Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In a new documentary, previously unseen footage collected by the Los Angeles Police Department reveals how the narrative of the riots has changed in 25 years.
The public life of Rodney King begins on March 3, 1991, when the African-American man was clubbed and kicked relentlessly by a gang of LAPD officers during a traffic stop. It ends on June 17, 2012, when he was found dead in his swimming pool at age 47. The autopsy showed that an “alcohol and drug-induced delirium” led to his drowning. Before that point, he had been revolving in and out of rehab for substance abuse, a problem he attributed to trauma from the beating he took from cops. His death was ruled both accidental and self-inflicted, which is a common ending for the concussed.
Riots are also a common feature of communities that have been beaten down and traumatized by racism and poverty. Such was the case for South Central Los Angeles, which erupted in flames and violence on April 29, 1992, hours after a jury refused to convict the four LAPD officers who attacked King. The police got off the hook even though the beating had been captured on home video: That clip hit the local news, then CNN, and achieved pre-internet virality.
A new film, The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel this week, attempts to piece together all of the frustrations that led to the conflagration. The 51-minute documentary consists completely of TV news segments and never-before aired footage from a camera crew the LAPD employed during the five days of rioting. No narrator, no talking heads, and no explanatory animations help guide the narrative. The effect is an “unfiltered story of the L.A. riots,” as the doc dubs itself, and there truly are some enlightening moments—especially from the previously unearthed LAPD footage. Here are four big takeaways:
At first, LAPD Chief Darryl Gates thought it was funny
Shortly after the King beating video first hit the news, the documentary shows footage of Gates joking at a public forum about it, saying, “If it wasn’t for our helicopters the lighting would’ve been horrible.” His audience laughs. Fast forward a year later to the verdict: As flames consume South Central, Gates is in Brentwood, the wealthy L.A. neighborhood where O. J. Simpson lived at the time, “raising money to fight reforms in the LAPD.” The documentary also shows footage of Gates in 1980 blasting the media and the public for criticizing the police and claiming that too much has been made of police-involved shootings and killings.
It wasn’t just about Rodney King—or even just about police brutality
Often forgotten is the case of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, an African-American girl shot in the back of the head on March 16, 1991, by Korean-American storeowner Soon Ja Du after a brief scuffle. Du claimed self defense, despite the fact she was separated from Harlins by the store counter and the teenager was unarmed, and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter (but received no prison sentence). Her killing came just days after the King video went public, and escalated simmering tensions between African Americans and Asian Americans in South Central L.A.
African Americans didn’t just “destroy their own neighborhoods”
A common refrain when unrest grips black communities is that black rioters are only hurting themselves by burning and looting businesses in their own neighborhoods. That wasn’t the whole story in the ‘92 riots, though. Much of the damage was done in Koreatown, where over 1,700 businesses were destroyed.* Koreans were targeted because they owned and controlled so much real estate across South Central, while African Americans felt they didn’t have the same entrepreneurial opportunities. The Harlins killing only accentuated the disconnect between these two communities. One Asian-American man captured in a news clip in the doc tries to make the connection, though, noting how no fire trucks were coming to Koreatown to put out the fires. “This is no longer about Rodney King,” says the man, who’s not identified. “This is about the system against us, the minorities.”
African Americans weren’t responsible for most of the rioting
At least, not if the arrests tell the story: The LAPD arrested 12,111 people during the unrest. Only 36 percent were African Americans, according to the documentary, while 51 percent of the arrested were Latino Americans. The doc doesn’t explain what might have been behind this statistic, or why the face of the rioter is primarily seen as black. South Central L.A., of course, had a substantial Latino population in 1992, but it’s worth exploring why they endured the brunt of law enforcement.
It’s not the only thing left unsaid in the Smithsonian documentary, suggesting that maybe the footage-exclusive approach to storytelling here has its limitations. There is a bit more context needed for what happened that fateful summer of 1992. For example, there’s probably no truer place to apply the oft-repeated Martin Luther King quote that “riots are the language of the unheard” than Los Angeles, where young black hip-hop artists had been sounding off for years.
In N.W.A.’s 1988 song “Fuck Tha Police,” the Compton-based rap group literally took the LAPD to court in their lyrics. Ice Cube prophesied in no uncertain terms that an L.A. riot was inevitable in his 1991 album Death Certificate—particularly with the songs “A Bird in the Hand,” “Black Korea,” and “I Wanna Kill Sam.” There were no louder voices on the issues that led to the ’92 riots than Los Angeles’s black youth. In the Smithsonian doc, LAPD Chief Gates is heard after the King video came out dismissing any rumblings of a potential racial furor as just “voices in the wilderness.” Months later, the riots came, clubbing him and the city of Los Angeles in the head with the same relentlessness as the cops who beat King.
Two years after the riots, Congress passed Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which authorized the U.S. Justice Department to investigate local police departments when they exhibit evidence of excessive misconduct and deadly force. It was a direct response to the abuses discovered in the LAPD by the Christopher Commission after the King video went public.
Section 14141 also authorized the Justice Department to establish reforms within abusive police departments via consent decrees—an outcome of the riots that the documentary doesn’t cover. But it’s important, because we now find our current Attorney General Jeff Sessions fighting these kinds of police reforms, just as LAPD Chief Gates did before him. And we see how that turned out.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate statistic about the number of businesses destroyed in the rioting.