The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

Photo Essay


Shortly after midnight on March 3, 1991, Los Angeles resident George Holliday awoke to the sound of police sirens and a helicopter. Startled, Holliday walked onto his apartment balcony, and saw, approximately 90 feet away, members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) striking a man repeatedly as California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers looked on. Holliday, who had recently purchased a Handycam (one of the earliest versions of the handheld video camera), recorded the disturbing scene. Though the recording was hazy, the beating of the man—soon revealed to be an African American named Rodney King—was plain. The next day, Holliday brought his video to Los Angeles news station KTLA, which paid him $500 for the footage. KTLA investigated the story that day, and released a clip from the video as part of a package the same night.

The clip rapidly spread to stations throughout the country, and was quickly picked up by the national media, who aired the shocking footage nearly nonstop. (According to a CNN Vice President, Holliday's tape was plied "like wallpaper.") As details of the assault emerged, the incident seemed to confirm the African American community's very worst suspicions about American law enforcement, whose relationship with the community had long been strained. Assault charges were filed against the four officers, however, and for the moment tensions held. On the afternoon of April 29, 1992—following two months of proceedings and seven days of jury deliberation—a jury found the officers not guilty of using excessive force. The verdict was denounced almost unanimously by Americans on all sides of the political spectrum, including President George H. W. Bush, who promised a federal investigation of LAPD conduct. Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley remarked that "today the system failed us."

The most immediate and ultimately tragic response came, however, from ordinary citizens. Almost immediately after the not-guilty verdict, groups of outraged residents took to the streets and began attacking shops and passersby. The violence quickly escalated throughout the city, and by evening a full-scale riot was underway. Overmatched, the police and fire departments left many areas of the city to fend for themselves, and order was not finally restored until six days later, aided in large part by the arrival of the American military. The most devastated area of the city was Koreatown, the national epicenter of the Korean-American community, which suffered staggering losses of property and was the site of midday gun battles. When it was all over, 53 people had been killed, over 10,000 had been arrested, and total damages were estimated at over $ 1 billion, making the LA Riots the most destructive domestic disturbance in the United States of the twentieth century.

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