April 29, 1992, might have been any too-hot springtime day in southern California. Except it wasn’t. Morning temperatures were mild, but tension among the populace was sky high. By high noon, thermometers registered in the 90s. The so-called “Rodney King verdict” was revealed in Simi Valley, and the most massive misrule in Los Angeles history was sparked. By the time the ashes of the 1992 L.A. riots were cool enough to sweep, dozens of people were dead, thousands were seriously injured, and a billion dollars in property damage had been done.
Over the course of six days in the spring of 1992, then Governor Pete Wilson mobilized 2,000 National Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration diverted airline traffic around LAX, and the California Highway Patrol shut down several sections of freeway. Fifty-four persons died, and more than 12,000 Los Angelenos were placed under arrest. To this day, the 1992 L.A. riots bear the dismal distinction of being the deadliest civil disturbance in modern U.S. history.
Agitation on the streets of L.A. reached a fever pitch after a carefully selected panel of jurors failed to convict a quartet of cops accused of wielding excessive force against a motorist. Many people felt the jury ignored obvious evidence. Communities from coast to coast were outraged by the perplexing verdict, but the most destructive and deadly demonstrations occurred in South Central Los Angeles and environs. The people had simply had enough, and they made their voices heard albeit in catastrophic fashion.
Nine minutes and 22 seconds of video
In 1991, camera phones were still a decade in the future and few folks owned a video camera. Fortunately, one sleeping San Fernando Valley resident had a Sony Handycam and grabbed it as soon as he was awakened by helicopters above his apartment. He dashed to the balcony, aimed his lens at the street below and recorded what turned out to be one of the first viral videos in history.
Grainy as it was, the impromptu footage offered indisputable evidence of four frenzied L.A. cops beating the living hell out of a man as he writhed on the ground. The man had been immobilized by at least one police stun gun, yet L.A.P.D. officers continued to pummel the downed man with police batons. The man appeared to present no significant threat to four uniformed, well-armed officers, but they kicked him, tased him, fractured his zygomatic arch along with his skull, and broke his leg, to boot. With a boot.
No isolated incident, but first with video evidence
In 1991 Los Angeles, some cops behaved badly a good deal of the time, and a whole lot of people knew it. The stuff that was hard to come by that year was recorded visual evidence of wrongdoing by identifiable officers. If new technology could catch these bad boys in blue red-handed, nine minutes of video footage was sure to do it. Rumors that racism was tolerated if not outright encouraged within the ranks of L.A.’s finest were eventually proven to be true. The names of the officers who beat a man to a bloody pulp in 1991 and got away with it in 1992 were Stacey C. Koon, Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind, and Theodore J. Briseno.
Skilled plumber and Argentinian immigrant George Holliday digitally detected the infamous Rodney King beating, explains the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. Holliday retained a copy of the Rodney King video for safe keeping and sold broadcast rights to the nine-minute tape to KTLA-TV Channel 5. The original nine-minute video associated with the 1992 Rodney King riots sits in a federal archive.
The truth was brutalized on April 29, 1992
Such was the sentiment of the Rev. Cecil L. Murray as he and fellow clergy watched verdict after verdict in a meeting room at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central Los Angeles.
“If something in you can die, that something died. Not because it’s unbelievable, but because it is believable. You think rational people will be at least semi-rational. You think civil people will be at least semi-civil. But to come back and see them completely whitewashing something that the whole world witnessed–this is a brutalization of truth.”
1992 Los Angeles riots facilitated end of an ‘imperial’ L.A.P.D.
Civil rights lawyer, Connie Rice, described how the riots of 1992 heralded the expiration of an “imperial” police force in Los Angeles to BBC News.
“With the Rodney King beating and the riots, that was the beginning of the end of the old imperial LAPD. Because the LAPD had a very arrogant, ‘we’re above the law’ attitude. It was the first time the black community’s complaints couldn’t be denied and swept under the rug.”
In the wake of the Ventura County verdict and ’92 LA riots that followed, an independent commission reviewed details of the case. Led by Warren Christopher, the commission concluded that L.A.P.D. management was aware but did nothing about a number of rogue cops who brutalized suspects and bragged about it with impunity. Fortunately, changes in the L.A.P.D. were enacted as a direct result of the Los Angeles riots that began 25 years ago today.
Whatever happened to Rodney King?
As the 20th anniversary of the 1992 LA riots approached, Rodney Glen King’s own life appeared to be “doing a one-eighty,” as west coast surfers say. On April 2, Rodney turned 47. He told anyone who’d listen that Hollywood wanted to make a movie about him, and he was excited about scheduling a summertime pay-per-view boxing bout with Jose Canseco. On April 30, King wore a pink tie and love beads as he autographed copies of ‘The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption at Esowon Books in Baldwin Hills.
Fewer than two weeks later, Rodney was found dead before dawn at the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.
[Featured Image by Jason Kirk/Online USA/Getty Images]