By Tyler Kwon
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King led police officers on a high speed chase on the Foothill freeway while under the influence of alcohol, ultimately stopping his car near Hansen Dam in Sylmar. As King exited the vehicle, officers struck him twice with tasers, beat him with more than 30 baton strikes, body tackled him, and restrained his arms and legs with cuffs, later dragging him to the side of the road while awaiting medical rescue services.
Video stills of King’s bruised, still body, recorded by a local resident, would become a symbol of the relentless the American police force’s oppression of black individuals and the justice system overall. Just over a year later on April 29, 1992, three of the four officers involved were acquitted of assault, and all four were acquitted of using excessive force.
News of the verdict sparked immediate outrage throughout the country, especially in Los Angeles, where racial tensions had been brewing since videos of the beating broke out. As a result, the date April 29 would become notorious for a much more catastrophic event, recognized today as the LA Riots.
The riots began at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, spreading outward as looters, many of them low income black and Latino individuals, burned local stores and raided them for goods. Mayor Tom Bradley called a state of emergency, and the next day he declared a mandatory “sunset to sunrise” curfew in order to help regulate the crime and violence that ensued.
As the riots progressed, looting began to spread to Koreatown. A year earlier, a convenience store owner named Soon Ja Du had shot and killed a young black girl accused of stealing a bottle of orange juice. The riots’ spread to Koreatown was another eruption of deep anger and frustration amidst both Korean and African Americans, and soon enough Korean merchants were wielding rifles atop their stores while both sides exchanged racial slurs, punches, and gunshots.
By the time the riots calmed and the smoke had cleared, the massive damages incurred by the city became evident. The riots left more than 50 people dead, 2,000 injured, 1,000 buildings damaged, and more than $1 billion in damages, according to CNN. However, beyond the physical destruction, there existed a substantial emotional and spiritual upheaval for people of color throughout the country.
No longer were racial tensions isolated to black and white issues. The LA Riots were the result of a cumulative series of racial injustices as well as historical oppression felt by people of color across the country. The idea of a harmonious melting pot of unique cultures was disrupted by the harsh reality of battles between members of differing races.
Today, the riots are widely remembered for their social significance in speaking to the importance of addressing racial inequalities. Many African American and Latino looters saw the riots as a form of rebellion, and Korean-American store owners only took up arms when the LA Police Department’s response was perceived as lacking. Despite numerous 911 calls, the police had focused their attention on South Central and thus could not address the violence occurring in Koreatown.
Regardless of specific causes, though, the riots were the result of a long and continued mistreatment of people in color in the city of LA.
Modern filmmakers and activists have sought to preserve the memory of the riots and their enormous impact on American culture. Dramatic films such as the independently released “Gook,” directed by Korean-American Justin Chon, as well as documentaries which aired on Showtime and A&E during April, have reminded viewers of the perils of racial inequality through personal accounts and narrative histories.
And on April 29, a series of rallies and marches throughout South Central commemorated the riots in a show of peace and solidarity. “This is where it begins, where the transformation from our souls to the soil is going to happen,” local organizer Martha Arguello told Mercury News.