Twenty years ago today, riots began to overtake the city of Los Angeles.
They began in South L.A., where not even three decades before, the Watts riots had ravaged the area and devastated the community's economy, morale and reputation as a livable, safe place. Those riots, which took place in 1965, shattered the southside – and the '92 riots, at least for a time, shut down any emerging signs of slow recovery.
It was March 3, 1991 – black motorist Rodney King had led police on a 110 mph chase through the San Fernando Valley. The police did eventually catch up to him, and in attempting to subdue him, ultimately dealt him more than 50 baton blows. King had a broken cheekbone, a fractured skull and a broken leg after that beating.
What was unique about this instance is that the beating had been captured on video by amateur cameraman George Holliday from the balcony of his apartment.
The 81-second video was sold to KTLA for $500, aired in edited form – and the firestorm began.
Seeing four officers who weren't black – Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno – beat King into submission brought racial tensions in the U.S. to a rolling boil. Cries of police brutality and racial injustice sounded all the way until to the state trial the following year, which took place in a Ventura County court.
The not-guilty verdict from a jury comprised of 10 whites, one Latino and on Asian came on April 29, 1992 at 3:15 p.m., and racial tensions finally snapped.
The flashpoint of the subsequent anarchy was the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues. The day the verdict was announced, the unrest and violence manifested and then built there, horrifically emblematized by the beating of white trucker Reginald Denny and Guatemalan construction worker Fidel Lopez. Both were pulled from their vehicles and brutalized by rioters.
That was just the beginning. Later that evening, then-Mayor Tom Bradley called a local state of emergency and asked for 2,000 National Guard soldiers, which he later got. A curfew was implemented. But still the riots raged – and spread, all the way to westside and Pasadena.
The city struggled to regain control for three days – by Saturday, May 2, most of the violence was under control. People were back to work by the following Monday. Two of the officers – Koon and Powell – were later found guilty and convicted in a federal civil rights violation case. But with more than 50 killed, 2,300 injured, an estimated $1 billion in property damage and more than 2,000 businesses damaged or destroyed, the devastation of the unrest lingered long after the chaos was contained.
Those days in 1992 made an indelible mark on the character of the southside – one that's still visible in the empty lots that pepper South L.A., for one. And it's a story that only the people who were there or affected can authentically tell. With that, OnCentral presents a weeklong special series of Q&As with members of the South Los Angeles community whose lives have been somehow changed by what they experienced as a result of those terrifying few days.
This week, 20 years later, OnCentral remembers the riots that shattered South Los Angeles.
Read all of the Q&As in this special series:
– Los Angeles Police Department Captain Phillip Tingirides
– Vivian Bowers, owner of Bowers & Sons cleaners on Central Avenue
– Journalist and writer Rubén Martínez
– Alex Ko, son of storeowners in riots-era Koreatown
– Maria Muniz, who was five years old at the time of the riots