Los Angeles Riots 1992... FOR residents of Los Angeles, and perhaps much of the country, the televised beating of Rodney King, the battering of Reginald Denny, and the incendiary rioting that followed [were] unforgettable images... Few who were in Los Angeles that terrible day in April 1992 [could] forget what they saw on their television screens as the fires spread from South Central Los Angeles to Koreatown, Hollywood, and the fringes of the affluent and mostly white Westside... The country's second-largest city was engulfed in fear and rage, and the police were nowhere to be seen.
[Los Angeles] by the late 1980s, the pride and prosperity had crumbled, and violent crime, much of it fueled by cocaine, took over much of the city, especially South Central, which was now 50 per cent Latino. The African-American population that remained there was poorer than ever before, as middle-class African-Americans fled to more affluent areas. While the inner-city population grew poorer and more violent, the police department remained small and perilously underfunded.
[Tensions] erupted after Rodney King's beating. King was struck 56 times with metal batons capable of breaking bones --an unforgettable ordeal which appalled most who saw the videotape, including many police officers. [The] ineptitude of the arresting officers in subduing King, [it should be noted] in mitigation of their seemingly excessive use of force, the man's size and great strength, and the fact that he charged at Officer Powell. That this charge took place is still not widely known: the TV stations that showed the videotape deleted the first 13 seconds, when the charge took place, because that portion of the tape was blurry.
Thirteen days after the King arrest, a teenaged African-American girl named Latasha Harlins attempted to buy a bottle of orange juice from a Korean woman grocer. An accusation of theft led the girl to punch the grocer. She then put the orange juice down and, with her back turned, walked toward the door. The grocer shot her in the back of the head, killing her. The tragedy was caught on the store's surveillance videotape. A jury convicted the grocer of voluntary manslaughter with a maximum penalty of 11 years in prison, but the judge, citing all manner of extenuating circumstances, sentenced her to probation and a small fine. African-American anger against Korean shopkeepers was already running high, and now it was at flashpoint. When the riots erupted, shouts of "Latasha Harlins" were heard again and again.
Four LAPD officers were charged in the King beating, but, in a decision that defies explanation, instead of their being tried by a racially mixed jury in downtown Los Angeles, a change of venue was granted: to virtually all-white, and famously pro-police, Simi Valley. Their acquittal was now a foregone conclusion, and yet neither the city nor the LAPD took any steps to prepare for a riot. The not-guilty verdicts were announced at 3:15 P.M. on April 29, 1992. An hour later, there began the worst riot in U.S. history since the end of the Civil War. Before it ended, five terrible days later, 54 people had been killed and 2,300 injured, and 862 buildings had been burned. In all, the damage was estimated at $900 million. As the mobs randomly attacked white, Latino, and Asian motorists, the few police in the area were ordered to retreat to a staging area, leaving the rioters free to burn, pillage, and kill.
One of the most notorious episodes, captured live on television, involved the white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who was pulled from his truck, kicked, and beaten. One African-American, Damian "Football" Williams, smashed his skull with a slab of concrete, then danced a jig. Those who saw the attack on television were not shown the sequel: that Denny was rescued by other African-Americans and that two of the five doctors who saved his life were black. What the footage taken by media helicopters did show was that there were no police on the streets, and that more rioters, led by members of street gangs, rushed to the scene. As the rioting began, two-thirds of the LAPD's captains were out of town at a training seminar. Chief Daryl Gates was in his office seemingly unaware of the disturbance; he then drove to distant Brentwood to address a political fundraiser. He later regretted that. Koreatown was targeted early in the riots, losing some two thousand businesses. After the first day, foreign-born Latinos joined in, doing the bulk of the looting.
In the aftermath of the "riot" or the "uprising," depending on one's point of view, the city engaged in a flurry of political change and fundraising led by Peter Ueberroth, who had organized the 1984 Olympics. But trouble was still in the air as "Football" Williams went to trial and President Bush, with an eye on the elections, asked the Justice Department to retry the officers who had beaten Rodney King. Fear of "civil war" was expressed in the media. When Sergeant Koon and Officer Powell were convicted in this second trial, African-Americans danced in the streets of South Central and horns honked wildly as fully mobilized police officers, sheriff's deputies, and National Guardsmen looked on. The city breathed a collective sigh of relief. When Williams's subsequent conviction did not provoke violence, and Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in compensatory damages, the city seemed ready to return to what passed for normal life.