The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, also remembered as the Rodney King riots and the Battle of Los Angeles, were a series of riots, arsons, looting, and violence that engulfed Los Angeles County following the acquittal of four white police officers involved in the brutal beating of Rodney King.
The Los Angeles Riots began on Wednesday, April 29 and officially ended five days later on Monday, May 4, though some members of the National Guard remained in the affected areas until the end of May.
Below are 21 forgotten facts about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
The L.A. Riots Were Motivated by the Rodney King Beating
Racial tensions had been simmering between the L.A. Police Department and people of color for years. But it all boiled over on March 3, 1991 after amateur cameraman George Holliday shot footage from the balcony of his Lake View Terrace apartment of a group of white police officers beating a black man with nightsticks and kicking him as 17 officers stood idly by and watched. Rodney King suffered 11 skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and other injuries.
Holliday went to the LAPD and told them about the tape, believing they would want to address the excessive force used on King. The LAPD, however, was not interested. Other people were, though. One local TV station in particular, KTLA, aired most of the video on March 4.
LAPD Chief Daryl Gates Thought the Video Was Funny
Shortly after the video of King being mercilessly beaten by four officers hit the news, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates said, “If it wasn’t for our helicopters, the lighting would’ve been horrible.” The audience at the public forum where he spoke laughed.
Within days, the violent footage was picked up by other major news networks, including CNN. The county was outraged at the brutality of the beating, racial injustice, and apathy from the LAPD.
The LAPD eventually realized they couldn’t ignore the incident.
On March 7, Rodney King was released without being charged.
One week later, Sergeant Stacey Koon, as well as officers Laurence Michael Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno, were indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury in connection with the beating. A grand jury refused to indict the 17 officers who stood by and did nothing as Rodney King was pummeled by fellow officers.
There Was More to the L.A. Riots than Just Rodney King
It wasn’t just the beating of Rodney King and police brutality that ignited the L.A. riots. Racial tension had been at a tipping point for a long time.
On March 16, 1991, just days after the Rodney King video went public, Latasha Harlins, 15, an African-American schoolgirl, was shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American store owner.
Du falsely accused Harlins of stealing a bottle of orange juice. After a scuffle, she threw a chair at Harlins and shot the girl in the head as sh walked away.
Du claimed self-defense, but many questioned her this: Harlins was unarmed and the store counter was between them. When investigators arrived, Harlins was holding two dollar bills in her hand.
Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but spent no time in jail. Instead, she paid a $500.00 fine.
The untimely death of Latasha Harlins further escalated the smoldering tensions between African-Americans and Asian-Americans in South Central Los Angeles. Some black activists said Harlins’ death stemmed from racism on the part of the Koreans. Meanwhile, some Koreans said there were racial tensions because certain activists had called for boycotts at a number of Korean-owned stores.
April 29, 1992: Officers Acquitted and L.A. Riots Explode
At about 3:15 p.m. local time on April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury in Ventura County acquitted the four white LAPD officers of beating Rodney King. The response to the not guilty verdict was immediate, with hundreds of protesters forming outside LAPD headquarters in downtown L.A. chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
Roughly half an hour after the verdict was read, police responded to reports that growing crowds were harassing motorists (throwing beer cans, hitting cars) at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in predominately black South Central Los Angeles.
The violence escalated and spread to areas throughout the city.
LAPD Chief Gates Ignores Riots, Attends Fundraiser
In the early crucial hours of the L.A. riots, when police were attempting to defend the city and potentially could have stopped the rioting, Gates left the Parker Center, the then headquarters of the LAPD, to attend a fundraiser in Brentwood aimed at defeating an upcoming police reform ballot measure.
Gates, whom many saw as the poster boy of police brutality, racism, arrogance, and corruption, was forced to resign following the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Reginald Denny: White Trucker in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time
LAPD were quickly overwhelmed in some areas of the city and retreated, allowing the level of violence to explode.
Reginald Denny, 33, was driving his 18-wheeler when he decided to take a tried-and-true shortcut off the Santa Monica Freeway down Normandie Avenue. Heading down the road, his rig crossed Florence and Normandie, the flashpoint of the L.A. riots.
An angry mob of black rioters rushed the truck and pulled him out of the cab, beating him to within an inch of his life. The attack was caught on live TV.
The beating only ended after Damian Monroe Williams took a cinder block and bashed it over Denny’s skull, fracturing it in 91 places. Denny lay bleeding on the ground; rioters stood around laughing.
Four South Central residents, who watched the incident unfold on live TV, raced to the scene. Bobby Green, Lei Yuille, Titus Murphy, and Terri Barnett grabbed Denny and put him back into his cab. Green, who was a part-time truck driver, drove Denny to a nearby hospital where doctors were able to save his life.
Denny underwent years of rehabilitation therapy. Following the riots, Denny moved out of Los Angeles to Lake Havasu, Arizona, where he worked as a boat mechanic. He has since moved from Lake Havasu and chosen to lead a quiet life away from the media.
After the riots, Denny’s employer, Transit Mixed Concrete (now Cemex), gave Green a full-time job. He moved out of Los Angeles to suburban Rialto.
Fidel Lopez, Beaten in Same Location One Hour Later
The story of Fidel Lopez is largely forgotten, but he suffered a similar fate, and he was beaten just one hour after Reginald Denny was attacked in the same location.
Fidel Lopez, a self-employed construction worker, was driving home from work at around 7:00 p.m. As he made his way down Normandie, he heard shouts and saw several businesses on fire.
When he got to the intersection of Florence and Normandie, a mob started throwing rocks and bottles at his truck. He tried to escape, but his path was blocked. One rioter opened the door and tried to drag him out of the truck. “White motherf*****r!” he shouted.
“I’m not white, I’m Hispanic” replied Lopez.
“Same sh*t!” the man yelled and yanked Lopez out of the truck.
Rioters, including Damian Williams, beat Lopez and set his truck on fire. After he lost consciousness, the crowd spray-painted his bleeding body black and doused him with gasoline.
He was eventually rescued by Bennie Newton, a black minister. Newton came running into the melee carrying his Bible.
“I threw my body across him to protect him…I said, ‘No more, this is enough. You’re going to have to kill me, too,’” Newton said.
Lopez stopped breathing, so Newton began praying.
“It was three to five minutes almost, and he began to groan and then his eyes came back into focus. He began to breathe,” Newton recalled.
Newton died in 1993, one year after the L.A. riots, from leukemia.
Lopez survived the attack but never fully recovered, and he blames his injuries and the financial troubles he’s faced since that night on the police for not doing more to protect the city.
Frayed Relationships and a State of Emergency
At around 8:30 p.m., Daryl Gates returned from the fundraiser in Brentwood and finally went to the city’s Emergency Response Center. Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley had not spoken to each other for more than a year.
Bradley declared a local state of emergency. Shortly thereafter, Governor Pete Wilson, at Bradley’s request, activated 2,000 reserve soldiers in the National Guard.
Hours later, Bradley declared a sunset-to-sunrise curfew and prohibited the sales of ammunition and gasoline, except for vehicles.
L.A. in Tatters
The following day, it became clear that the riots had carved a path of destruction across the city, from downtown to the Westside and from South Los Angeles to Pasadena. By the end of April 30, bus service was canceled and mail delivery halted throughout South Los Angeles. Many employees were told to stay home. Schools were closed throughout L.A., and even professional baseball and basketball games were cancelled.
National Guard Deployed
The LAPD didn’t have the leadership they needed and could not keep the peace. The Marine Division and California Army National Guard were called in. More than 600 Army troops, 9,800 National Guard troops, and 1,100 Marines patrolled the streets of Los Angeles.
May 1, 1992: Rodney King Delivers Impassioned Plea for Peace
On May 1, the third day of rioting, Rodney King made a televised appearance asking for the rioters to stop.
“People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?
Merchants in Koreatown Arm Themselves
Around this time, a large number of merchants from South Los Angeles to Mid-Wilshire to Koreatown armed themselves with shotguns and automatic weapons to protect themselves against firebombers and looters.
More than 1,000 Korean-Americans gathered at a peace rally at Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.
May 2, 1992: Peace March in Koreatown
By May 2, with thousands of National Guardsmen on the ground and another 4,000 federal troops and Marines, the riots had largely been quelled. Volunteers began to help clean up the streets. And the courts started to deal with some 6,000 alleged looters and arsonists.
It is estimated that 30,000 people marched at a peaceful rally for Korean merchants.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Makes Plea for Peace
Rev. Jesse Jackson met with leaders in Koreatown on May 3 to urge an end to the animosity and strife between African-Americans and Korean-Americans.
Jackson met with a crowd at a post office at 43rd Street and Central Avenue, prayed with victims at an Inglewood hospital, and preached in a predominantly white church in Pasadena.
Jackson also visited Praises of Zion and many other African-American churches.
Mayor Bradley Lifts Citywide Curfew
For the most part, L.A. started to return to normal on May 4. Mayor Bradley lifted the citywide curfew; schools, businesses, and rapid transit resumed operations.
On May 4, officers Powell, Briseno, Wind, and Koon were charged with the violation of Rodney’s civil rights.
African-Americans Not Responsible for Most of the Rioting
Despite the news reports, African-Americans were not actually responsible for most of the rioting. At least, not according to LAPD data. During the L.A. riots, the LAPD arrested 12,111 people; only 36% were African-American, while 51% were Latino.
While South Central L.A. had a large Latino population in 1992, TV crews mostly on African-American looters.
On October 21, 1992, a commission headed by former FBI Director William H. Webster and Hubert Williams, then-president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, suggested that the LAPD and leaders at City Hall had failed miserably to plan for civil disorder prior to the not guilty verdicts in the Rodney King case.
Damian Williams Convicted
On December 7, Damian Williams was convicted of throwing a cinder block at the head of trucker Reginald Denny and four others at Florence and Normandie avenues. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail—the maximum term. He was released after four years, but he quickly found himself back behind bars for participating in the murder of a drug dealer.
Koon and Powell Guilty
On April 17, 1993, less than a year after the L.A. riots, a federal jury found LAPD officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell guilty of violating Rodney King’s civil rights. Officers Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind were acquitted of their role in the March 3, 1991 beating.
Powell and Koon were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison—far less than what prosecutors were looking for.
King Awarded $3.8 Million
In April 1994, Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in compensatory damages in a lawsuit brought against the City of Los Angeles. The award was more than three times what the city had wanted to pay, but far less than what King was looking for. King was seeking $56.0 million—$1.0 million for every strike he endured from the LAPD.
Rodney King’s Death
Rodney King was found at the bottom of his swimming pool on June 17, 2012. He was 47. King’s autopsy stated he died of an accidental drowning.
By the Numbers:
- The Los Angeles Riots lasted more than five days; about 55 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured.
- Approximately 12,000 people were arrested.
- More than 9,800 California National Guard troops were dispatched.
- More than 1,100 buildings and other properties faced destruction, with damage costs totaling more than $1.0 billion.
Looking back, the acquittal of the four police officers was only a spark in the tinderbox of anger in South Los Angeles that had festered for years as a result of poverty, racism, police abuse, high unemployment, and government neglect.