On March 3, 1991, a bystander filmed several Los Angeles policemen brutally beating Rodney King after pulling him over. The tape illuminated how the LAPD and police departments across the country often utilized racial profiling and excessive force toward marginalized communities. Four officers who participated in the assault were tried after a grand jury refused to indict 17 officers who stood by and did nothing. The trial was moved to a predominantly white L.A. suburb, and—despite documentation of their crime on tape—the four officers were acquitted of all charges in April 1992. The ruling incited the Los Angeles riots, which lasted for six days and resulted in 63 deaths, 2,000 people injured, and damages estimated at over $1 billion.
“I had heard the verdict and was stunned after hearing it. Most of the African-American community felt that there would be a conviction because it was caught on tape,” Timothy Goldman told the Observer. When the first protests erupted in Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles, Goldman, an Air Force veteran, was one of a small handful on the scene filming. He helped New York Times photographer Bart Bartholomew escape the scene after the police fled the scene when the protests turned violent. “In the Black and Latino communities, it was always our word against the word of the police, and of course in a court of law, they would always win. But now that there was evidence on tape, we thought the verdict would be a vindication for people who suffered under the hands of law enforcement in the city—both black and brown. When the verdict came back, it was a disappointment.”
For communities in Los Angeles that had long, painful histories with the LAPD, the Rodney King verdict was the tipping point that incited an eruption of anger that took days to subside. Making matters even worse, the LAPD abandoned the communities where the most violent protests occurred, leaving innocent bystanders to fend for themselves.
The recently released documentary L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, directed by John Singleton, depicts Sung Hwang, the daughter of Korean shop owners who had their small business destroyed during the riots. “They worked so so hard to build this place, and they sacrificed so much. And to see it just gone,” Hwang said. “After the L.A. Riots, my mom was in and out of counseling. Then she had cancer. My father had his first stroke, then a second and third. Then, I end up burying both my parents back to back. And we had nothing to do with the verdict. My parents were just bystanders. Hopefully through my story, people will realize the long-term impact of the riot and its consequences.”
At the time of the verdict, race relations between the Korean and black communities were already strained due to an incident in March 1991 in which Korean-American storeowner Soon Ja Du shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins. The storeowner claimed self-defense. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but received no prison sentence. This incident occurred just days after the tape revealing Rodney King’s assault was released to the media. During the riots, nearly 2,000 businesses in Koreatown were destroyed, along with 2,800 African-American owned businesses.
Recovery from of the L.A. Riots has been an arduous process for Los Angeles, and the effected communities never received support to adequately address the issues illuminated by the riots. Los Angeles’ biggest attempt to help these communities recover, an organization called Rebuild L.A., was a flop that came up short. The organization wound up being transmogrified into a source of revenue for the wealthy and special interests. The LAPD has made some headway by way of improvements, and the make-up of the police force is much more diverse than it was in the early 1990s. However, the LAPD has still grappled with a variety of issues. In the late 1990s, the Rampart Scandal exposed 70 officers involved in misconduct and corruption, making it the city’s biggest scandal in history. In 2016, L.A. led the nation in most civilians killed by a police department. Though the level of racial profiling and police brutality from the Rodney King era may not exist today, the scars on Los Angeles communities may never fully heal.
“There will probably never be another Florence and Normandie, but there will be smaller ones popping up every now and again,” added Timothy Goldman, noting other protests and riots incited by police brutality that black communities across the country still experience today. However, Goldman offered hope in saying that young people today are more engaged, active, and encouraged than at the time of the L.A. Riots. “The young people now, in my opinion, are more active than we were at their age years ago,” he said. “Last year, I attended a protest one night after a police shooting here in L.A., and I was amazed at the turnout and the fury of those protesting at the time.”