The Los Angeles riots of 1992 were one of the worst civil disturbances in the history of the United States. But what sparked the riots?
The riots began on April 29, 1992, following the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers accused of the use of excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King, an African American man. However, ethnic tensions between the various communities in Los Angeles had long been an issue in the city.
To find out more about the history of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and their impact to this day, read on.
The Context for the 1992 Los Angeles Riots
While Los Angeles generally prided itself on being a multicultural city at the end of the 20th century, there was a sense that minority groups were being discriminated against or ignored by city officials, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
Many believed that African Americans and other minority groups in the city were being profiled by the police and subjected to police brutality. Tensions were also high between the city’s African-American and Korean-American communities, with some African Americans feeling they were being disrespected and some Korean-American business owners feeling they were being targeted in criminal activities.
These tensions were elevated on March 16, 1991, when a Korean-American storekeeper shot and killed a 15-year-old African American. She was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to only five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a fine of $500.
Also in 1991, two Korean migrants working at a liquor store were killed during a robbery by an African American. With community tensions high, a feeling that African Americans were being unfairly targeted, and Korean Americans not believing that they were being sufficiently protected from crime by the police, Los Angeles was close to civil disorder.
There were also tensions related to inequality in the city, with people from all backgrounds taking part in the riots to come, perhaps to vent their frustration.
The Rodney King Assault Trial
This disorder was sparked on April 29, 1992, when four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of charges related to the beating of Rodney King, an African-American man arrested for DUI on March 3, 1991, who had tried to evade the police due to being on parole.
King was tasered, repeatedly beaten with batons, kicked in the back, and tackled to the ground, with the police saying that he had resisted arrest. The incident had been recorded by a civilian who could see the scene from his apartment, causing the footage to be widely seen on news stations and written about in the media.
Following the outrage, an independent commission found that race, gender, and sexuality biases regularly led to excessive use of force by the police in Los Angeles, with a record number of reports of minority police harassment.
The Los Angeles District Attorney charged the four police officers, who were then acquitted of the charges, with the jury citing footage not seen by the public apparently showing King resisting. Many in the public were outraged and riots began on the same day, on April 29, 1992.
The Riot and Aftermath
The riots led to the deaths of 64 people as well as the injuries of close to 2,400 people. The riots also caused an estimated $1 billion worth of damages, with 3,600 fires and the destruction of 1,100 buildings, as well as looting.
Korean-owned stores, as well as stores owned by other Asians, were targeted in the riots, exacerbating racial tensions even further, causing $400 million worth of damages for Korean-owned businesses. The Korean community complained of being abandoned by the police as their communities were targeted, with Koreans arming themselves to protect themselves from the looting.
A state of emergency and curfew were declared on the first night of the riots, with 6,000 National Guardsmen deployed to help keep the peace. President George Bush sent in some 4,000 troops from the army and marines, as well as 1,000 specialist federal officers.
The curfew was lifted on May 4, 1992, with schools and businesses reopening. The riots led to an FBI inquest of the Los Angeles Police Department while Rodney King was eventually awarded $3.8 million as a settlement following a civil suit with Los Angeles.
The riots were an explosion of the racial tensions and inequality in Los Angeles, with minority groups feeling failed by the police in different ways, and few of the problems seeming to have changed since.
The riots led to the development of the Korean-American identity and increased political involvement, with the largest Asian-American protest in the history of the country taking place the following week and calling for peace.