What Caused the 1992 LA Riots and How Many People Died? | History Hit

What Caused the 1992 LA Riots and How Many People Died?

Shannon Callahan

14 Apr 2022
A photo taken during the LA riots, between 29 April 29 - 4 May 1992.
Image Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

On 3 March 1991, police engaged in a high-speed car chase with Rodney King, who was intoxicated and had been caught speeding on the freeway. After an 8-mile chase through the city, police officers surrounded the car. King did not comply as quickly as officers wanted, so they attempted to force him down. When King resisted, they shot him twice with a taser gun.

As King attempted to get up, police officers beat him with batons, striking him 56 times. Meanwhile, George Holliday filmed the unfolding scene from the balcony of an apartment building across the street.

After King was arrested, Holliday sold the 89-second video to a local TV station. The video quickly made national headlines. However, on 29 April 1992, the country watched as 4 officers were acquitted for their assault on Rodney King.

3 hours after the verdict was read, 5 days of riots broke out in the city of Los Angeles, California, which left more than 50 people dead and triggered a national conversation about racial and economic inequality and police brutality in the USA.

The police assault resulted in King having permanent brain damage

Rodney King was on parole when he attempted to evade police officers on 3 March. After his car was stopped, he was kicked and beaten by Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind while over a dozen other officers watched, including Sergeant Stacey Koon.

Holliday’s video depicts the officers kicking and beating King repeatedly – long after he could even attempt to defend himself – resulting in skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, as well as permanent brain damage. When reports were filed by Koon and Powell after the incident, they did not realize they had been videotaped, and they downplayed their use of force.

They claimed King had charged them, though King said the officers threatened to kill him so he was attempting to run for his life. None of the dozen officers watching attempted to intervene as King was beaten.

The video footage helped bring the officers to trial

Reduced resolution screenshot from nationally televised footage of Rodney King beating (3 March 1991). The original video was shot by George Holliday.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On 15 March, after the video had been played repeatedly on news stations across the United States, Sergeant Koon and Officers Powell, Wind and Briseno were indicted by a grand jury for assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer. 

Though Koon did not actively participate in the beating, he was charged alongside the others as he was their commanding officer. King was released without being charged. Residents of LA believed the footage of the attack on King made it an open and shut case.

The trial had been moved outside of the city to Ventura County because of the attention on the case. The jury, which consisted mostly of white jurors, found the defendants not guilty on all but one charge. Ultimately, however, the remaining charge resulted in a hung jury and an acquittal, so no guilty verdicts were issued for any of the officers. At around 3 pm on 29 April 1992, the four officers were found not guilty.

Riots broke out almost immediately

Less than 3 hours later, riots protesting the officers’ acquittal erupted at the intersection of Florence Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. By 9 pm, the mayor had declared a state of emergency, and the governor deployed 2,000 National Guard troops into the city. The uprising lasted 5 days and tore apart the city.

A building burned to the ground during the riots.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The riots were particularly intense in South Central Los Angeles, as residents were already experiencing high unemployment rates, drug issues, gang violence and other violent crimes in a neighbourhood that was over 50% black.

Moreover, in the same month that King had been beaten, a 15-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins, had been shot and killed by a store owner who accused her of stealing orange juice. It was later discovered that she was clutching money to pay for the juice when she was murdered. The Asian storeowner received probation and a $500 fine.

The lack of justice in these two instances increased black residents’ disenfranchisement and frustration with the criminal justice system. Rioters caused fires, looted and destroyed buildings and even pulled motorists out of their cars and beat them. 

The police were slow to act

According to witnesses watching the first night of the riots, police officers drove by scenes of violence without stopping or attempting to protect those being attacked, including white drivers.

When 911 calls started being logged, officers were not sent out straight away. In fact, they did not respond to calls for about 3 hours after the first incidences occurred, including a man being hit with a brick after being forcibly removed from his vehicle. Further, it was later revealed that the city had not anticipated such reactions to the verdict and had not prepared for potential unrest in any capacity, let alone on this scale. 

More than 50 people died during the LA riots

A curfew was put in place from sunset to sunrise, mail delivery ceased for the duration of the riots, and most residents were unable to go to work or school for 5 days. Traffic was stopped and approximately 2,000 Korean-run businesses were defaced or ruined because of pre-existing racial tensions in the city. In all, it is estimated that there was over $1 billion worth of damages caused in 5 days.

On the third day of the riots, King himself appealed to the people of LA to stop rioting with the famed line, “I just want to say, can’t we all get along?” In total, over 50 riot-related deaths occurred, with some estimates placing the figure as high as 64. Over 2,000 people were injured and approximately 6,000 accused looters and arsonists were arrested. On 4 May, the riots ended and businesses reopened.

Rodney King poses for a portrait after a book signing of his book ‘The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption’ in New York, 24 April 2012.

Image Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Ultimately, Rodney King was awarded a financial settlement at a civil trial in 1994. He died in 2012 at the age of 47. In 1993, two of the four officers who beat King were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights and served 30 months in prison. The other two officers were fired from the LAPD. Owing to his lack of leadership, the police chief was forced to resign in June 1992. 

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Shannon Callahan