“Everybody just assumed they were guilty,” said Mathew McDaniel, a filmmaker who made the documentary, “Birth of a Nation 4-29-92.”But there was far more to it than one jury verdict.
“The Rodney King situation was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said YoYo Whitaker, who grew up in South LA and was then just beginning her career as a rapper and actress. “The community had been suffering so long and screaming out for help.”
Whitaker and McDaniel are hardly alone in seeing the eruption of civil unrest as the consequence of a long-unfolding narrative.
It had been 27 years since a comparable breakdown of social order happened in Watts in 1965, when hopes raised by the then still-young civil rights movement crashed headlong into urban realties, and frustration boiled over. Studies were commissioned and recommendations issued, but in many ways conditions did not improve.
- Patrick Healy, KNBC-TV
VIDEO NSFW. TRIGGER WARNING: This video contains images of violence and bloodshed.
I get home after my long, cranky drive and find my dear son, safe and sound. Relief. I throw my things on the couch, turn on the TV and see … a riot.
(TV is a teleportation machine. Your eyes, ears and brain are instantaneously transported anywhere a camera can go – outer space, China, South Central L.A. You are literally there, witnessing things in real time in a real place.)
I am in a helicopter, looking down on the neighborhood that is exactly 1.7 miles from my school. I recognize it all. The wide city streets. The mini malls. The gas stations. But throngs of people are milling around with unusual energy.
Something’s happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
What the hell??!? I was just there an hour ago…
And then I realize what’s happened.
The Rodney King verdict. All those kicking, beating, bone-crunching cops are declared innocent. It is just …too much!
The result has touched off the fury of people who have had enough. The folks I watch from my perch in the sky are the warriors of South Central tearing down The Man.
- Donna Schoenkopf, Fourstory
Any other night, Clifford “Skipp” Townsend said, he would have turned around to face his death. But on this particular evening, as the L.A. riots raged around him, he and the seven or eight other members of the Rollin’ 20s Bloods with whom he was breaking into a safe in an abandoned garage got off easy.
Townsend had spun around to see a man wearing a blue bandana and brandishing a shotgun: a Crip, his gang’s implacable rival. It would have taken only a twitch of the Crip’s trigger finger to kill him. But amid the confusion of the riots, L.A.’s most notorious gangs called a truce.
“No, no, we’re together today,” the anonymous Crip said, letting him and his fellow Bloods go about their business. Everyone wanted his share, and no one wanted to die. When would a chance like this come along again?
- Matthew DeLuca, The Daily Beast
King was horrified. He was horrified by the verdict, which he watched on TV from his room at the Radisson in Studio City, told by his own legal team, he says, not to show up in court, ever, let alone testify. And he was horrified by the rioting that erupted hours later, though he admits in his memoir that he was also kind of gratified.“For the first few hours, before I heard about anyone getting killed or even hurt yet, I felt a certain vindication,” King writes. “I believed I was witnessing the simple fact that other people were mad as hell about the verdict.”
Any sense of satisfaction was eradicated the moment King saw a 36-year-old white truck driver named Reginald Denny dragged from his cab and beaten by four young black men. Unlike King’s assault, Denny’s was caught by live news cameras, and a local man who saw it unfolding on TV raced out of his house and stopped the attack; his name was Bobby Green Jr., and he was unarmed and black.
Everything about the absurdity of race relations in a post-Civil Rights America was distilled in that one day, and 72 hours later, as L.A. burned, King was asked by his lawyers and the LAPD to make a public statement. King agreed, and when he arrived at the press conference, he was presented with a prepared statement, four pages total.
“I took one look at those pages,” King writes, “and said ‘F–k that.’”
Instead, he made the heartfelt and confused plea that later became a punchline of the ‘90s: “People, I just want to say, Can we all get along? Can we all get along?”
- Maureen Callahan, New York Post
In the aftermath, much of the blame was placed on Police Chief Daryl Gates, who resigned under pressure soon after.
Before the uprising, Gates had been hailed in national police circles as an innovator, helping to pioneer both the modern police special weapons and tactics team and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.
Until his death in 2010, he angrily defended his actions, accusing his officers of failing to carry out a plan he said was in place to stop any trouble.
“The captain, lieutenant, deputy chiefs, commanders — they all screwed up in my judgment,” Gates, who had been chief for 14 years, said in 2002.
After the riot, a number of reforms were instituted, including limiting a police chief to a maximum of two five-year terms. Stricter guidelines in the way the LAPD investigates civilian complaints and disciplines its officers were also implemented after both federal officials and an independent review board concluded the department had for years been guilty of a pattern of civil rights abuses.
Anger toward the department as a whole is less intense now. Violent crime fell citywide by 76 percent between 1992 and 2010, according to city police statistics.
- John Rogers and Amy Taxin, The Associated Press
These students say the conditions where they live, where the riots hit, haven’t changed much.
Delshone Patton says the gangs are still a problem.
“People are still … going out shooting little kids for no reasons,” he says. “A 7-year-old got killed before; 5-year-olds get killed.”
Manuel Amaya says economic conditions keep getting worse.
“A lot of things like poverty are still existing around here,” he says. “A lot of liquor stores haven’t been taken down. A lot of things that oppressed us back then … we [are] still seeing them today.”
Twenty miles west of Locke, at Pacific Palisades Charter High School, the same topics — poverty and racial tensions — are discussed. The setting couldn’t be more different, though. Pali High sits on a bluff, just blocks from the beach, surrounded by the Santa Monica Mountains and million-dollar homes.
- Carrie Kahn, NPR
Twenty years later, relations between the Los Angeles police and the city’s black citizens are light-years beyond the tinderbox atmosphere that once prevailed, thanks to extensive police reforms, including a much-touted commitment to community policing, increased external oversight and more enlightened department leadership. Many black Angelenos now believe there has been so much progress that what happened in 1992 could not happen again. At least not in the same way.
One reason is that despite some ongoing racial tension, the people of Los Angeles generally get along much better than they did at the time of King’s famously plaintive plea: “Can we all just get along?”
“We get along better now,” says 46-year-old Chris Chambers, a black South L.A. native who remembers the bad blood between blacks and Korean business owners who were prime targets of black anger and violence during the riots. “[Korean business owners] respect your presence more. They don’t pull out a gun when you walk into a store anymore. They realize that all blacks are not shoplifters, and they will actually have a conversation with you now.”
“I do not feel it could happen again because [the police] are now accountable to us and want to be,” says Lawrence Tolliver, also black, who owns a popular barbershop just blocks from the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues where white truck driver Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and almost beaten to death by young black men right after the King trial verdicts. “If something like [the King beating] did happen today, it would be a lot different than in 1992. They would investigate it, and the current police chief would not let it get to that point. We have a lot more impact on the department now.”
- Sylvester Monroe, The Root