and co-author with Steve Wiegand of The Mental Floss History of the World. You can go buy them right now. Erik is currently covering the events that led to World War I exactly 100 years after they happened.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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