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April 1992 - Rodney King Beating Verdict Ignites Riots in Los Angeles

Smoky Sky above Vermont Ave
The sky above Vermont Avenue in East Hollywood is darkened with smoke from arson fires during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. | Photo: Ely Trinidad

On April 29, 1992 the announcement of the acquittal of four predominantly-white Los Angeles Police Department officers charged in the 1991 beating of African American motorist Rodney King triggered six days of riots, protests, arson fires, looting and civil disobedience in south and central Los Angeles. Fifty-three people died, 2,000 were injured, and damages totaled nearly $1 billion.

Rodney Glen King, a construction worker from Altadena, was apprehended following a high-speed chase through the neighborhood of Lake View Terrace. A home video taken by nearby resident George Holliday depicted four LAPD officers stomping, kicking, and beating King with a baton, though never attempting to handcuff him. The tape was shown on various TV news stations, which brought up the issues of excessive force and police brutality.

LAPD Sergeant Stacy Koon and officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were charged by the L.A. County District Attorney for assault and excessive force. The trial, which was moved to Simi Valley in Ventura County to ensure a fair trial, was overseen by a predominantly white jury.

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The announcement of the verdict on the afternoon of April 29 sparked looting and vandalism at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in South Los Angeles. Reginald Denny, a white cement truck driver attempting to navigate his way through the intersection, was extracted from his vehicle and beaten on the street by a handful of black youths before local residents came to his aid. Other motorists, such as construction worker Fidel Lopez, were similarly beaten at the same intersection as news helicopters broadcasted live footage, with law enforcement nowhere to be found. Nearby storefronts were set ablaze, which spread throughout the area in a scene reminiscent of the Watts Riots just 27 years prior. Formal protests of the verdict assembled in downtown L.A.

Over the next few days, arson fires darkened the skies and looting migrated north, prompting nightly curfews. The community of Koreatown was thrust into the public eye as Korean-owned businesses were plummeted and set ablaze, bringing to light tensions between African American residents and Korean business owners, who were depicted holding rifles on the rooftops of their businesses during live television news broadcasts. The riot-damaged areas extended as far north as parts of the San Fernando Valley.

In the midst of the melee, Rodney King, who had never been depicted speaking in public before, issued a public statement in front of media, calling for calm and peace in the city. The visibly shaken and nervous King stammered his way through a short speech, which included the words, "Can we all just get along?"

Nearly a week after the disturbance broke out, actor and activist Edward James Olmos made a public appeal to clean up the neighborhoods damaged by rioting by initiating the clean-up work himself. Thousands of Angelenos joined along, and the healing and recovery process had begun. Tensions among and between whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians, specifically Koreans that existed prior to and during the Riots were addressed in public forums, workshops and community meetings. An organization called Rebuild L.A., headed by 1984 Olympics chairman Peter Ueberroth, was tasked with improving neighborhoods adversely affected by rioting, though it produced mixed results.

The citywide event triggered on April 29, 1992 was viewed by different groups under different names. Though the popular term used by the media was the "Riots," others, depending on their perspective and geography, called it a "Rebellion," an "Uprising," a "Melee," the "Civil Disobedience," or a "Civil Unrest."

The LAPD itself was publicly overwhelmed and absent during the disturbance, adding criticism to Police Chief Daryl Gates, who was already blamed for propagating a culture of police brutality and institutionalized racism in the department. Gates resigned two months after the Riots and was succeeded by Willie L. Williams, an African American, previously the chief of the Philadelphia Police Department.

KCET faced the 1992 Riots literally up close: A Circuit City electronics store directly across the street from the Sunset Blvd studios suffered looting. Several hours of programming during and following the 1992 Riots were devoted to the incidents, most notably during the news and public affairs program "Life & Times," which discussed issues of police brutality, LAPD reform, economic injustice, and community rebuilding with an insight and depth that other TV news outlets could not cover. One "Life & Times" special featured young people asking their peers not to contribute to the rampant looting and violence. A 90-minute town hall program had community leaders discussing how to end the rampant lawlessness that was happening on the streets. And Huell Howser hosted a special on rebuilding the riot-torn areas, as well as short "Videolog Listens" segments where riot-affected residents expressed their opinions and visions on their communities.

In late 1992, KCET received recognition and commendations from Rebuild L.A., the Los Angeles City Council, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for its relevant programming during and following the Riots.

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