South central LA residents gather to ask for an end to the violence. During the riots businesses were burned to the ground and dozens of people were killed. Photograph: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images
On 29 April 1992 riots erupted after four LAPD officers were acquitted in the savage beating of Rodney King. As the anniversary looms – what did it all mean?
Lee Hudson leaned against the bus stop, waiting for the 111, and surveyed the intersection: some dudes lounging outside Tom’s liquor mart; a few cars fuelling at the Chevron gas station; the start of a lunch queue at Art’s Chili Dog Stand; traffic criss-crossing Florence and Normandie avenues.
Not much to look at. But a quarter century ago this was it. The crucible that transfixed America. Hudson nodded at the memory. “Yeah, I looted. Car parts, liquor, cigarettes. What else we get? We got some tyres. I saw it being done all over the place. It was amazing.”
The explosion of rage and anarchy that became known as the Rodney King riots found its locus at this drab corner of south central Los Angeles. Television news helicopters captured scenes that mesmerised and horrified: buildings aflame, crowds looting, mobs beating.
It erupted on 29 April 1992 after a nearly all-white jury acquitted four LAPD officers of savagely assaulting King a year earlier, an atrocity caught on camera. “It was scary because there was no justice,” recalled Hudson, 50. “You saw the man getting whupped. The whole world knew they were guilty.”
And so, for this and other injustices, African Americans here and in other parts of the city lashed back, six days of fury which consumed 53 lives and a billion dollars worth of property and made LA, once a symbol of American optimism, appear apocalyptic.
As the anniversary approaches the city, and a slew of documentaries, feature films and books, are asking what it all meant. Was it an insurrection? A generational howl rooted in time and place? Or a warning, a portent of what can happen when race, poverty and policing collide?
Scholars and policymakers still debate the legacy but Hudson, for his part, reckons it was positive. “I’m an electrician. I got a lot of work. We were hired to fix stuff.” More importantly, he added, society fixed itself. “The community now wants to work things out, to get along.”
This sprawling metropolis of 4 million souls with its Compton, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, El Salvador Corridor and Mariachi Plaza has to a large extent done that – got along.
Police tactics, racial tension and gang clashes still simmer – shootings have killed or injured 319 people so far this year – but no longer bubble and steam as before. Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton’s 1991 Oscar-nominated masterpiece, retains dramatic power but feels historical.
Here is LA’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, fresh off a landslide re-election, giving his annual state of the city address earlier this week: “When Washington seems broken this is a moment that calls for Los Angeles to lead, to be a model of moral leadership and of bold action. When others try to pull us apart, we try to pull together.”
Easy to mock as political bromide, especially given the speech’s accompaniment by a video showing glowing sunrises and iconography similar to La La Land. But LA really does stand in contrast to Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. It is home to a million undocumented residents, mostly Latinos. The LAPD has a policy of not enforcing federal immigration laws, making this a de facto sanctuary city. An imam, Jihad Saafir, preceded the mayor’s speech with a plea for empathy, love and humility.
Voters recently approved tax increases to improve transport links and tackle homelessness, allowing Garcetti, a rising Democratic star, to claim a progressive mantle. “While others are obsessed with the most powerful person in this country, we are empowering the most vulnerable in our backyard.”
Throw in a construction boom that is transforming downtown’s skyline, an artistic renaissance boasting new museums and galleries plus a bid for the 2024 Olympics and LA has a pretty good comeback story.
The titles of the new documentaries evoke just how low the city sank. Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!, directed by Sacha Jenkins, traces a link between the 1965 and 1992 riots. John Ridley’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, shows how a decade of racial tension preceded the LAPD acquittals. Singleton has returned to the era with LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later. National Geographic’s LA 92 cites a telling statistic: around the time of King’s beating the ACLU was receiving 55 claims of excessive police violence every week.
These and other documentaries tell wrenching stories from multiple perspectives, offering reflection and in some cases regret but little solace or absolution. Feature films will give additional perspectives.
The collective memory of those days cast a long shadow. Poverty and marginalisation endure. And the Black Lives Matter movement and ubiquity of camera phones have shined a fresh, harsh light on policing.
Back at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where gang members bludgeoned trucker Reginald Denny, every acknowledgement that things have improved carry a caveat.
“It was bad. People running around tearing up the whole town. It was frightening. It’s better now,” said Charlie Brown, 60, who runs a towing company. “But some parts of the city were never rebuilt. It’s still ghetto.”
A few blocks away you saw what he meant: abandoned lots of weeds and rubble, apparently untouched since 1992, except for fresh graffiti where gang monikers such as SE 18, BMS and SC battle for primacy. In addition to the main gangs, the Bloods and Crips, there are sub-groups and spin-offs such as the Bounty Hunters, Hoovers, Q102, Bebop, Main Street and Grape Street.
After 12 years of consecutive decline violent crime has ticked up again in the past three years. It remains well below 1990s levels but that was scant comfort, said Joan Williams, 33, as she waited for a mechanic to fix her child’s bicycle. “I’m trying to get out of this area because of the gangs.”
New police chiefs, civilian oversight, better training and other reforms have changed the LAPD, which used to be viewed like an occupying army.
Even so, officers shot and killed 19 people last year. Nearly a third of those the police shot were black – a huge disproportion given that African Americans comprise just 9% of the city’s population.
“I do trust them. But I see the negative side on the news,” said Williams. Others at the intersection were adamant the police were more thuggish. “There’s more police brutality now,” said Kim Greer, 52, a home carer.
Carole Telfer, a public defender in Compton, said greater scrutiny of race relations and police practices made a new riot unlikely. Trump’s threat to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, however, could roil the city’s relative tranquility. “That might change when frustration sets in if all of the community programs are defunded and stopped.”
In a Guardian interview shortly before his death in 2012, King, the motorist whose televised beating lit the fuse, was still haunted by the memory – 56 baton blows and six kicks, according to frame-by-frame analysis. “It was like being raped, stripped of everything, being beaten near to death there on the concrete, on the asphalt.” Still, he said, he had learned to forgive. “I tell myself time heals. It really does.”
King helped start that process with a tearful plea to a forest of microphones at the height of the rioting: “Can we all get along?” Words repeated, consciously or not, a quarter century later by Hudson, the electrician.
Some African Americans grumble that a Latino influx has pushed them of the city to cheaper neighbourhoods. But the communities do get along, said Gloria Salinas, 50 who sells Mexican-style juices and ice creams. “We’re neighbours. This is all our home.”
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