Rodney King & The LA Riots: A Terrible Episode of Violence

The Los Angeles Riots, triggered by the acquittal of the police officers who brutally assaulted Rodney King, led to the worst incident of civil unrest in US history.

May 27, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

rodney king la riots


The United States has had a long history of challenges involving the police and what many see as the use of excessive force against African Americans by a policing sector that harbors deep-seated racist mores. This perception triggered one of the most destructive periods of local unrest in the country’s history.


Of all the police departments with such a reputation, the Los Angeles Police Department was perhaps one of the most egregious offenders. An incident in March 1991 was the precursor to the riots that would follow a year later. Rodney King, who was Black, was brutally beaten by four LAPD officers, three of whom were white, while one was Hispanic.


On April 29 the following year, three of the four officers were acquitted while the jury was still out on the fourth. On that day, the decades of mistreatment of African Americans reached boiling point, and the streets of Los Angeles found themselves churning in a chaotic maelstrom of anger and destruction.


A History of Racial Tension

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Latasha Harlins, shot and killed in an incident involving Korean store owner Soon Ja Du. Source: Los Angeles Times


Despite the pride that many LA residents had and still have regarding their city’s ethnic diversity, there was a deep-seated resentment that had been brewing for decades. The Los Angeles Police Department was predominantly white, and with the intense application of racial profiling, tensions continued to simmer, with many in Los Angeles not realizing the powder keg they were sitting on. The era of race riots was certainly not over.

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The sharp rise in targeted policing of African Americans began in 1984 with the Los Angeles Olympics. Police Chief Daryl Gates was the man in charge when the LAPD began sweeps of Los Angeles, increasing its arrest rate, especially in South Central and East Los Angeles, which were (and still are) areas where Black people lived.


These sweeping raids brought with them an increase in brutality, and in 1987, Operation Hammer was launched. This was a heavily militarized attempt to combat gang violence in the city.


A mural dedicated to the memory of Latasha Harlins by artist Victoria Cassinova. Source: Victoria Cassinova Official Website


In the period between 1984 and 1989, police brutality increased by 33%, and 50,000 people were arrested, the vast majority of whom were African American men.


Adding to this was the growing tension between the Black and Korean populations in Los Angeles. Many Koreans were store owners and held a deep mistrust of African American shoppers, whom they stereotyped as shoplifters. On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot dead in an incident involving shopkeeper Soon Ja Du. The Korean man was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but sentenced to just five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. An outraged African American community was further angered by a unanimous decision by a state appeals court to uphold the ruling just one week before the riots began.


Rodney King

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Rodney King at a book signing in 2012. Source: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters


On March 3, 1991, after watching baseball and drinking at a friend’s house, Rodney King and two passengers were driving through the San Fernando Valley area when they were noticed speeding. King attempted to outrun the police, and a high-speed chase ensued. King was eventually cornered. When he exited his vehicle, he was tasered, swarmed, and beaten.


A neighbor, George Holliday, alerted by the commotion, grabbed his camcorder and began videotaping the incident. The footage was a damning indictment of the LAPD.


Two days after the incident, Holliday took his footage to the nearest police department, but they showed no interest. So Holliday turned to the media. This single incident of beating – what was essentially a common occurrence in Los Angeles – became a media sensation. Truncated clips of the beating, showing the worst parts, were shown on television all over the nation.


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Screenshot of the video taken by George Holliday showing LAPD cops beating Rodney King. Source: KTLA 5


Four of the officers were charged with assault and the use of excessive force. In the trial that followed, of the 13 jury members, ten were white, one was biracial, one was Latino, and one was Asian American. The prosecutor, Terry White, was African American.


On January 29, the jury acquitted all four officers of assault, and three of the four were acquitted of the use of excessive force. The jury could not reach a verdict for the fourth officer.


The prosecution suggested that the jury, having seen the video footage so many times, was desensitized to the violence that it showed.


The Riots Begin

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An LAPD officer guarding an intersection. Source: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/TNS


Within half an hour of the verdicts being announced, a crowd of 300 had gathered outside the courthouse. Under an hour later, the first signs of rioting began when a convenience store in South Central was robbed and the glass windows smashed by a mob of angry shoppers who decided they weren’t going to pay for their groceries.


The mayor, Tom Bradley, issued a plea for calm, but the anger over the situation was too far gone. A crowd appeared around the area of 71st and Normandie, and stones were thrown at a police cruiser. Two dozen officers arrived on the scene and arrested 16-year-old Seandel Daniels. As the officers made their arrest, the crowd pressed in closer.


Helicopter footage of Reginald Denny being beaten after being pulled out of his truck. Source: Screen capture from original footage available at USC Libraries


The police made their escape and set up a command post at a bus depot at 54th and Arlington. This was a poor decision as the depot had no televisions, and the officers could not keep abreast of the media coverage. Hours followed in which the police made no appearance, and the rioters became increasingly violent. Cars were stoned and their windows smashed, shops were looted, and people were pulled out of their vehicles and beaten. The crowd also turned on the reporters filming them, while the Los Angeles News Team arrived by air and started recording the scenes unfolding via the safety of their helicopter. The footage was broadcast live across Los Angeles.


Meanwhile, another crowd of hundreds of protestors gathered around the LAPD headquarters in Parker Center in downtown Los Angeles. Chanting, “No justice, no peace!” they surged like waves against the building, attempting to set it on fire, while police officers formed a skirmish line and repeatedly pushed the crowd back.


Back on Normandie, while many in the crowd there had turned to direct violence against people, many others were appalled at this behavior. One such incident was the attack on truck driver Reginald Denny, who was pulled from his truck and severely beaten before the attackers, known subsequently as “the LA Four,” fled. Another group of protestors came to Denny’s aid, putting him back into the truck and driving him to the hospital. Denny would survive the ordeal, but the attack would permanently damage his ability to speak and walk.


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Soldiers standing in front of gutted buildings. Source: Nadia Pandolfo Photography


A Guatemalan immigrant named Fidel Lopez was the next victim. Mistaken for being white, he was pulled from his pickup truck and robbed. He was then hit in the face with a car radio, and he lost consciousness. His body was spray painted with black paint, and someone tried to slice his ear off. The intervention of African American Reverend Bennie Newton likely saved Fidel from being killed. He stood in front of the unconscious man and declared that if they intended to kill Fidel, they would have to kill him too. Fidel Lopez survived the horror, but many wouldn’t.


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The corner of 7th St. and Union Ave. Source: Ted Soqui / California African American Museum


As the sun began to set, the rioting crowds grew in numbers. Realizing the severity of the situation, Mayor Tom Bradley made a request to the California Governor, Pete Wilson, and the National Guard was deployed to the stricken area.


The crowd around the Parker Center headquarters became riotous. With the inability to breach the police department, the crowd turned their attention elsewhere, overturning police vehicles before making their way through the Civic Center. Government buildings and stores were vandalized, looted, and set ablaze. The Los Angeles Fire Department arrived to battle the fires but found themselves being shot at. When the National Guard arrived, they issued the firefighters with bulletproof vests.


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A burnt-out building in the aftermath of the riots. Source: Camilo J. Vergara / Library of Congress


At this time, in the Lake View Terrace area where Rodney King was beaten, another crowd gathered. Police failed to disperse the protestors, and rioting broke out and spread to neighboring areas.


All through the night, fires raged while crowds vented their anger. The sound of sirens echoed across LA as a state of emergency was declared.


The Fighting in Koreatown

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An exhibition room at the California African American Museum. Source: CAAM


On the second day, the rioting moved to Koreatown. Police blocked off the areas between Koreatown and the wealthier neighborhoods to make sure the rioters didn’t enter the wealthier suburbs, but they left the Korean population to its own devices. This lack of policing led the Koreans to militarize. Gun battles between the local Koreans and rioters broke out, and the casualty rate began to mount.


In the rest of the city, police and National Guard units managed to curb the rioting, and by the morning of the third day, May 1, most of the major rioting had simmered down. A Joint Task Force was formed, and thousands of police and army units poured into the city.


Meanwhile, famous people went on air, calling for calm. One of these people was Rodney King himself, who appealed for everybody to “get along.”


The Violence Subsides

Rodney King in 2004. Source: J. Emilio Flores for the New York Times


On the fourth day, the number of police, federal troops, and the National Guard swelled to 13,500 troops, and 30,000 people gathered in Koreatown to form a peace rally.


By May 3, the rioting was over, but Los Angeles would never be the same. A huge racial rift had been exposed, exacerbated by poverty and systemic problems, which fuelled the anger of African Americans feeling targeted and oppressed in a deeply unequal society.


The Los Angeles Riots claimed the lives of 63 people, with thousands injured and over one billion dollars in property damage.


After the riots, the Department of Justice sought indictments of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King in that they violated his civil rights. Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon were found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in prison.


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The front page of the San Diego Tribune upon the guilty verdict delivered to two of the police officers who assaulted Rodney King. Source: San Diego Tribune


Despite the later conviction of two of the police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King and the violence that erupted as a result, it is clear that not enough has been done to address the disproportionate use of force against African Americans by the police.


Decades later, across the country, incidents continue to spark outrage and protests from a broad sector of the American public. The perception remains that police departments nationwide are still a product of racist sentiment, and it has sparked a new wave of protest in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.