Riots in 1992. Violence in the City of Angels Part 2.

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Serious rioting in 1992 had already begun on the first night (29th of April) following the announcement of Soon Ja Du’s sentence. Koreans had been preparing for this moment for some time, recognising that whatever the verdict, its announcement would be the start of the riots. Weapons were bought all over the city, goods were moved from shops to safer places, additional wooden walls were installed to protect shops from broken shop windows and the intrusion of robbers. Small groups were forming ready to desperately defend their premises. Koreans assured that they would not be taken by surprise and would fight back.

As expected, throughout the week Korean shops and factories were attacked, set on fire and looted, but the response – instead of fighting – was fear, paralysis and disorientation. Only after a few days did the Koreans decide to resist. At the urging of one radio station, many Korean immigrants rushed into battle armed with firearms and other tools, to the relief of besieged shops and service establishments. Those who came to Koreatown with weapons were often supporters of a newborn political activism mandating active resistance to attempts to intimidate the Korean minority. Of course, not all went to Koreatown to fight. Many refused because they felt it was important to obey the law and thus demonstrate the fundamental difference between Koreans and African-Americans.

Full-scale race war

The fighting in the streets was brutal. The media presented a picture of full-scale race war. One shopkeeper explained to the press that it was not Koreans who opened fire first. When the first shots were fired, there were four police cars standing near his shop, which drove away from the shop within a second. As the terrified shopkeeper stressed, he had never seen such a fast escape as the one presented by the police officers. Together with the owners of nearby shops, he fired several hundred salvos into the air to scare off the aggressors. “We lost faith in the police. Where were they when we needed help?” – thundered the embittered shop owner. An entire Korean community was brought to ruin. More than 2,000 shops, service establishments and other businesses were destroyed. Koreans not only lost their possessions, but also their good name. In the popular mind, they were regarded as having achieved personal success, but through selfishness and a refusal to assimilate socially. Even their alleged racism was pointed out.

Riots for 'export'

Accused of passivity, the police explained themselves by their inability to effectively contain the thousands of rioters. Any attempt at arrest could have ended tragically for both sides. The police confined themselves to protecting the lives of firefighters who were putting out the serially arising fires. Attempts were also made to limit the territory of the rioters. It was noted that smaller rebel groups wanted to move to other, quieter areas of the city and ‘export’ the unrest. This happened in remote Long Beach and Hollywood, among other areas. In these areas, people were detained in the streets, beaten and robbed. There were cases of fatalities. The police tactic that so outraged the owners of the robbed and vandalised shops was simple: they waited for the intervention of 2,000 National Guard soldiers, who, in a more military than police manner, were to pacify the riots and ‘clear’ the streets of killers, thieves and arsonists.

Los Angeles police are arming themselves both physically and mentally for a real war.
Los Angeles police are arming themselves both physically and mentally for a real war. ©Betto Rodrigues, Shutterstock.

Golden moments for the mass media

The riots in 1992 have become the number one news story in the US media. There is nothing more spectacular than a city on fire, and nothing sells as well in the media as pictures of desperate people. Hostility and the desire for simple, ostentatious revenge, carried out through the destruction of property, increased every time the media were on the horizon. Random citizens also recorded moments of violence with their cameras. These drastic images were a straightforward explosive mix used by the media. Very often they showed police officers intervening violently. White officers were almost always exposed. Every time television broadcast dramatic images of the use of force by the police and military, the atmosphere of hostility thickened. It was not the victims, the residents or the authorities who were the main directors of the spectacular riots. It was the media that decided what, how and when things were said, giving shape to the riots and even influencing developments.

What happened in the last decade of 20th century Los Angeles was the unhealthy dream of every radio and television station. The city – a symbol of success in life, where the sun never sets, where it never rains and where movie dreams are born – became the site of dramatic events followed with bated breath by millions of Americans. All sides of the conflict pointed out the bias of the media coverage.

No one doubted that the police, operating in a city where crime had been a real scourge for several decades, had prepared themselves both physically and mentally for a real war. Police units were formed with as much professionalism as elite military units, and put into action with similar determination. Disproportionate to the task, the police force was seen by residents as a real danger and, in some parts of the city, treated almost on a par with the brutality of street gangs.

Mother and children contemplating their home burning, S. Central Ave., Compton, 1992
Mother and children contemplating their home burning, S. Central Ave., Compton, 1992 ©Vergara, Camilo J., photographer

The great zoo

Throughout the 1990s, there was a quiet exodus of white Los Angeles residents to northern California, Nevada, Oregon, Arizona and even Washington state. Many explained their flight from the city by wanting to find a place where they felt at home. The expansion of Hispanic residents speaking Spanish was so rapid that Anglo-Americans even felt alienated from life in L.A. Unable to adjust to the dramatic changes taking place in the city, Anglo-Americans turned their sights towards cities such as Portland or Seattle, where they continued to maintain an ethnic advantage. They wanted to live in the city that Los Angeles had been just 30-40 years earlier.

After the riots in 1992, 11,212 people moved out to the northern state of Idaho in one year alone. More than 500 former police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) settled near the small town of Coeur d’Alene, a city of forty-five thousand people. Their reasons for fleeing Los Angeles were simple. “I wanted to get away from everything that was going on there,” says the former police officer. “There I was afraid I would be robbed every time I went into a 7-Eleven.” “I didn’t want my kids to go to a school where there was only hip-hop, ‘gangstas’ and ‘bitches’.” “I didn’t want my son to become part of street gang culture.” In other words, it was believed that “Los Angeles is one big zoo”.

1992 Rodney King Riot area, S. Vermont Ave. at W. 82nd St., Los Angeles, 1996
1992 Rodney King Riot area, S. Vermont Ave. at W. 82nd St., Los Angeles, 1996 ©Vergara, Camilo J.

Fleeing police officers

The fights in the streets, the waves of drugs, the racism and rebellion of both white and coloured parts of the US, all of these cannot be written about in the past tense. These are real, ongoing problems. There are regular fights on the streets between citizens and the police, who this time are no longer entirely white. In the past decades, the police have welcomed people from all ethnic groups into their ranks. In some cities, especially those with African-American politicians and where the black community is represented in large numbers, African-Americans are in command in the police force.

The nearly 700,000 police officers who police the US are not a group of petty, pub-going howlers looking to vent their frustrations. For the most part, they are well-educated people. In 2015, 57% of police officers had a college or high school education. One statistical officer was responsible for public safety and order among 469 citizens.

One former NYPD chief from the days of the great clean-up of the city from the widespread scourge of crime that took place in the 1990s attempted to explain the conduct of his colleagues this way in 2015:

Every year hundreds of thousands of police officers put their uniforms on and have millions of interactions with the public. In 9 out of 10 cases, citizens are happy with the interaction, and in 99 out of 100, no force is used. Police brutality and misconduct are inexcusable. They are also relatively rare. Police officers are human beings — they make mistakes and sometimes even commit criminal acts. When that happens, they should be held accountable, and they are.

Police officers have seconds to decide whether to use their firearms in any given violent confrontation. […] If an officer hesitates too long, he could indeed join the 126 who lost their lives in the line of duty last year.

How about a compromise?

Los Angeles has repeatedly run into serious problems over the political, racial or ethnic involvement of its residents. Nonetheless, from time to time the city has been able to make compromises, and ones that must have been commendable. Although these compromises were most often about local issues and local actors in public life, over time they became a pattern that the whole country followed.

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