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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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
How a Hairdresser Found a Way to Fight Oil Spills With Hair Clippings
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker made global news in 1989 when it dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Alaska's coast. As experts were figuring out the best ways to handle the ecological disaster, a hairdresser from Alabama named Phil McCroy was tinkering with ideas of his own. His solution, a stocking stuffed with hair clippings, was an early version of a clean-up method that's used at real oil spill sites today, according to Vox.

Hair booms are sock-like tubes stuffed with recycled hair, fur, and wool clippings. Hair naturally soaks up oil; most of the time it's sebum, an oil secreted from our sebaceous glands, but it will attract crude oil as well. When hair booms are dragged through waters slicked with oil, they sop up all of that pollution in a way that's gentle on the environment.

The same properties that make hair a great clean-up tool at spills are also what make animals vulnerable. Marine life that depends on clean fur to stay warm can die if their coats are stained with oil that's hard to wash off. Footage of an otter covered in oil was actually what inspired Phil McCroy to come up with his hair-based invention.

Check out the full story from Vox in the video below.

[h/t Vox]

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