UPDATED: 12:45 p.m. April 29, 2021
The “Rodney King Riots,” also known as the “Los Angeles Riots,” began this day in 1992, after four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers were acquitted of charges in the savage beating of Rodney King. The racially sparked riots lasted more than six days, with thousands of Angelenos taking to the streets in an especially violent display of protest. Fifty-three people were killed and more than two thousand were said to be injured.
Back in March of 1991, King and two passengers were driving west on I-210 when he was ordered by California Highway Patrol officers to stop. After leading the officers on a high-speed chase, King stopped the vehicle and was the last to exit. As officers reportedly attempted to subdue King, they beat him, and the entire act was caught on videotape by a nearby resident.
Police initially claimed King was under the influence of drugs, but that was later refuted.
The mostly white jury could not determine if the officers acted excessively, especially since a small clip of the video was allowable in court. On the seventh day of deliberation, the jury acquitted three of the four accused officers after not being able to determine the fate of the fourth.
Officer Stacey Koon had to be escorted by police detail after the verdict was publicly released outside the courtroom. That afternoon, hundreds of rioters began marauding the streets and looting stores. People were attacked and the crowds began to swell and outnumber police forces.
That same day, white trucker Reginald Denny was cornered by rioters and struck violently in the head with a brick. The event took place during live television coverage and unveiled the tension of the riots to those outside of Los Angeles. Gang banger Damian Williams was accused of throwing the brick at Denny and was later said to have attacked construction worker Fidel Lopez.
Watch news coverage of Denny’s beating here:
On the second day of the riots, actor and comedian Bill Cosby took to the airwaves on the final episode of his hit series “The Cosby Show” to tell rioters to stop and watch the program. The California National Guard was called in to help assist police but failed to reach the city in adequate time.
On the third day, King held an unplanned news conference in front of his attorney’s home and urged rioters to cease their actions. His famous quote, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” would ring across televisions for days after the event, which had become serious after National Guard troops moved in with military vehicles and a bolstered police force.
Watch King’s comments here:
Then-President George H.W. Bush spoke on the riots in a public address, echoing the sentiment of then-Mayor Tom Bradley over the violence taking place in Los Angeles.
On the fourth day, Marine and Army troops arrived in the city, although much of the rioting had started to quiet down. That day, 30,000 people attended a rally for peace and it was formally announced that a federal investigation of the King case would ensue. In the days after, military troops stayed in the city to make certain all of the riots had been quelled. It was reported that some soldiers remained until almost the end of May.
Relationships between the Korean and African American communities were strained after the riots, as many stores owned by Asians were severely looted and destroyed. However, many Korean store owners denounced police violence and displayed a willingness to march alongside African Americans in a bid to show a semblance of solidarity in the wake of the violence.
In April of 1993, jurors found Officers Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon guilty of the excessive beating of King while the two other officers were acquitted. King was awarded $3.8 million in damages, investing much of his funds in to a failed rap label business. King’s life was troubled; he was arrested a reported 11 times since the encounter with the LAPD.
For those who lived through the times of the King case and the riots, it was a firsthand look at how the media’s coverage of an event can both inform and inspire less desirable actions from its viewers. The constant news cycle of today has its roots in the real-time coverage of this tragic and unfortunate event. In its aftermath, we’re reminded that police brutality and a failed justice system nearly upended a city infamous for its treatment of minorities by police. The King case simply revealed what many already knew, and the reaction to the verdict was an expression of frustration years in the making.