The L.A. Riots Erupted 20 Years Ago Today

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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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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