Who was Rodney King? Violence in the City of Angels Part 1.

Is violence an organic component of any great city? Despite the spontaneous desire to deny such a statement, we see that history and every day gives us evidence that it is correct.

The image created by the mass media of big city crime is not entirely false. Violence was and is part of our reality. The real motive for crime was and is the struggle for survival, the temptation to get quick money or the desire to manifest one’s views. Racism, poverty and social extremism often rule the streets of big cities.

It started innocent

Countless books have been written about the origins of street gangs, and most of them have emphasised one of the main reasons: the exclusion of young people from national or racial minorities from normal social life. Even at the height of the US’ prosperity, in the early 1960s, a large proportion of immigrant children could not be integrated into the rest of society.

Those who could not be scouts or members of sports clubs organised themselves – usually at the nearest street corner. There they met to confirm their group membership and to be accepted. Over time, the ‘clubs’ evolved into street gangs. They fulfilled an important function – they gave their members protection and provided a show of strength. They became a substitute for family, organisations for which gang members were willing to do anything. The activities of the emerging gangs seemed fairly innocent at the time – fighting over girls or glory for a glorified football club. Over time, gangs began to compete with each other for so-called ‘respect’ and supremacy over other groups.

Mexican arrests in Los Angeles linked to the 1942 zoot suit riots
Mexican arrests in Los Angeles linked to the 1942 zoot suit riots. ©New York World -Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Rule over one's territory

Organised groups of young immigrants began to shape the daily life of ‘their’ neighbourhoods. Fights and petty crimes were a way to survive on the street. Street groups offered a guarantee of defence both against rival gangs and against the increasingly harsh police. Fighting ‘enemies’ became an end in itself. One had to be a man to be feared, a member of a gang to lead. In the games between gangs, the value of life did not count. You just had to make sure that the one at risk was the life of a rival gang member or a simple robbery victim. A certain territory had to be ruled over, and its extent was to be clearly marked by contractual signs and symbols, which quite unjustifiably were later recognised as ‘art’.

In the early 1970s, something that changed the US and the rest of the world emerged on a massive scale in American cities: drugs. The army of disciplined groups distributing a product for which there was unlimited demand grew steadily. Drugs changed the role of urban gangs. They began to fight for the market for the distribution of this deadly commodity. Other white, Asian and Latino criminal organisations would also be involved in this fight.

Drugs have brought huge profits to the criminal underworld. Gangs have ceased to be primitive criminal groups that sat on street corners all day. Big money created gangs whose bosses were partying in Beverly Hills, Colorado Springs and other exclusive locales. These organised groups became the corporations of the criminal world that could afford to buy everything and everyone. The first major purchase was always the best and most effective firearms.

We are the victims

In every conflict there is always a racial theme. In most conflicts, the aggressor tries to prove that the use of force was coerced by the opposing side and that they are the victims of the conflict. The parties: ethnic groups, racial groups, city authorities, the media, the police are almost always biased, overlook their own mistakes and demonise their antagonists.

The usual human assessment of these tragic events is quite stereotypical. It is always “them” that is to blame, not “us”. “They” may even have been from the same ethnic group, but they lived on the other, i.e. hostile, side of the road. The fault was always on “their” side. Almost any reason was sufficient to incite public outrage and violent protests. Every time, human lives and property were lost. The belligerent inhabitants were supported or condemned by the mass media, and the reports they published did not hasten the end of the conflict.

Burn, baby! Burn!

The source of street riots was usually crime, often relatively minor, such as drunk driving, speeding or disobeying police forces. Their perpetrators were often not angels who only clashed with law enforcement officers by mistake. These were people with a lifestyle that condemned them in advance to an earlier or later collision with the police or with hostile neighbours.

One of the biggest race riots of the 20th century took place in August 1965 in Watts (20 kilometres from downtown Los Angeles). What shocked Americans in 1965 was not the riots themselves, but the first live television coverage of them. Residents of Los Angeles and the rest of the country were able to follow the events on their television screens in real time. Television station helicopters circled above the burning houses of Watts, from which they filmed the extraordinary intensity of the street fighting, the fires, the devastation, the self-righteousness and the unbridled hostility of the crowd that took to the streets. One TV team filming from street level the ongoing fighting and looting managed to capture the moment when a young, angry demonstrator addressed the camera directly, shouting: We out to get you, White people. The youngster was not alone in his destructive rampage. The real enthusiasm among the demonstrators was a radio programme on one of the radio stations, in which Nathaniel ‘Magnificent’ Montague, programme host and disc jockey, exhorted: Burn, baby! Burn! It was ostensibly meant to be a call to listen to a current hit song, but the people of Watts knew it was a slogan to take to the streets.

Hell in the City of Angels

In six days, 34 people were killed, 1,032 injured and 3,438 arrested. To control the chaos in the streets, the robberies and the looting of shops, the authorities were forced to send a 15,000-strong detachment of the 40th Armoured Division to Los Angeles, which cordoned off the parts of Watts where the confrontations took place. The scale of the protests horrified the whole country. There was talk of the seeds of civil war and ‘hell in the City of Angels’. This was the result of a simple roadside check, the arrest of an intoxicated driver and the resulting minor altercation between the arrestee and the police.

Only a few months earlier, L.A. residents had looked with pride at other television broadcasts. These showed the space flight of Gemini IV, a craft that was largely built in their city. During this flight, astronaut Edward Higgins White undertook the first American spacewalk. In August of the same year, the city’s sense of pride disappeared and people began to wonder how it was possible to conquer space and yet be unable to control the violence on the streets of their own cities.

Martin Luther King vs. Black Power

One did not have to be an astute observer of social life to conclude after the Watts riots that the peaceful struggle against racism was finding fewer and fewer supporters. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, who visited Watts after the riots had ceased, was disappointed to discover that the means preferred by most protesters was confrontation, often – plain physical violence. This kind of problem-solving was considered quite correct by the Black Power organisation. It encouraged physical resistance to the authorities, with which it was gaining new supporters at a furious rate. The organisation’s approach to combating racism was markedly different from the messages of M. L. King. Black Power was straightforward: “if America doesn’t change, we will set it on fire”. King, on the other hand, publicly questioned methods of struggle that were based on violence. He questioned his brothers and sisters directly:

What did Watts accomplish but the death of thirty-four Negroes and injury to thousands more? What did it profit the Negro to burn down the stores and factories in which he sought employment? The way of riots is not a way of progress, but a blind ally of death and destruction which wrecks its havoc hardest against the rioters themselves.

Rodney King vs. black & white

The largest race riot in US history also took place in Los Angeles, but it was neither in Watts nor in 1965, but almost 40 years later in the south-central part of the city. The reason for the events in April 1992 was, as usual, trivial. The main protagonist of this tragic event was a Black young man named Rodney King, who the year before – after a prolonged chase along the motorways of Los Angeles – had been stopped by a black & white, or police car patrol. The reason was trivial: driving too fast. The idea of getting out of an embarrassing situation turned out to be even worse than pirate driving. King started to flee and, when stopped, resisted the police officers trying to arrest him. His strange behaviour could be attributed to drug use. After checking the detainee’s identity, police learned that the bloodthirsty King was a prison client previously charged with robbery with violence and driving under the influence. At the time of his arrest, King was on leave from prison. His bizarre behaviour set off a chain of violence that went down in history as the largest street riot ever to take place on the streets of American cities.

Rodney King Riot scene, Manchester Ave. at S. Normandie Ave., Los Angeles,
Rodney King Riot scene, Manchester Ave. at S. Normandie Ave., Los Angeles, 1992 ©Vergara, Camilo J.

Beating of Rodney King

King’s reaction to the police’s actions (two other passengers in the pursued car surrendered to the police unchallenged) was anything but obedient. The proper detonator of the whole situation, however, was the reaction of the Los Angeles police officers. The very action of the police stopping Rodney King was as understandable as possible. What was completely incomprehensible was the brutality of the law enforcement officers. Despite the fact that King was surrounded by several police officers and basically had no chance to escape, he was inflicted – with kicks and police batons – with more than 60 blows, which caused him 11 serious injuries. The scene of King’s abuse was recorded by a bystander and made public by a local TV station. What people saw shocked them, but did not surprise them. This was not police intervention. This was brutal abuse and forced unconditional obedience.

Credit: NBCLA

Lawlessness in all its glory

The incident, captured on not the highest quality videotape, caused shock and widespread outrage. The real drama began a year later, after a court hearing to judge the police officers’ conduct. A verdict was reached acquitting three White and one Hispanic police officer. Immediately a murmur of anger went through the city. The law said its piece, but the ‘street’ had a different opinion. Relations between the Black residents and the rest of the city were strained. As John Bryan, one of the social activists of south-central Los Angeles, described it, the atmosphere was so heavy and thick “that you could cut it with a knife”. On 29 April 1992, due to the acquittal of the perpetrators of King’s beating, an uprising or, as others described it, a “street brawl” took place on the streets of Los Angeles, in which 55 people were killed, 1,573 businesses were destroyed and a billion dollars in losses were recorded.

"An Injury to One is an Injury to All," mural in south LA painted by Mike Alewitz. The mural was painted after the beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots in Los Angeles, and is dedicated to the victims of police brutality. 1993
"An Injury to One is an Injury to All," mural in south LA painted by Mike Alewitz. The mural was painted after the beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots in Los Angeles, and is dedicated to the victims of police brutality. 1993 © Mike Alewitz, Wikimedia Commons

'Outraged' citizens

Live television broadcasts showed Americans what lawlessness is. Dragging people out of cars, brutal kicking, firing of guns, removal of goods from shops and other similar excesses played out – one could say – with the curtain raised. One had the impression that people believed they had the right to rob, beat, kill and attack even firemen who were trying to put out fires.

In interviews by TV journalists who dared to broadcast from the sites of robberies and assaults, the ‘outraged’ citizens always had a template excuse: “in the name of justice”. There was not a trace of shame, embarrassment or fear on their faces due to the consequences of their acts. Although the centre of the riots was in neighbourhoods dominated by African-Americans and Latinos, everyone took part in the robberies, including the White inhabitants of the city who had come here from other neighbourhoods. Young and old, children and their parents robbed. People were in a frenzy.

President George H. W. Bush sent federal troops to Los Angeles to help stop the rioting sparked by the acquittal of cops who beat down Rodney King.
President George H. W. Bush sent federal troops to Los Angeles to help stop the rioting sparked by the acquittal of cops who beat down Rodney King. ©Robert Couse-Baker, Wikimedia Commons

In full colour and in prime time

The moment of King’s sadistic beating was captured on amateur black-and-white videotape, where blurry figures emerged from the darkness and could barely be distinguished. Nevertheless, people were shocked by the violence shown. However, those horror tapes from 1991 were nothing compared to what the TV cameras recorded a year later during the riots. This time everything was shown in daylight, with professional cameras, in full colour and in prime time. In front of the whole nation, the crowd attacked anyone who did not meet the definition of ‘being wronged’.

In a live broadcast, viewers were able to see how, “outraged” by the court verdict and King’s fate, a young man stopped one of the passing trucks, dragged the driver out of the car and smashed his head with a concrete element found near the ruined shop. Reginald Denny, a White 33-year-old driver who was driving through the intersection of Florence and Normandie on 20 April 1992, was attacked by angry rioters, dragged from his cab and battered into unconsciousness.

„They” from Korea

In the 1992 conflict, the main losers were not only the sadistic police officers, the battered, though not as innocent as it seemed, Rodney King and the incalculable in its fierceness community of south-central L.A. Some of the worst sufferers were primarily Korean immigrants. In the late 1980s, a surge of Koreans was registered in those neighbourhoods of the city that were mostly populated by African-Americans. Koreans did not settle there, but were keen to open hundreds of small and large shops, workshops and service outlets in these areas of the city.

They were not deterred by the often hostile attitude demonstrated by local residents. Korean merchants and entrepreneurs were given a sense of security by the police and the links with their growing number of compatriots, who were always ready to help and protect. Koreans were coming from a country that had been swept by countless armed conflicts. Many of the young immigrants had gone through the hard school of life, had served in the Korean army and were excellent with weapons. This gave the new arrivals a measure of confidence in their ability to survive even in an area as undermined as South Central Los Angeles. The Koreans simply could not be frightened so easily.

Rodney King Riot scene, Manchester Ave. at S. Normandie Ave., Los Angeles, 1992
Rodney King Riot scene, Manchester Ave. at S. Normandie Ave., Los Angeles, 1992 ©Vergara, Camilo J.


A stereotypical image of Koreans as courageous, dynamic people, eager for personal success, willing to work hard, began to solidify in the minds of the city’s residents. Koreans quickly became a significant economic force in the city’s declining neighbourhoods. They ran gas stations, shops and workshops. They created many small garment factories where they not only worked themselves, but also employed many immigrants. Laundromats and other service outlets sprouted up at almost every street intersection in the black neighbourhoods. One type of shop in particular was popular with enterprising Korean immigrants – liquor and cheap food shops. Hundreds of these small shops employed entire Korean families, but earnings in them were often no more than $5-7 a day.

It started with lemonade

The confrontation between African-Americans and Koreans turned into open hostility in 1991, the year before the riots. At that time, the court acquitted Soon Ja Du, a shop owner who had earlier shot a 15-year-old Black girl trying to steal lemonade from her shop. Soon Ja Du explained her act as terror and panic resulting from previous robberies that had been carried out in her shop. Instead of the expected 16 years in prison for this type of crime, the court sentenced Soon Ja Du to pay a fine of $500. This verdict sparked anger among African-Americans. After the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King, it was that tragic death of a young girl that took on special significance. This was reason enough for an open fight to begin between the two ethnic groups.

One reason for the drama was the cultural differences and language deficiencies that prevented the two groups from communicating quickly and properly. Not only were the African-Americans unable to communicate with their Korean neighbours, neither could the police, who, however, were not too concerned about the situation that arose. The low social status of the newly arrived immigrants did not force the authorities to effectively protect their property.


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