In 1993, Newsweek magazine ran a snarky piece about the Los Angeles mayor's race titled “City of Euphemisms.” The story focused on one of the many challenges the candidates faced that year: just what exactly to call the violence that erupted on April 29, 1992, following the acquittal of the four officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King:
Public discourse in the City of Euphemisms has become so Balkanized that you can't just call a riot a riot. Many public figures refer to last April's “events.” Those with a more active fantasy life call it the “uprising” or “insurrection.” “Well, if you call it a riot,” says Maxine Waters, the rambunctious South-Central congresswoman, “it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason. I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable. So I call it a rebellion.”
One of the mayoral candidates, City Councilman Mike Woo, told Newsweek that he used the word “uprising” when talking to black audiences and “riots” when speaking in other parts of the city, a frank admission for which he was later criticized. But Woo wasn't alone. In a wonderfully entertaining piece for the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Magazine, Jill Stewart (who later served as managing editor of L.A. Weekly) described candidate and eventual winner Richard Riordan's same sort of semantic struggles:
Richard Riordan, the wealthy white Republican in the race, sits staring out at a crowd of nearly 300 African-American voters at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the most influential black church in the city. He is frozen in mid-speech, unable to decide upon the proper word for the 1965 Watts riots. He finally settles on rebellion after a six-second pause that lasts an eternity. Audience members laugh so hard that some actually weep.
Tensions have rather cooled in the 25 years since the violence. The stakes don't seem quite as high as they once did; the city doesn't seem as ready to explode. Yet many liberal politicians and activists prefer terminology such as “uprising,” “unrest,” “civil unrest” or “rebellion” to “riots.” Jon McDuffie, a former L.A. firefighter who battled blazes and racism following the Rodney King verdict, prefers the term “civil disturbance.”
“People had a reason to speak up that day,” McDuffie says. “There was some pent-up frustration that spilled out. In my mind, a riot is something mindless, pointless, nondirected. It’s a bunch of kids at University of Kentucky getting pissed off that North Carolina won.”
“Calling the whole thing a riot kept the narrative that it was a crime problem. It changed the view of L.A.
Journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan agrees.
“Calling the whole thing a riot kept the narrative that it was a crime problem,” she says. “It changed the view of L.A., and not in a good way. People worried mostly about crime in the 1990s, and the response was more law and order, higher prison sentences.”
Most news outlets, including L.A. Weekly, prefer the term “riots,” and the phrase “L.A. Riots” has largely cemented itself as the official description of the violence in 1992, which claimed more than 60 lives (including 10 people shot to death by police), injured more than 2,000 people and led to more than 11,000 arrests. It has been estimated that $1 billion in damage was caused by looting and arson.
Former Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks says she vacillates between different words but says she doesn't find the term “riot” pejorative.
“It was definitely an uprising — in the beginning,” Banks says. “But it morphed into a riot, when you have scenes of random, indiscriminate violence and beating up on people, when you have not necessarily protests against authority but rage and anger coming out.”
Shortly after the Rodney King verdict was read, there were multiple, seemingly spontaneous outbreaks of political protest, anger and lawlessness. There was an angry demonstration at the Parker Center; there were angry men throwing beer cans at passing motorists at Florence and Normandie; there was a group of young black men who stole bottles of malt liquor from a Korean-American–owned store, then hit the owner's son in the head with one of the bottles while yelling, “This is for Rodney King”; and there was the beating of trucker Reginald Denny, videotaped, for all the world to see, just as the Rodney King beating had been.
The violence lasted for six days, much longer than anyone thought it would. If the events were far more disparate and weird than the term “riots” suggests, so too were the consequences. Chief Daryl Gates was forced to resign, and the city engaged in a years-long conversation about the causes of the riots, culminating in the Christopher Commission and the eventual reform of the Los Angeles Police Department. Of course, much of South Los Angeles remains mired in poverty, and L.A. still has more fatal police shootings than any other city in the country.
Banks says what we call the riots is less important than how we remember them.
“What happened in 1992 devolved into a riot,” Banks says. “I don’t think it diminishes the reason behind it or the motive of the people protesting. But I don’t think it’s necessary to avoid using that word to make a point that this had a reason behind it.”