Photograph by ©Hyungwon Kang.
To mark the 22nd anniversary of the Los Angeles riots this week, KoreAm has been releasing related stories from our archives. This story comes from our April 2002 issue.
MEMORY TRACE: ON FORGETTING AND REMEMBERING 4.29
A decade has passed since Los Angeles bore the nation’s largest social upheaval of the 20th century. It’s a time most of the city would rather forget.
by JOHN LEE
In the spring of 1992, Los Angeles shook in anger and fear as residents citywide did as the disaffected do when all hell and legal constraint break down and out. Prompted by not guilty verdicts in the trial of four white LAPD officers who beat into submission a troubled African American motorist named Rodney G. King, an enraged few in south Los Angeles and the city center vented their frustrations with the inequities of L.A. life.
During three days and nights of firebombing and looting, combatants also took to pummeling hapless victims who were snatched from sidewalks and traffic thoroughfares, and broke off the harshest street justice dealt by the fists and heels of fellow humans. Others took what they could as police forces stood down citywide.
Separate terms have been applied to this moment in time by laypersons, street soljas, politicos and social scientists. Whether you identify with the concept of riot or civil unrest or insurrection or even urban rebellion, there is at least one truth that goes uncontested. Namely, that from April 29 to May 1, 1992, for the second time in the latter 20th century, Los Angeles imploded socially upon itself. And more than any other singular cause, the finger of blame extended toward what collectively we have come to know all-too-well: the city forgets.
Sure, memory snaps back once the ransacking commences. Visions of Watts in ’65 come racing. Or even the summer of ’66, which saw violent spasms in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and 40 other cities. Likewise Newark and Detroit in ’67. The following year, 1968, the same could be said of Memphis and 124 other urban centers, which burned after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. To be fair, it’s not just Los Angeles. At a given time, it seems, the entire nation has fallen susceptible to long-term memory loss.
As recently as last spring, a violent public response flared in Cincinnati under circumstances disturbingly familiar to the segment of American public that enjoys television access. An unarmed, 19-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a white officer. Yet the same set of concerns — police -sponsored violence and misconduct aligned with a racially suspect verdict in court — somehow eluded Cincinnati’s civic agenda. Until rioting broke out April 9, 2001.
As one city is illuminated by flame and blanketed by arson smoke, memories can just as soon form a flood.
Few people would deny an important aid to unlocking memory, if not ambivalence, has been the acceleration of TV news’ influence, both in the rapid transfer of information and the desensitizing effects of such unchecked transmission.
Arguably, what contributed to the escalation of L.A.’s rioting was the fact that news crews were better equipped technologically, and, perhaps more than ever before, provocative footage was broadcast in its raw and unadulterated form, with the most compelling shots looped over and over.
The technological advancements were not always accompanied by cogent commentary. More often than not, mind-searing images were met with verbalized utter disbelief by those charged with reporting the events. Difficult as it might be to imagine, the less-than-informative, spot news, stand-up reporting was consistent throughout the vast majority of newscasts and among respective “anchors.” These same broadcast journalists, who fumbled with ways to meaningfully term the mayhem, represented what much of the city knew, or cared to know, about the all-but-forgotten ’hood. These are areas long deemed unnewsworthy but for the detached crime blotter banter about murky and seemingly random jackings and slayings.
Veteran investigative journalist K.W. Lee, widely considered the unofficial dean of Asian American print journalists, contends that news reports during and prior to the Riots fed the violence and destruction of 4-29.
LIFE IS CHEAP
What distinguishes the 1992 conflagration is the depth to which despair had descended in the city’s most neglected residential area, the much-feared and institutionally sidestepped South Central L.A. Also of significance — it should be noted that the media initially reported the violence as being fueled by a conflict between African and Korean Americans — the reality was the Riots represented the first multiethnic “eruption of discontent” in history, as University of California, Riverside, ethnic studies professor Armando Navarro wrote in a 1993 issue of Amerasia Journal.
Not only was race a factor in this riot, but native-versus-immigrant and interethnic immigrant dynamics were at work as well. Or as the pop-demographic journalese of the time referred, the “browning of South Central” was taking place. And none too many people were happy about it. And it showed.
So, as street skirmishes broke out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, those earliest antagonists who first cast stones did so with a force and trajectory the likes of which had not been witnessed. At least not by as wide an audience as on that verdict day, with competing news helicopters roaming the sky and capturing unprecedented amounts of violent footage from scenes unfolding at ground level. Rebels made themselves heard, indeed.
Although particular causes of Los Angeles’ unrest ranged widely ten years ago, many would say it came down to 56 baton blows, supplementary boot stomps and taser jolts visited on Rodney King’s felled body, having been pulled over in his Hyundai Excel in suburban north San Fernando Valley during the wee hours of the morning on March 3, 1991.
As 21 officers joined in the drubbing or tacitly watched — all failing, to a person, to report any possible misconduct — the tape-recorded scene exuded an eerie business-as-usual air. Unbeknownst to the swarm of officers who gathered for King’s infamous roadside traffic citing, an amateur videographer named George Holliday captured the arrest from the balcony of his Lake View Terrace residence. Eighty-one seconds of videotape show a beating as chilling as any delivered in the pre-civil rights era, footage Holliday later sold to a local news station. It was telecast the following morning in Los Angeles, then picked up hours later by cable news and beamed around the world.
When L.A.’s days of violence finally drew to a close, 55 people were dead. According to one count, 2,383 people were injured. Immediate property damage touched 15,000 homes and businesses, totaling some $850 million. All told, these tragic results garnered the 1992 upheaval the ignominious distinction of the nation’s worst civil unrest, as has been often noted, since the Civil War.
In a not-so-parallel tangent, it will probably never be known how many of the thousands of assaults on person and property were inspired by the repeated airing of truck driver Reginald O. Denny’s hapless plight the evening the verdicts were issued.
Denny was pulled from the cab of his big rig at 6:45 p.m., bludgeoned by a claw hammer, a plastic oxygen tank and a brick, then spray-painted black. Four men were eventually convicted in connection with the assault. What we do know now is two of the four people who came to the trucker’s rescue knew to do so because they saw the attack on television.
AFTEREFFECTS: A CITYWIDE HANGOVER
Among the many consequences of the King beating and the police department’s handling of the Riots has been a decade of scrutiny fixed on the LAPD. All efforts to regain the department’s reputation as one of the nation’s preeminent forces have been hampered by mishap, including a corruption scandal involving officers in the department’s Rampart Division and the infamous O.J. Simpson case, in which homicide detective Mark Fuhrman perjured himself under oath. In the Rampart imbroglio, five officers were indicted for lying under oath, falsifying police reports, planting and stealing evidence, and shooting an unarmed suspect. Thousands of cases underwent review and more than 100 convictions have been overturned during an investigation into the Rampart corruption.
Of the major figures from the Riots, few survived untouched by fallout. Fewer still remain in the public eye. In addition to the ouster of chief of police Daryl Gates, the Riots also presaged the demise of Mayor Tom Bradley and District Attorney Ira Reiner. After a failed foray into hip-hop impresarioship and between therapeutic surf sessions, Rodney King, now 36, has quietly faced different criminal charges in court every year since his arrest in 1991, the latest of which transpired in Pomona, Calif., October 2001. King pleaded no contest to charges of driving under the influence of PCP.
Months after the Riots, Reginald Denny granted a single interview to the L.A. Times Magazine and made a TV appearance on the Phil Donahue Show, during which he assured the public he had recuperated physically, and moreover that his psyche remained intact. Denny went so far as to say that he sympathized with his attackers, and might have felt similar anger had he been African American. Just as Denny stunned viewers with an unparalleled capacity for forgiveness, he then announced his intention to retire from media view. As of this writing, Denny has kept to his word.
Days after the Watts Riots in 1965, state appointee John A. McCone, a former CIA director, led an eight-member commission on an inquiry into the causes of those Riots. Issued in December 1965, the 101-page McCone report still stands as a valuable source of recommendations to address social blight that persists today. Sadly, to review the report now gives a reader insight into the city’s truncated attention span. In its nascence, the report underscores a dismal reality: conditions leading to riots 35 years ago loom over the same neighborhoods. As in the ’60s, those issues have still gone largely unaddressed.
On a final bleak note, the unparalleled destruction that occurred during the 1992 Riots was based largely on reports by business and property owners. These assessments seldom accounted for the loss of income and livelihood suffered by thousands of wage earners for whom little or no emergency relief existed beyond unemployment welfare. So, as cycles go, a pattern of neglect in Riot-torn areas began anew. What with a submerging underclass spiraling further through the ashes, the newest group of have-nots were destined, almost upon arrival, to be forgotten just the same.
This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of KoreAm Journal. The special issue was dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the L.A. riots.