Two Images Defined the L.A. Riots—but Their Reality Was Far More Complex

The reasons L.A.’s racial tensions boiled over were hardly black and white

The present is by nature reductive. The here and the now don’t have time and space for the nuances of history. The past is often rendered to us not in thesis but as a series of one-sheets. The image tells us all. Context is not required.

It’s that way, largely, with the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Forget the 53 killed, the nearly $1 billion in property damage over the span of six days—if anyone actually recalls those stats at all. The L.A. riots have come to be defined by two of the most evocative pieces of video vérité of the early 1990s: the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny. King, a black man nightsticked by a swarm of LAPD officers. Fifty-six baton blows in 80 seconds. Denny, a white truck driver pulled from his vehicle and mercilessly pummeled the day hell arrived at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. The coup de grâce? A cinder block to the head. Each event, essentially bookending the “riot era,” confirmed all we knew to be true at the time: White LAPD cops were thugs with badges. Inner-city blacks were just plain thugs.

End of story. Video don’t lie.


But images do oversimplify and obfuscate. Though the videos themselves were stark, they were far from complete. The tape of the King beating doesn’t show the two passengers of his speeding car, also black men, being peaceably arrested before King began his drugged-out taunting of the LAPD officers. Neither did the live feed of the Denny beating pay sufficient tribute to the black citizens—strangers to Denny as well as one another—who risked their own lives to save the man from his attackers and rush him to a hospital.

Yet King and Denny have been held up as poster boys for the cause and effect of L.A.’s racial tensions. In truth the metrics of the riots were hardly that binary. That black and white. The issues of race, economics, and geography that made the city fertile for civil unrest were as expansive as Los Angeles itself.

By 1990, L.A. was at the height of an economic downturn, what the Employment Development Department called “one of the most severe recessions of the postwar era.” In the areas that would be hardest hit by the riots, 29.7 percent of the population was in poverty, 21 percent was on public assistance, and 13 percent of workers were unemployed.

Many blacks felt they were being driven from their historically black neighborhoods by an influx of Latino people—many of them illegal immigrants—who were keeping already stagnant wages artificially low. Mix in the racial animosity toward Korean store owners who served the inner-city communities. Blacks felt the Koreans treated them disrespectfully while gouging them with unreasonable prices. From the Koreans’ perspective, they daily risked—and were often victims of—robbery and violence as they provided goods to a section of the city white business owners had abandoned.

The belief that race and class were mitigating factors for preferential treatment was only reinforced when 27-year-old Asian American Karen Toshima, a passerby, was killed during a 1988 gang shooting in Westwood. The LAPD put 30 detectives on the case and beefed up patrols in the area. Upwards of $25,000 was offered for information leading to Toshima’s killer.

Contrast that with the nearly concurrent murder of 67-year-old Alma Lee Washington. The wheelchair-bound grandmother took an errant bullet to her head during a gang drive-by as she sat at the door of her South-Central home. The response from the LAPD to the killing of an elderly black woman? All of two officers were assigned to the case.

This us-versus-them mentality got jacked up another notch just one day after four cops were indicted for beating Rodney King. On March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins—a 15-year-old black girl—was shot by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du following an argument over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Du was given only five years’ probation for the killing.

Racial tensions, economic hardship. A judiciary system that seemingly lacked justice. The city was tipping toward chaos. When L.A. most needed leadership, it got pettiness instead. In the months before the riot, the city’s dispassionate black mayor, Tom Bradley, wouldn’t even speak with his myopic white chief of police, Daryl Gates. Messages were exchanged by surrogates like two Cold War nations.

By the time a Simi Valley jury that included no blacks acquitted the officers, the weed of discord was deeply rooted. Rodney King was an excuse for an uprising, not a reason. In a bit of high irony, the only recorded instance of looters invoking Rodney King during the rioting was a white-Latino duo who tried to rob a Valley minimart, toting a gun and yelling, “Fuck Rodney King!” The black shop owner shot the white guy on the spot.

From Chief Gates dining at a black-tie function while the city burned to the California National Guard, which could not deploy for lack of live ammunition: Were it not for the lives lost, the property damaged, the riots would be farcical. But people did die. Property was destroyed. One would hope that the event would be regarded as more than a comedy of errors, that there were actual lessons to be drawn from the tragedy.

The Watts riots were supposed to have been some monumental “teachable moment,” too. The McCone Commission, assembled in its wake, was supposed to have provided a road map to better days. In 1990, 25 years after the Watts riots, the McCone Commission members lamented in the Los Angeles Times about the lack of action on their recommendations and worried for the future of the city’s most challenged areas. Two years later the city was again burning.

In the decades since, the recommendations of the post-King riots Special Committee of the California Legislature have been dumped in an unmarked grave similar to McCone’s. The causes of the riots have been left to self-correct far more than they were actively corrected. Today 30 percent of black high school students in L.A. drop out, while the unemployment rate among blacks is 16 percent—the highest in the city (and higher than in 1992). As a rule, time heals, but it often simply erodes until even the most severe events are reduced to just something that happened long ago. It’s when lessons are forgotten that history repeats.

John Ridley is a writer. His most recent screenplay is Red Tails.