The stories of the 1992 L.A. riots are so vast and varied that there will always be something new to learn from them. In Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin’s new National Geography documentary, LA 92, the riots are shown through a collage of archival news clips from multiple perspectives. Here are the 10 most interesting things we gleaned that you may have forgotten.
1. At the time that Rodney King was pulled from his car and beaten, the local ACLU office was receiving an average of 55 claims of excessive police violence every week. As its spokesperson said after the airing of the tape, “The difference this time is that we have the proof.”
2. When George Holliday, a young white man, grabbed his Sony camcorder to record King’s brutal beating in front of his apartment complex, it was the first time this kind of race-based violence from a routine traffic stop had been caught on camera. Holliday had no idea what kind of precedent he would set for years later, when recording devices became cheaper and more prevalent.
3. Tom Bradley couldn’t please anyone. Bradley was one of L.A.’s most upstanding mayors, but his being a black man at the top of City Hall put him in a precarious position — one that Barack Obama would face as president — where he was largely seen as ineffective by the black community but racially biased toward blacks by some in the white community. The speech he gave following the King verdicts would go down as extremely divisive, with white audiences insisting he urged the rioters on, and some blacks feeling it was more lip service.
Bradley said: “This jury told the world that what we all saw with our own eyes wasn’t a crime. Today, that jury asked us to accept the senseless and brutal beating of a helpless man. Today, that same jury said that we should tolerate such conduct by those who are sworn to protect and serve. My friends, I’m here to tell this jury: No. No, our eyes did not deceive us. We saw what we saw, and what we saw was a crime.”
4. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has always fought for her district with all her political heart. Few politicians could or can harness the kind of authority and warmth Waters displayed in the aftermath of the riots, often being the national spokesperson for her misunderstood community. When police failed to control the chaos at the local Social Security office, Waters jumped on the bullhorn and reassured her constituents that everyone would be helped if they all pulled together. And at her request, that’s exactly what everyone did.
5. We can talk about the beatings of Rodney King and riot victims with much emotional distance, but the videos of each are still absolutely stomach-turning and the worst that humanity has to offer. A note to viewers: LA 92 does not dull the shock. The directors let the news footage carnage run in full, which makes for a raw and visceral audience response. (I paused multiple times because I was crying.)
6. Compton-based KJLH 102.3 FM, owned by Stevie Wonder, acted as a healing space on the airwaves when the riots broke out. DJs opened the lines for distressed callers to talk through their feelings, making for a days-long emotional journey in the black community’s own words, which won the station a Peabody Award. Phylis Johnson’s 2009 book KJLH-FM and the Los Angeles Riots of 1992: Compton’s Neighborhood Station in the Aftermath of the Rodney King Verdict covers the topic in detail.
7. Police Chief Daryl Gates was criticized for not sending in troops to calm the riots and save people and property when the riots broke out. But there’s some evidence this lack of response may have been planned. In a City Council hearing prior to the King trial, Gates appeared to threaten to withhold police and emergency services if the council didn’t side with the charged officers, a fact Councilman Michael Woo quickly pointed out to the public.
8. The looting was a multicultural affair. In news footage, whites and Latinos are seen entering and exiting the stores with stolen merchandise. In one scene, a seemingly well-to-do white woman hides her face as she speed-walks through a parking lot with a stack of stolen shoes. One African-American man smartly points out that the riots weren’t just a “black thing.” It was an extreme response to a growing wage gap, longer working hours and a capitalist system designed to keep people infighting so they don’t fight for their rights. After the riots, many blacks and Korean-Americans partnered together to put an end to discord and tackle civil rights for all.
9. Edward James Olmos, who had memorialized the struggles and riots of Latino Americans in the film adaptation of the Broadway show Zoot Suit, called for his fellow Latinos to pick up a broom and “just start sweeping” to clean up in the aftermath. The affair was as multicultural as the looting, with smiling people cleaning up the $1 billion of damage. While the moment was filled with righteous passion, many people of color vocally worried the whites would see their service work as done and go right back home again. That worry did come true.
10. The city of Los Angeles is a microcosm of the United States. This is one of the most diverse cities in the nation and has been since its founding, but this also means that prejudice and bigotry are more likely to rear their ugly heads, because we are confronted every day with people who may not look, speak or think like we do. When L.A. riots, it’s a guarantee that other communities are feeling similarly across the nation. What happens here matters everywhere, and just as the 1965 Watts riots were a prediction of the 1992 riots, it is entirely possible for this to happen again. It’s up to the city of Los Angeles to decide if it wants to confront our social inequities head on, or if it wants to wait until the next incident to “burn, baby, burn.”