Heart of the Valley Special Edition: Anniversary of 1992 LA Civil Unrest
April 29, 2022
SPECIAL EDITION: The Thirtieth Anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest
Friends & Neighbors:
Thirty years ago today, a jury in Simi Valley acquitted the four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with brutalizing Rodney King. Shortly thereafter, civil unrest erupted throughout Los Angeles, including in parts of the Valley. While violence and destruction are never appropriate responses, very real pent-up frustrations made the ground fertile for the insurrection.
Los Angeles has long been diverse, but divided, due to the lingering effects of redlining, restrictive covenants and freeway construction that sliced through neighborhoods, along with lack of economic opportunity. Although Los Angeles is one city, in 1992, people often frequented only their own communities, rarely encountering those of other ethnicities or from other parts of town.
When there was interaction, such as between Korean-American merchants and African Americans, there was perceived disrespect and fear, coupled with a lack of cultural understanding on both sides. One tragic incident, that provided additional fuel for the civil unrest, was the 1991 shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American grocer, and the resulting sentence of probation for a manslaughter conviction. While people in areas that were more affluent saw the police as a bulwark against crime, those in more marginalized communities felt they were constantly harassed, targeted and abused by an almost militarized police force.
Rodney King was not the first Black Angeleno to be subject to excessive use of force. However, his beating, in Lakeview Terrace, was the first captured on video and widely disseminated via television news. The grainy video shocked the nation. It did not surprise the Los Angeles Black community, which had long reported experiencing similar events. There was, however, hope that this time, because people could see police brutality with their own eyes, things would be different and justice would prevail. Regrettably, the videotape of the beating did not have the desired impact in state court, and justice would not prevail until the Apr. 17, 1993 convictions in federal court of two of the four officers for violating Rodney King’s civil rights.
There have been positive changes in Los Angeles during the past 30 years, but scars and challenges remain. Together we must work toward a more equitable and just Los Angeles – by addressing housing, education, economic opportunity, climate change, and criminal justice.
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
My Senior Advisor, Sherry Greenberg shares her memories from the 1992 Civil Unrest:
In Apr.1992, I was interning in beautiful downtown Burbank at what was then KNBC-TV news (now, NBC4LA). In an era before the internet, smartphones, and social media, there was no better place to become instantly aware of “breaking” events, than in a broadcast television newsroom. Multiple television monitors hung from the ceilings. Newswires were accessible from the dedicated news computers. It was an amazing place for this news junkie to get her fix.
For the week beginning on Apr. 27, 1992, the KNBC newsroom was on high alert for a verdict in the Rodney King beating case. At about 1:00 p.m. on Apr. 29, the trial judge announced that the jury had reached a verdict and that he would read it in two hours. Newsroom personnel, excluding those prepositioned at the courthouse in Simi Valley, began scrambling to implement the plan for coverage throughout the city. Yes, there was a plan, because while no one could be certain what the verdict would be, nor exactly where trouble might erupt – although people in the newsroom expected Koreatown would be one target -- it was clear to newsroom personnel that this was going to be big. I distinctly recall several grizzled news veterans opining that the police officers would be acquitted and there would be “riots.”
Tensions had been thick since the first broadcast of George Holliday’s video of the police beating Rodney King. Two weeks later, the shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, for allegedly shoplifting a bottle of orange juice, further inflamed the community. Like with the King beating, there was a videotape of the altercation between Harlins and Du. That video, and later evidence, showed that Harlins had money in her hand to pay for the juice. The jury convicted Du of manslaughter. The judge sentenced Du to 10 years, but then suspended the prison time, giving Du probation, community service and a fine. Both the Korean-American and Black communities were furious. The former because they believed Du was acting in self-defense, and the latter because the Black community felt long disrespected by Korean-American merchants in their communities,
As we heard the verdict, no one in the newsroom had any doubt what was about to happen in Los Angeles. Within less than an hour came the first reports of civil unrest. It was mystifying why the Los Angeles Police Department had not prepared, including failing to declare a tactical alert until nearly 6:45 p.m. The questions about deployment deepened, as reports came in that police who were in hotspots withdrew, and later that Police Chief Darryl Gates was on his way to Brentwood to attend a political fundraiser.
Because my shift ended, and as the situation worsened, I decided to drive home. Unlike Reginald Denny, and others who unwittingly drove into danger, I knew I would have to plan my route carefully. Although a Valley Girl, I was living “over the hill” at that time. Having only my car radio for updates, I followed the route I mapped. I made it home unscathed, and immediately turned on the television to see that events had significantly deteriorated since I left Burbank.
As people in the newsroom predicted, Koreatown was among the worst hit areas. Merchants there felt abandoned by the police and formed their own protection details. Out of nearly a billion dollars in damages caused by the civil unrest, nearly half of the losses were to Korean-American businesses.
Mayor Bradley imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and declared a state of emergency. Most offices and schools were closed, and events cancelled. Mail was not delivered. For several days, there was little to do other than watch the television in horror. National Guard and federal troops were deployed to restore order.
As things somewhat calmed, I went to a local grocery store. Shoppers were frantically, and irrationally, grabbing anything they could off of shelves. I was sure that shoppers would not need, nor be able to consume, multiple gallons of milk. Nor would they wash five boxes of detergent worth of clothing. This behavior spoke loudly about how disorienting this time was. When I left the grocery store, I saw military Humvees driving down Santa Monica Blvd. I also saw several military vehicles pull into a Jack in the Box for lunch. It was disconcerting, more than it was reassuring.
As immediate rebuilding efforts got underway, a friend and I went to First AME Church to contribute. I am ashamed to admit that was my first time visiting that historic church. In the years since, I have tried to expand the neighborhoods I frequent – to get to know the wonderful vibrancy of our whole city.
It is important that we learn from these moments. Stories like Sherry’s make history come alive.
Stay safe and be well,
REMEMBER, WE ARE A TEAM
I appreciate hearing from you. If you have a specific question or concern, or a story about the Valley to share, please click here to send me an email or call my office at (818) 901-5588. You can also connect with me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.