Remembering the L.A. Riots

Community leaders from across L.A. tell us how they experienced the unrest and how the spring of 1992 shapes their vision of our city today

Charlie Beck

Charlie Beck
Chief, Los Angeles Police Department 

The L.A. riots were a very dark period in the history of our department and our city. The images of buildings burning, stores being looted, and innocent civilians being attacked by fellow Angelenos remain a vivid memory.

I saw an organization that was paralyzed by the events that were unfolding during those six days in April 1992. At the time there had been an intense amount of scrutiny on the LAPD’s use of force policies, and many of those policies were in transition. As a result, there was a lot of uncertainty among officers, which resulted in us not reacting as quickly as we should have in containing the violence. Had we done a better job of policing at the flashpoint of the riots, I believe that the violence would not have spread to other parts of the city.  

I witnessed an organization that I am extremely proud of—one where my father served, my sister served, and where my children now serve—not dealing with the civil unrest, and it was very humbling to me. I learned some very valuable lessons that will never be repeated by me or by the department.

Having served this great city for more than 30 years, I have come to love it as my own.  While the events of 20 years ago damaged our city, our relationships, and our reputation as an organization, my faith in the resilience of all involved never wavered.

As a result of what we learned from the 1992 L.A. riots, the department emerged stronger and much more capable of protecting the citizens of Los Angeles and maintaining public safety. Through training and education, our department is much more sensitive to the many cultures that live and work in our great city. Our ability to change with the times and educate ourselves has improved the way we police our city. 

Our relationship with the community that we serve is more of a collaborative partnership than it was 20 years ago. As a result of our growth we are much better prepared to deal with situations like civil unrest and major unusual occurrences through specific training, which was not available back then.

Perhaps most importantly, our relationship with the community is much better and stronger than it was in 1992. Efforts to engage with the communities we serve and foster a relationship of trust and collaboration have taken us to unprecedented heights. Crime rates in the city are at levels we have not experienced in decades, and the public’s trust in their police department is at an all-time high.

In the 20 years since the L.A. riots we have grown tremendously. But in order to continue our upward momentum, we must always remember our successes and failures from the past.

Colleen Williams

Colleen Williams
Anchor, NBC4 News

I was at NBC4 working. The riots broke out as we teamed up in the newsroom to cover the Rodney King beating verdicts. The controversial verdicts were broadcast live, and within hours, as word spread, the riots began. At about 6:45 p.m., I remember vividly the beating of Reginald Denny at the corner of Florence and Normandie. As we watched it unfold on the air, we were all stunned and couldn’t envision what was about to happen. We immediately went on the air to report what was going on and continued live coverage, nonstop for days, as we watched in disbelief with everyone else. The intersection of Florence and Normandie became synonymous with what was about to happen across the city.

That intersection remains a constant reminder of the riots because it is where a man was nearly beaten to death; the country watched it live on television. Even 20 years later, those images are still vivid in my mind, and I don’t think that will ever change for me or any other Angeleno.

A terrible thing happened at the intersection of Florence and Normandie that day, but we can’t forget the Good Samaritans from the neighborhood who stepped up to help others in need. Those community members rescued Reginald Denny and saved his life. We can’t deny the tragic events that occurred during the riots, but we have to remember all the heroes who put their lives at risk. These are the individuals who bravely stepped into a dangerous situation to do the right thing, while others stood by almost paralyzed. There’s no explanation for the existence of these Good Samaritans, but fortunately for Los Angeles, they will always be with us.  

Eric Garcetti

Eric Garcetti
Los Angeles City Councilmember 

I watched my city burning on TV from New York City where I was finishing my senior year at Columbia. As a fourth-generation Angeleno, I always knew I’d move back to L.A. after college, and as I watched, I wondered what kind of city it would be when I got home. Would it be racially divided? Would it be physically destroyed? How would people feel about our city and our police department? Twenty years later the Los Angeles of today is a testament to our city’s resilience and our people’s deep commitment to their neighborhoods and each other. 

Roberto Barraga

Roberto Barragan
President, Valley Economic Development Center 

I was in San Francisco at that time, where there were riots. I was actually almost arrested when police called an illegal assembly and started rounding people up. They cordoned off one end of the street and then came up behind the protesters on the other side of the street, and at the time I was in the middle. Luckily I was next to a building where I had a client, so I went into his building and got away.

Soon thereafter I was recruited to potentially be a senior executive at Rebuild LA, the corporate city response to the civil unrest, in financial management. I was very interested in the position but didn’t get it. About eight months later I was approached by folks at Wells Fargo and Bank of America because they had put together their own program called the L.A. Community Reinvestment Committee (LACRC), which was establishing a community finance resource center. I became its new executive director. CFRC was the banks’ response to the civil unrest. It was an attempt to bring the banks together and establish one location where people could get business lending, business assistance, home assistance, and financial education. As competitive as the banks were, this was one place they came together to benefit the community.

I had wanted to come down to Los Angeles immediately. I grew up in Southern California, and it was extremely heart wrenching to see people who were at the limit of tolerance. We saw people running out of stores with diapers. People concentrate on the people who went into stores and stole TVs. But you saw many more people go into stores and walk away with consumer goods, because in ’92 we were in the middle of a recession, there were major defense cutbacks in California, there were aerospace cutbacks, unemployment had gone up, and home prices were stagnant. We were caught in one of those business cycles. And you also had a city with a police force that wasn’t known for being community oriented. People got sick of it. They got sick of the economics. They got sick of the police presence. They got sick of not having services in their neighborhood. When there was a spark, people just retaliated. It was sad to see business owners who had served the community watching their stores burn down. After the riots, some never came back.

Part of what I did when I was in South L.A. was to lend money to businesses that couldn’t get money otherwise. Each one of the lending situations was unique, each was hard to do, and each required a level of care and assistance that wasn’t being made available to anyone else. Now I believe if you design the program right, you can lend anywhere to any business. To consider a place like South-Central as unsuitable for business is unconscionable. The civil unrest showed that government cannot bring back a blighted community by itself. Only residents and local business can.

L.A. is an extremely diverse community. What I learned in South L.A. is, it’s not about black, brown, white—it’s about green. At the end of the day, it’s economics that separates us. And it’s even worse today. Economics more than ever defines L.A. Unless we begin to have a strategy that is based on business and jobs—and jobs for all—we’re going to have pockets of paradise that are surrounded by neighborhoods that are still wanting. Los Angeles has a ways to go yet to serve the majority of its population.

I think Occupy Wall Street and Occupy L.A. was a message. People are saying we have a broken system. We have a population that isn’t sharing the American Dream. Before the civil unrest, we didn’t get a message. We just got the riots.

Hyepin Im

Hyepin Im
Founder and President, Korean Churches for Community Development (KCCD) 

I was an MBA student at USC living in Long Beach and interning at Toshiba down in Irvine, and when I first came back and heard about the riots, I was in shock. I came to realize that the fabric of society was so fragile and chaos could happen in a split second.

As a young Korean single woman, I often went to Koreatown for the restaurants and the nightlife, and I was involved somewhat with a nonprofit called Korean American Coalition. A place where I felt so safe overnight became dangerous.

I had never heard of a black-Korean conflict, and when the media kept talking about that, I was really confused as to what this conflict was about. In the aftermath, seeing how the community was depicted in the media proved we didn’t have the established relationships to have real representatives speak for us. Really, our story was not properly told.

It was just a painful experience to see a community depicted and accused of being isolated, one that doesn’t give, and to be told to go home, when in reality I knew that our community was so much more than that. I remember feeling a lack of power. But we lacked the capacity to build successful partnerships with the greater community.

I visited Koreatown again not too long after the riots, and then the African American community and the Korean American community were invited to the Oprah Winfrey show. It was interesting because the Korean community spoke first, and they started off saying something like, “Our community has room for improvement,” and the African American community leaders just jumped on it. I took a lesson from that: If you are ever on a TV show, you need to say what you need to say. I remember Oprah turning to a pastor at the end and asking if he would close the show with a prayer. Seeing faith transcend the walls of the church was a very poignant moment for me.

With First AME I saw a church serve as a vehicle for integration, assimilation, and education about the greater community. I saw this amazing model where the church can have a real impact when it partners with the greater community. It was able to help people systematically. It was a model I wanted to bring to the Korean community. It was the inspiration for our organization.

If I were to focus on the positives of L.A. today, I would say many ethnic communities are coming of age. Individuals like Roy Choi, with his Kogi truck, are able to take their ethnic roots and their experience and bring together a lot of cultures in a way that is changing whole industries. We’ve become a global community that is connected. There are less walls and a greater understanding of each other.

I talk about L.A. everywhere I go. Am I proud of L.A.? I am. Is there room for change and growth and understanding? Absolutely, yes.

If we could have a greater platform for building understanding and lifting up the different communities and helping them reach their full potential, we could have more successes. The cultural world is in our own backyard. We could take it to the next level.

Dr. Maulana Karenga

Dr. Maulana Karenga
Professor and Chair of Africana Studies, California State University Long Beach
Executive Director, African American Cultural Center (Us)

The Los Angeles Revolt of April 1992 engendered for me a series of interrelated experiences, including moral outrage, a renewed socio-historical understanding, a sense of unfolding opportunity, informed suspicion, and hopeful determination. It understandably began with a profound sense of moral outrage at the inhumanity and injustice of it all, which was a shared sense of outrage for most people who saw the sustained brutal beating of Rodney King on TV and witnessed the shocking acquittal of the policemen involved. The beating appeared both savage and senseless, with no justification and a vivid and violent expression of police abuse and brutality. And the acquittal and the reasons given appeared to provide a racialized social sanction for this and other forms of police violence and abuse. 

Secondly, as an activist-scholar, there was also a renewed socio-historical understanding that the brutal beating and racialized acquittal by the jury in Simi Valley were not isolated and unrelated events but rather were rooted in and reflective of a context of race and class disparities and disadvantages of wealth, power, and status. The video camera had captured an example of a defining feature of the lived experience of the African American community and other communities of color: a persistent pattern of police violence and abuse that demonstrated a reckless and deadly disregard for their lives and rights. But it also reminded us of community vulnerabilities, not only in regard to police abuse and brutality, but also systemic issues of poverty, asymmetrical power relations, unemployment, poor housing, an ineffective and underfunded educational system, lack of access to affordable health care, an unequal and oppressive legal and criminal justice system, a racially degraded status, and other sources of suffering and problems in the communities of color who would respond in revolt. And such response in revolt to real and perceived social oppression and injustice has been the case throughout history, not simply in 1992 or in the 1960s, which witnessed social revolts throughout the country.

Thirdly, there was for a brief moment also a shared sense of opportunity to move collectively to correct the problems that provoked the Revolt. Indeed, there were the usual proliferations of community, interracial, interfaith, and governmental meetings to search for answers, calls for calm and healing, and press conferences and media stories on these and a host of related issues and events. And there were joint projects and numerous plans and efforts to better interracial and interethnic relations, rebuild the city, and begin a new chapter in police, government, and community relations and cooperation for common good.

However, joined to this sense of opportunity was an understandable and informed suspicion that the cooperative spirit and efforts and the rightful attentiveness for the problems that provided both the social foundation and the sustaining fuel of the Revolt would not last. For there was a sense of déjà vu to it all, since it was essentially an immediate disaster response rather than a long-term developmental planning for the city and county that self-consciously concerned itself with the lives and future of all the people, especially the most vulnerable among us. Certainly there were good ideas and intentions in these post-Revolt efforts and initiatives, but the problems were and are long-term and require a determined, ongoing, and persistent demonstration of ethical commitment, political will, and relentless social struggle to achieve any real, serious, and enduring social change.

Finally, in spite of a healthy and correct suspicion that these immediate-focused, disaster-response efforts would go the way of their predecessors, my colleagues and allies in struggle and I maintained and continue to maintain a hopeful determination. We know that the struggle for justice and good in society and the world is a long, difficult, and demanding one, and we are determined to continue this struggle. For our work is in self-conscious, committed response to the ancient and ongoing African ethical mandate “to bear witness to truth and set the scales of justice in their proper place, especially among those who have no voice.” Indeed, our people’s history is a history of righteous struggle for good in the world, and we strive to honor it. Thus, we ask ourselves daily, in the tradition of our ancestors, “What is our duty?” And we answer in that same tradition: “It is to know our past and honor it; to engage our present and improve it; and to imagine a new future and forge it in the most ethical, effective, and expansive ways.”