25 Years Later: Learning from the L.A. Riots

By: Adam Wells

April 29, 2017 marks twenty-five years since the upsetting verdict that acquitted four members of the LAPD that brutally battered Rodney King, a young African-American man. Mr. King suffered nine skull fractures, a broken leg, a ruptured eye socket and nerve damage at the hands of for driving while intoxicated. The footage of this brutalization shook the country. “Finally, we caught the police on video!” was a common emotion. The repercussions of the verdict, that occurred on April 29, 1992 however, would result in the most destructive riot in U.S. history, with an outcome of mass injuries, deaths, looting, and destroyed businesses that would affect the psyches of many LA residents for years to come.“L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later” tells the complex narrative of this tragic event, attempting to make a connection between the L.A. Riots with more current racial injustices resulting in vain murder of Black bodies. Although the riots created destitute conditions, the unification of marginalized peoples in L.A. was a positive outcome. The riots brought to light their commonality of racial position within society. While the documentary does not touch upon Hip-Hop culture in relation to the riots, records made by various artists both indirectly predicted and were inspired by the riots. The point in time was viewed by many as one of the closest moments in history this country was to reaching a revolution against the police.

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When examining the L.A. Riots after twenty-five years, it may be easy to create a clear narrative regarding the causes, motivations and results of the riots. However, years and years of past frustration from African-Americans as a result of continued mistreatment and brutalization practiced not just in the LAPD but all over the United States exemplify the riots as a symbol of a common sentiment: “We’ve had enough.” The acquittal of four white police officers, after being caught doing the deed on tape, showed a clear judicial bias that went against the security of the African-American male. This was nothing new – police brutality within Black-populated cities and towns had been going on for years and years without a clear voice for anyone to speak out against it. Hip-Hop records that released a few years before the riots such as Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, N.W.A.’s “Fuck The Police” and Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” were popular songs that finally gave marginalized communities a sense of agency. Were the L.A. Riots inevitable? Maybe they were, considering how much of a separation there was in the early 1990’s between the police and minorities. Twenty-five years later, countless unarmed African-Americans have either been injured or killed by white police officers. It is important to examine how the continuation of these injustices is something that needs to be immediately addressed; without common consciousness of the problem, another L.A. riot could be looming.

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Chaos ensued immediately as a result of the verdict. Starting on the evening of March 29th in the South-Central area of Los Angeles, residents started looting liquor and convenience stores. As the riots grew, police arrived in heavy numbers, but the growing crowd posed an increasing violent threat towards the police. More havoc ensued when Seandel Daniels, a 16-year-old African-American teenager, was wrestled to the ground by police after throwing a large rock at a police car. After arresting three people, the police committed to a full retreat, creating a state of absolutely no civil supervision. Increasing anger eventually turned into chaos; mobs would attack any passing car or pedestrian that was not Black. One of the most notorious incidents of violence occurred when a passing truck driver, Reginald Denny, was pulled out of his truck and was harshly beaten to near-death without any help in sight. Caught on tape by a hovering news camera, the visceral footage shows Denny getting stomped on, getting rocks thrown at his head, and kicked around like a piece of meat. The four primary perpetrators of his beating would later be convicted and labeled in a large news piece as the “L.A. Four”. While whites and Latinos were targets for violence, Koreans were especially targeted due to surrounding tensions between Blacks and Koreans after the death of Latasha Harlins, a Black girl that was killed by a Korean store owner. The killing was caught on videotape and happened only 13 days after the Rodney King beating; the store owner was only sentenced to five years of probation and 400 hours of community service for killing Harlins. By May 2nd, the National Guard was called in due to the sheer amount of destruction and violence. The estimated costs in damage due to the riots are figured at around $1.26 billion, marking the most destructive riot in United States history. 63 people died, over 2,000 were injured, and over 3,000 buildings were burned to the ground.

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The riots had a gigantic impact on the Hip-Hop community. The riots took place both while Dr. Dre was working on “The Chronic” and when 2Pac was filming “Poetic Justice”, heavily influencing their ideological views within their works for years to come. “The Chronic” would later be an iconic album that told a unique narrative of the riots, with “The Day The N****z Took Over” detailing riots in Compton and Long Beach. Eazy-E, MC Ren, Ice Cube and many others west coast rappers supported the riots when interviewed by news stations or other media outlets. Much of Ice Cube’s classic album, “The Predator”, was directly influenced by the riots, with cuts like “Wicked”, “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up” and “Who Got The Camera”, Cube rapped deeply about the violence that took place as a result of the riots. The music created by these legendary artists would ultimately give an uncut way to present the riots from the Black perspective instead of a major news corporation. Even before the riots, songs like “Fuck The Police” gave people a voice that would eventually assist in rising against the corrupt agenda of the LAPD.

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While it is clear that the L.A. Riots resulted in putrid destruction, the collective sentiment that many African-Americans had during the riots resulted in more unity. Days before the riots, there was the famous “Watts Truce”, a truce between the Bloods and Crips gangs that would contribute to this sentiment of unification while bringing down crime rates through the 1990’s and 2000’s. The riots also encouraged Korean residents living amongst Blacks to be more courteous and friendly as a result of the destruction that many faced during the riots. Unification amongst people in LA sparked an important question: If the gangs can unite, why can’t council members in our government get along as well? Unity was also brought about during the clean up effort proceeding the riots, where many people got together to clean up the rubble and debris that was left from the burned buildings.

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What can we learn from the L.A. Riots? Has progress been made regarding race relations since 1992? While thankfully, hasn’t been a riot as destructive since, countless injustices towards unarmed Black bodies, like Mike Brown and Freddie Gray sparked outrage in Ferguson and Baltimore respectively that have been with armed resistance similar to the L.A. Riots. Continued injustices in recent years have encouraged movements like #BlackLivesMatter to create an open dialogue regarding the systemic oppression of African-Americans in the United States. With more availability of video recordings as well as the exponential growth of social media, instances of racial injustices perpetrated by police officers are easier to document and publicize. While many go without publicity or documentation, more than 250 Black men were killed by police alone in 2016.“L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later” should, more than anything, address the fact that we still face a problem in this country regarding racial barriers, especially within the police force and overall judicial system of the United States. Come out to the Dummy Clap Festival on Thursday, July 13th for a screening of a film that tells the narrative of the riots in a detailed and high-minded way.

L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later Preview