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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