Fog rolled through Los Angeles on the morning of April 29, 1992. The front page of the LA Times pondered the impact of eco-tourism, the presidential primaries in Pennsylvania, and a recent poll that found Californians still strongly supported the death penalty. There was no mention of the four police officers on trial for the beating of Rodney King, because no one knew whether a verdict would arrive that day.
That verdict—at once improbable and inevitable—would arrive at 3:11pm. Sgt. Stacey Koon and officers Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Timothy Wind, were all found not guilty. In a part of the country known for earthquakes, the jury’s decision was seismic, instantly reverberating through LA and the country. By early evening, televisions across America broadcast dispatches of the city’s violence: The clouds that had covered the city all day were now met with plumes of dark grey smoke from burning buildings.
LA was on fire.
They were dubbed the “LA Riots” or the “Rodney King Riots.” For many in the communities that experienced them, the trial over King’s beating represented a breaking point, the culmination of years of police brutality against the black citizens of the city. Fusion has made an editorial decision to refer to the events of April and May 1992 as the LA Uprising, out of recognition that the term “riots” is loaded and can strip the nuance from conversations about protests.
More than fifty people were killed in the unrest, more than 2000 were injured, and thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Twenty five years later, a recent poll of Angelenos tells us that six out of ten think another event could happen in the next five years. We spoke to five Angelenos who were there in 1992, who reflected on how the city changed after the uprising, and how they changed, too.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan: 35, educator and writer
As the uprising began brewing in South LA., Sloan was in her elementary school classroom—the last child left, waiting for her mother to pick her up.
I was teaching a class last semester and my students kept referring to protests that got a little out of control as “riots.” I was thinking about how much what’s going on now differs in my mind from what happened in LA. It was really kind of my formative experience of what a “riot” is. And I really feel troubled by the way that language keeps spiraling out.
“Riot,” [like] it’s somehow an inappropriate response to a perfectly reasonable set of circumstances. When really what’s going on is so much deeper. There’s this kind of historical magnitude that I feel like a word like “riot” stifles. It really feels unfair.
“Insurrection” feels a lot more historically appropriate. It has a bigger implication to it and allows for all of the historical backdrop and kind of under-workings of that political moment in.
All I remember is being the only child left in the classroom, and understanding that there was something very scary going on somewhere in the city and that my parents were on their way, but for some reason everyone else was gone. My dad is a photojournalist, or he was a photojournalist at the time, for Newsweek, so he was covering the riots. He was going toward it and I just had this vague idea of what was going on.
There’s this real show of transparency [in LA]. Glass walls, glass houses, glass skyscrapers. There’s a constantly blue sky, there’s swimming pools. At the same time, we have this kind of fantasy of violence and racial tension. And these things exist simultaneously without seeming to be in the same frame as each other. That’s why I was really moved to hear that Rodney King ended up passing away in a swimming pool, because it seemed like those two images finally fell in on each other.
I remember when I went to college, people would always ask me about coming from LA as though I’ve survived something. I still feel, walking through Brentwood, people don’t expect to see people of color there. I’m exaggerating to a degree but it still feels very intact, that segregation, in a way that going to cities where people are a bit more accustomed to seeing one another really helped me understand the degree to which LA suffers from that geographic kind of problem.
Cacique Vargas-Pile: 39 years old, welder for Orange County
The son of activists, Vargas-Pile lived in the suburbs with his parents, where he watched the uprising on TV with them. From their roof, they could see the smoke as South Central caught fire.
Everybody remembers. I came home from school, and [other students] were talking about “They’re rioting after the Rodney King verdict.” And you turn on TV and there was a liquor store on the corner of Florence and Normandie that was being looted. I didn’t know what looting was before.
And then, probably, one of the most famous scenes ever in LA history happened, when Reginald Denny was driving through with his big rig truck and he gets pulled out the truck. And he starts to get beat on and stomped out, and then they throw a brick and bash him in his head. And as a kid you see that, you’re like, “Wow.” That really happened. That’s not movie-like. That’s actually somebody doing that to another person.
My parents grew up in Brooklyn, New York. They were protesters back at Brooklyn College, for equal rights for Latinos and blacks on campus. They understand uprising, sit-ins. They’d been arrested. My dad back in the day was investigated by the FBI, went to jail for it. They understand uprising and actually being fed up. So when the Rodney King verdict came down. They understood [the response]. They didn’t agree with it, but they understood. But they didn’t understand hurting other people. That part they couldn’t understand.
We went to church in South Central. I remember when we had to go for a church meeting, seeing the burnt buildings. You see “black-owned” spray-painted on people’s buildings so people wouldn’t touch it. And seeing police presence like we were actually in a third world country. Riot gear, the whole nine. You really, you realize it was a serious moment. And as a 14 year old, you want to be pro-black, pro-everything, but then you also think, “Why would we destroy our own neighborhoods?” And just to see the Korean store owners which there was [an] abundance of in the black neighborhoods, just letting people take stuff. They were like, there’s no sense in fighting it. They let it happen. There was a couple times you would see them, they would try to stop people. And there was also, Koreans shooting from the rooftops, shooting people trying to steal from their businesses.
[Later] the people who actually looted and who were actually trying to sell the stuff. And they made it all the way out to the suburbs where people were trying to sell us Michael Jordans, TVs, all that. And my parents were like, “Oh no. We’re not touching none of that. None of that stuff is coming into this house.”
Calling it an uprising is a very nice way of putting something, to say that we’re uprising like we’re turning towards the top. I can’t say that. It was rioting. It was mass hysteria. It was burning buildings. It was shooting at cops, it was beating up...you literally had people who hated white people. You had hatred. And you had the so-called Bloods and Crips truce because of that. That lasted, like, two years. And they was back at it. I will never call it an uprising because I can’t see what good happened from it. I just, I don’t know.
Aminah Abdul-Jabbar: 42, filmmaker and professor of pan-african studies at Cal State LA
Abdul Jabbar was a senior in high school at the time. Her mom was also dying of breast cancer. Before the uprising, she was involved in an altercation with a Korean liquor store owner.
This is pre-Latasha Harlins. What was happening was this tension between Korean and black people, but we were accused of stealing. It was like an aggressive push-out. We’d been through this enough to kind of accept some of it, but this was like overboard, extreme stuff.
My best friend in 6th grade, and even up to junior high was a young lady named Yang Chu, who was Korean. Her father was a shop owner. One of my best friends is Korean. So you’d have this person, this family that would love up on me, right? The intimate relationship I had with my best friend Yang Chu and her family, which was loving, but then you’d have these hostile shop owners.
I had a job at Boy’s Market on Crenshaw and Rodeo. I had to go from high school, so I’d have to catch the bus. We’re in the store when [the uprising is] happening and my Dad, who never would do this, is coming to get me. Usually I’d just take the bus home. My dad and I are driving down the street and it’s just chaos. The store, at the time, had a black manager. And I remember him trying to adjust for what was happening. Because it was still a store, it could still be looted.
The first memory was, “why is my dad picking me up?” As a black girl in South Central, the first reaction is “I’m in trouble.” So there’s a certain amount of driving where you’re thinking, “am I in trouble?” We’re in this [Chevy] Lumina, and that car almost feels like you’re in a spaceship. It seemed like we were inside of a bubble watching the violence around us. It felt surreal. I knew it was real, but it also felt like I was dreaming it.
I remember darkness. I remember fire, a lot of fire.
That’s a war. You can tell that there’s two different positions on this. Even the way it’s being remembered by some as a riot, and by black people it’s remembered as an uprising, a rebellion. And I struggled with the folks that remember it as a riot. I would be curious to know how [Chu] felt about it. I think I clearly sided with black people.
I also think there’s people who just don’t talk about it. Who [still] live in those areas. It’s trauma. You don’t talk about it. Even when I’m asked to talk about it, I’m careful about what I say. These are people’s lives.
Lisa Pecot-Hebert: 47, professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication.
Pecot-Hebert is a black journalist and professor from Leimert Park in South Central Los Angeles. She was 22 years old during the LA Uprising and had just returned home from college in Berkeley.
The media framing of it really bothered me, and I was a recent graduate of Berkeley so I really had that uprising in my soul as a young 22-year-old in journalism. That sort of got me going to the point where I got into my car and I wanted to experience what was happening on my street or on any street. I was working at Paramount Studios at the time, so I wasn’t working in journalism but I was working in the field and I had this pull to cover it, even though I had noone to submit it to. I just felt like my neighborhood wasn’t being reflected properly.
I drove two blocks and got on the main thoroughfare. There were crowds out and people were really charged. My car windows were tinted, and they started throwing things at me. I’m African American but I’m biracial. I’ve never really felt like I had to identify myself racially. I just thought I look the way I look. But I rolled down my windows and, for the first time, I said “I’m black! I’m black! Don’t throw things at me!” That was the first time I had to identify myself.
I quickly realized that this was not the safest situation and that something was about to happen and I didn’t want to be on the street. I climbed up on my roof and I started taking pictures of the south, the east and the west and there was smoke from all angles. I just sat on the roof and I thought, ‘What is happening in my city?’ For the first time it really made me I guess sad and understand that we are still very much living in a racially charged society... And that Los Angeles, California is maybe no different than Mobile, Alabama.
I saw the city for the first time as a racially segmented space, and before I saw it as a melting pot. When I drove around to neighborhoods that were really burned, I was just in awe of blocks and blocks of burnt stores and just no one around. It felt like twilight zone moment, where you can’t necessarily believe that this is happening, that you’re experiencing it. I knew in that moment that I was experiencing history. I knew this was going to be a moment that changed history and changed America. It made me ponder, ‘Has life as I know it really been truthful or have I been living in my own culture club 80s bubble?’
I literally knew the minute the word went down [of the verdict in the King trial that something was going to go down. I felt it in my soul, it was just brewing. I think today we have social media, we have other outlets we can protest through and lend our voice. People had nothing then. You were kinda cool if you had a cellphone. Rodney King was recorded on a camcorder.
Emile Mack: 59, Retired firefighter, vice-president of the Korean American Federation in Los Angeles
Mack was born in Korea and adopted by black parents from South Central LA, where he grew up. In April 1992, he was a firefighter and was called on to put out fires in Koreatown and South Central.
We went into downtown LA and we were sent to a fire on Washington Boulevard, and one of the first real images that I remember from the riots was the sea of people. As far as I could see there were people running, walking, some looting, some just there. As we inched down the street I began to look into people’s faces. Some were really angry, others had no expressions at all. Some had this wild-eyed look on their face and you could just tell, this is not who you are on any other day.
It didn’t change how I view LA but it did hurt me to see what was happening to our city during that time. As I began to get more of an understanding of my Korean community as well as my African American community, I began to look more at “How do we keep this from happening again?” A few years after the unrest I was having religious conferences of Korean and African American pastors. And that’s where they asked me, How do I feel, what do I think, with both backgrounds? And all I could say was that I felt deeply sad that my two heritages were at odds with each other.
To me it’s so important because some people ask, ‘Do we think this can happen again?’ and I say ‘Yes it can.’ Because the traditions that were there during the 1992 unrest as well as the ‘65 riots, some of our ethnic communities being treated unfairly, many of those issues are still here today. So why I see this as so important is that this can’t happen again today because the conditions are still there and each time in the ‘65, in the ‘92 it was just an incident that triggered what was basically pent up issues in one or more than one of our ethnic communities. It took just one event. That can happen again.