Los Angeles Riots

Verdicts of not guilty in the trial of four police officers accused of police brutality revealed the wide gap between African Americans’ and Euro-Americans’ views of the criminal justice system and sparked the worst rioting the city of Los Angeles had experienced up to that time.

Summary of Event

Before the Rodney King beating on March 3, 1991, many in the Los Angeles community believed that the Los Angeles Police Department Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had demonstrated a pattern of excessive force, particularly against members of minority groups. One significant example was Operation Hammer, begun in 1989, during which the LAPD allegedly rounded up African Americans and Hispanics without any reasonable suspicion that they had committed any crime, simply because of the way the suspects looked and because the police wanted to avert the threat of gang violence. As a result, the chief of the LAPD, Daryl F. Gates, was despised by many in the African American community. The videotape of Rodney King’s beating by members of the LAPD, therefore, came as no surprise to the African American community of Los Angeles. It merely confirmed what they already thought: that police use of excessive force against minorities was a common practice. Riots;Los Angeles
Racial and ethnic conflict;Los Angeles
Los Angeles;riots (1992)
[kw]Los Angeles Riots (Apr. 29-May 1, 1992)
[kw]Riots, Los Angeles (Apr. 29-May 1, 1992)
Riots;Los Angeles
Racial and ethnic conflict;Los Angeles
Los Angeles;riots (1992)
[g]North America;Apr. 29-May 1, 1992: Los Angeles Riots[08340]
[g]United States;Apr. 29-May 1, 1992: Los Angeles Riots[08340]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 29-May 1, 1992: Los Angeles Riots[08340]
King, Rodney
Koon, Stacey
Gates, Daryl F.
Denny, Reginald
Williams, Damian

The videotape of King’s beating, recorded by private citizen George Holliday Holliday, George in the morning hours of March 3, 1991, was eighty-one seconds in duration. The footage from the tape that was seen throughout the United States on television news programs showed King, a six-foot, three-inch African American weighing 225 pounds, prone on the ground, sustaining blows to his head, neck, kidney area, and legs from four policemen, who were kicking and smashing at him with their truncheons. Also present, but not in full view on the videotape, were nineteen other police officers surrounding the four who were administering the beating. In addition, onlookers—not seen on the tape—were pleading that the beating stop. The police paid no attention to them. As a result of the beating, King sustained eleven fractures to his skull, a crushed cheekbone, a broken ankle, internal injuries, a burn on his chest, and some brain damage.

A fire rages near Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles during the riots caused by the acquittals of four police officers in the beating of African American Rodney King.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Television viewers also did not see what preceded the beating. During the evening, King had consumed the equivalent of a case of beer (it was later determined that his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit for operation of a vehicle). He was on parole at the time, and he ran the risk of landing back in jail if caught speeding. The police, led by Stacey Koon, started to pursue King because his car was seen to be exceeding the speed limit. The chase through the streets of Los Angeles escalated to one hundred miles per hour at one point, before the police were able to stop King and force him out of his car. Television viewers did not see King fighting with the police at that point, even standing up after being stunned twice with a Taser (electroshock weapon). Those who saw the videotape saw only the prone body of an African American man being assaulted repeatedly by white police officers.

The four officers seen delivering the blows to King on the videotape, including Koon, were charged with the beating at the end of March, 1991, in Los Angeles. Their attorneys moved for a change of venue for the trial, which was granted, and in the spring of 1992 the trial took place in Simi Valley, a suburban town an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles. The town was home to a large proportion of LAPD officers and retirees and was dominated by law-and-order conservatives. Six men and six women, none of whom was African American, made up the jury.

According to those who were present, the prosecution presented a weak and diffuse case. The defense, however, was strong. Defense attorneys played the videotape in slow motion over and over until its effects became trivialized. The defense also emphasized how King presented a threat to the police. Koon testified about King’s “Hulk-like strength and how he groaned like a wounded animal,” conjuring up for the jury the image of police representing the “thin blue line” that protects the forces of civilization from the savagery represented by King. Among the jurors, many of whom had likely settled in Simi Valley to get away from the alleged evils and crime of the inner city, the message resonated. After thirty-two hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted the four officers on April 29, 1992. The verdicts were announced on television at 2:50 p.m.

At 4:00 that afternoon, in South Central Los Angeles, five African American gang members went to get some malt liquor at the Payless Liquor Store near the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues. They started to take it without paying, and the store owner’s son tried to stop them. One of the gang members smashed the son on the head with a bottle and allegedly said, “This is for Rodney King.” The other gang members hurled the bottles they held through the store windows while the owner pressed the alarm for the police. By the time two officers arrived in response, the suspects were gone.

At 5:30 p.m., at the corner of Florence and Normandie, eight black men wielding baseball bats started breaking the car windows of passing motorists. Eighteen police cars and thirty-five officers from the LAPD sped to the area. They arrested three suspects and then left at 5:45. In the next hour, the crowd attacking cars grew to some two hundred people. One of the victims was Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, who was pulled from his truck and beaten by African Americans, including Damian Williams, with a fire extinguisher. The police did not return. Chief Gates had left police headquarters at 6:30 to attend a fund-raising event in the affluent suburb of Brentwood.

By 7:30, the crowd at Florence and Normandie had started lighting fires. An hour later, the LAPD finally returned to the area and began trying to disperse the crowd. By that time, the fires, rioting, and looting had spread to other parts of the city. As the riots continued for two more days, local television news crews flooded the airwaves with helicopter views of hundreds of fires throughout the city and normally law-abiding citizens looting stores. On Friday, May 1, 1992, Rodney King appeared on television to appeal for calm with the plea, “Can we all get along?” By the end of that day, the violence was over.


The acquital of the four officers charged with assaulting Rodney King reinforced the perceptions of many that the American criminal justice system treats whites and African Americans differently. Some observers, however, have argued that the riots were less the result of racial tensions than of persistent localized disparities between economic and social classes.

By the time the riots ended in Los Angeles on May 1, 1992, fifty-eight people had died, more than twelve thousand people had been arrested, and property damage was estimated to be as high as $1 billion. In addition, similar uprisings had started in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New York, Omaha, and Seattle. The 1992 riots in Los Angeles caused more damage and spread across a wider area than did any incidents of urban unrest in the city during the 1960’s.

In part as a result of the criticism he received for his handling of the riots and his role in fostering the police culture that had contributed to them, Gates resigned from the LAPD in late 1992. He was replaced by an African American chief of police, Willie L. Williams. Koon and one of the other officers originally charged with beating King, Laurence Powell, Powell, Laurence were tried and convicted in federal court of violating King’s civil rights. King won a civil suit against the city of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million. Riots;Los Angeles
Racial and ethnic conflict;Los Angeles
Los Angeles;riots (1992)

Further Reading

  • Abelmann, Nancy, and John Lie. Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Examines the relationship between African Americans and Koreans in Los Angeles and discusses the impacts of the riots on the Korean community there after Korean businesses were targeted during the unrest.
  • Cannon, Lou. Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. New York: Random House, 1997. Journalist’s account places blame for the riots primarily on the political, judicial, and police leadership of Los Angeles.
  • “Los Angeles, April 29, 1992, and Beyond: The Law, Issues, and Perspectives.” Southern California Law Review 66 (May 1993). Presents a panoply of views on the trial and the riots, from why the videotape did not guarantee a guilty verdict to the role the federal government should play in monitoring police brutality. One of the most comprehensive discussions of the issues available.
  • “Symposium on Criminal Law, Criminal Justice, and Race.” Tulane Law Review 67 (June, 1993). Discusses the use of racist imagery in the acquittal of the police officers and the view that there are two systems of justice in the United States, “one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

  • Time 139, May 11, 1992. Much of this issue is devoted to discussion of the riots. The articles “The Fire This Time” and “Anatomy of an Acquittal” provide good overviews of the events of April 29, 1992, and what followed.
  • “The Urban Crisis: The Kerner Commission Report Revisited.” North Carolina Law Review 71 (June, 1993). Symposium contributors discuss how the riots of 1992 differed from those of the 1960’s in terms of the minority groups involved and the areas affected.
  • Whitman, David. “The Untold Story of the L.A. Riot.” U.S. News & World Report, May 31, 1993, 34-39. Provides an objective account of the events that led to the beginning of the riots at Florence and Normandie avenues and the escalation of the violence from that point on.

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