In the spring of 1991, a graphic and inflammatory video surfaced. It had caught Rodney King, an African-American man, being beaten by four Los Angeles policemen, three of whom were White. Their acquittal of the brutality gave way to five days of riots in LA fueled by outrage and injustice.
After being stopped during a police chase, King, who was then on parole for robbery, was ordered out of his car. For 15 minutes, he was kicked and hit with batons repeatedly by cops from the Los Angeles Police Department. In the video, more than a dozen other officers watched the beating take place. King survived but with multiple skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage. The following year on April 29, the case was taken to a court in the suburbs of Ventura County where a 12-person jury with only three people of color –none of them Black – ruled that the four officers were not guilty. The upsetting news spread quickly. The announcement was made at 3 p.m., and less than three hours later the violence began.
At that time in South Central LA, where more than half of the population was Black, the community was facing challenges. Unemployment rates were at almost 50 percent, and drugs, crime, and gang violence ravaged the area. In the same month as Rodney King’s beating, 15-year old Latasha Harlins, an African-American girl, was shot and killed by a Korean store owner who believed she was stealing orange juice.
Harlins had the money to pay in her hand.
The store owner was simply given probation and a $500 fine. This caused a rift between the Black and Korean communities.
This was not the first time the criminal justice system had failed LA’s Black population. The relationship between people of color and the LAPD was particularly strained. Connie Rice, lawyer and civil rights activist, said that the LAPD was “racist and abusive of force in communities of color.” The grave state of the environment, criminal injustice, and a growing mistrust with law enforcement led to combustion – literally and figuratively.
The unrest began on the intersection of two streets, Florence and Normandie. Rioters and looters set fire to and destroyed several stores and businesses. At about 6:45 p.m., Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, was pulled out of his truck and attacked by rioting gang members who hit him in the head with a brick. Terri Barnett, her boyfriend, and two strangers, who were all African-American, saved his life by taking him to the hospital. According to Barnett, the cops drove right by it all, without stopping.
LAPD chief, Darryl Gates, was at a fundraiser in West Los Angeles when he claimed that the department had it under control and ordered officers to retreat. It wasn't until almost three hours after the rioting started that the cops took action. It was later found that there was no plan in place for any situation like the riots.
That night, just before 9 p.m., the city of LA went into a state of emergency and 2,000 National Guard troops reported to the scene under California governor Pete Wilson's orders. On May 1, the third day of the riots, Rodney King himself said publicly, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?” in an attempt to appease the violence.
After the five days, the cost of destruction came to an astonishing $1 billion worth of property. More than 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed and 2,000 Korean establishments faced damages. More than 2,000 people were injured and casualties exceeded 50, with ten people being killed by police officers or National Guardsmen. Almost 6,000 people were arrested; of those, 36 percent were Black and 51 percent were Latinx.
The issues of racial profiling and police brutality have followed us into the present. Videos like the Rodney King beating have gone viral, causing uprisings in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson. Even 26 years later, the conflict between law enforcement and people of color is yet to be resolved.