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Uprising: Hip Hop & The LA Riots - SXSW 2012 Film

 20 years after riots ripped through Los Angeles, "Uprising" documents how hip hop forecasted -- and some say ignited -- the worst civil unrest of the 20th century. The film revisits the riots in gripping detail and draws from a diverse collection of voices -- the rappers, rioters, victims, police officers, journalists and everyday citizens of South Central Los Angeles. The documentary traces the rise of dissent in Los Angeles in the 80's and 90's and explores why citizens chose to rise up violently against police abuse and perceived injustices.

The 1992 Los Angeles Riots or South Central Riots, also known as the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest[1][2][3] were sparked on April 29, 1992, when a jury acquitted three white and one Hispanic Los Angeles Police Department officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motoristRodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people in the Los Angeles area rioted over the six days following the verdict.[4]

Widespread looting, assault, arson and murder occurred, and property damages topped roughly $1 billion. In all, 53 people died during the riots and thousands more were injured.[5


On March 3, 1991, Rodney King and two passengers were driving west on the Foothill Freeway (I-210) through the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) attempted to initiate a traffic stop. A high-speed pursuit ensued with speeds estimated at up to 115 mph first over freeways and then through residential neighborhoods. When King came to a stop, CHP Officer Timothy Singer and his wife, CHP Officer Melanie Singer, ordered the occupants under arrest.[7]

After two passengers were placed in the patrol car, five Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers (Stacey KoonLaurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano) attempted to subdue King, who came out of the car last. In a departure from the usual procedure, which is to tackle and cuff a suspect, King was tasered, kicked in the head, beaten with PR-24 batons for over one minute, then tackled and cuffed. The officers claimed that King was under the influence of PCP at the time of arrest, which caused him to be very aggressive and violent towards the officers. The video showed that he was crawling on the ground during the beating and that the police made no attempt to cuff him.[7]

A subsequent test for the presence of PCP turned up negative. The incident was captured on camcorder by resident George Holliday from his apartment in the vicinity. The tape was roughly ten minutes long. While the case was presented to the court, clips of the incident were not released to the public.[8]

In a later interview, King, who was on parole from prison on a robbery conviction and who had past convictions for assault, battery and robbery,[9][10]said that, being on parole, he feared apprehension and being returned to prison for parole violations.

The footage of King being beaten by police while lying on the ground became a focus for media attention and a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States. Coverage was extensive during the initial two weeks after the incident: the Los Angeles Times published forty-three articles about the incident,[11] the New York Times published seventeen articles,[12] and the Chicago Tribune published eleven articles.[13]Eight stories appeared on ABC News, including a sixty-minute special on Primetime Live.

Charges and trial

The Los Angeles District Attorney subsequently charged all five police officers with assault and use of excessive force.[14] Due to the heavy media coverage of the arrest, the trial received a change of venue from Los Angeles County to a newly constructed courthouse in the more predominantlywhite and politically conservative city of Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County. No Simi Valley residents served on the jury, which was drawn from the nearby San Fernando Valley, a predominantly white and Hispanic area, and composed of ten Caucasians, one Hispanic, and one Asian.[15]The prosecutor, Terry White, was black.[16][17]

On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury acquitted all five officers of assault and acquitted three of the five of using excessive force. The jury could not agree on a verdict for the fourth officer charged with using excessive force.[15] The verdicts were based in part on the first two seconds of a blurry, 13-second segment of the video tape that, according to journalist Lou Cannon, was edited out by television news stations in their broadcasts.[18]

During the first two seconds of videotape,[19] Rodney King allegedly gets up off the ground and charges in the general direction of one of the police officers, Laurence Powell, but this allegation is disputed due to the blurriness of the video. During the next one minute and 19 seconds, King is beaten continuously by the officers. The officers testified that they tried to physically restrain King prior to the starting point of the videotape but, according to the officers, King was able to physically throw them off himself.[20]

Another theory offered by the prosecution for the officers' acquittal is that the jurors may have become desensitized to the violence of the beating, as the defense played the videotape repeatedly in slow motion, breaking it down until its emotional impact was lost.[21]

After the verdict, media coverage showed sharply divided reactions among the public, and both Mayor Tom Bradley and President George H. W. Bush expressed bewilderment at the verdict on national television.

The riots

The riots, beginning in the evening after the verdicts, peaked in intensity over the next two days, but ultimately continued for several days. A curfew and deployment of the National Guard began to control the situation; eventually U.S. Army soldiers and United States Marines were ordered to the city to quell disorder as well.

Fifty-three people died during the riots including 10 shot dead by the LAPD and the National Guard[22] with as many as 2,000 people injured. Estimates of the material losses vary between about $800 million and $1 billion. Approximately 3,600 fires were set, destroying 1,100 buildings, with fire calls coming once every minute at some points. Widespread looting also occurred. Stores owned by Korean and other Asian immigrants were widely targeted,[23] although stores owned by Caucasians and African Americans were targeted by rioters as well.

Many of the disturbances were concentrated in South Central Los Angeles, which was primarily composed of African American and Hispanicresidents. Half of all riot arrestees and more than a third of those killed during the violence were Hispanic.[24][25]

[edit]First day (Wednesday, April 29, 1992)

The acquittals of the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers came at 3:15 pm local time. By 3:45, a crowd of more than 300 people had appeared at the Los Angeles County Courthouse, most protesting the verdicts passed down a half an hour earlier and many miles away. Between 5 and 6 pm, a group of two dozen officers, commanded by LAPD Lt. Michael Moulin, confronted a growing African-American crowd at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles. Outnumbered, these officers retreated.[6][26] A new group of protesters appeared at Parker Center, the LAPD's headquarters, by about 6:30 pm, and 15 minutes later, the crowd at Florence and Normandie had started looting, attacking vehicles and people.

Reginald Denny beating

At approximately 6:45 pm, Reginald Oliver Denny, a white truck driver who stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, was dragged from his vehicle and severely beaten by a mob of local black residents as news helicopters hovered above, recording every blow, including a concrete fragment connecting with Denny's temple and a cinder block thrown at his head as he lay unconscious in the street. The police never appeared, having been ordered to withdraw for their own safety, although several assailants (the so-called L.A. Four) were later arrested and one, Damian Williams, was sent to prison.

Instead, Denny was rescued by an unarmed, African American civilian named Bobby Green Jr. who, seeing the assault live on television, rushed to the scene and drove Denny to the hospital using the victim's own truck, which carried twenty-seven tons of sand. Denny had to undergo years of rehabilitative therapy, and his speech and ability to walk were permanently damaged. Although several other motorists were brutally beaten by the same mob, Denny remains the best-known victim of the riots because of the live television coverage.

[edit]Fidel Lopez beating

At the same intersection, just minutes after Denny was rescued, another beating was captured on video tape. Fidel Lopez, a self-employed construction worker and Guatemalan immigrant, was pulled from his truck and robbed of nearly $2,000. Damian Williams smashed his forehead open with a car stereo[27] as another rioter attempted to slice his ear off. After Lopez lost consciousness, the crowd spray painted his chest, torso and genitals black.[28]

Rev. Bennie Newton, an African-American minister who ran an inner-city ministry for troubled youth, prevented others from beating Lopez by placing himself between Lopez and his attackers and shouting "Kill him and you have to kill me, too". He was also instrumental in helping Lopez get medical aid by taking him to the hospital. Lopez survived the attack, undergoing extensive surgery to reattach his partially severed ear, and months of recovery.[citation needed]

[edit]Second day (Thursday, April 30)

Although the day began relatively quietly, by mid-morning on the second day violence appeared widespread and unchecked as heavy looting and fires were witnessed across Los Angeles County. The Korean American community, seeing the police force's abandonment of Koreatown, organized armed security teams composed of store workers, who defended their livelihoods from assault by the mobs. Open gun battles were televised as Korean shopkeepers exchanged gunfire with armed looters.[29]

Organized law-enforcement response began to come together by midday. Fire crews began to respond backed by police escort; California Highway Patrol reinforcements were airlifted to the city; and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew at 12:15 am. PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush spoke out against the rioting, stating that "anarchy" would not be tolerated. The California National Guard, which had been advised not to expect civil disturbance, responded quickly by calling up about 2,000 soldiers, but could not get them to the city until nearly 24 hours had passed because of a lack of proper equipment, training, and available ammunition which had to be picked up from Camp Roberts, California (near Paso Robles).

In an attempt to end hostilities, Bill Cosby spoke on the NBC affiliate television station KNBC and asked people to stop what they were doing and instead watch the final episode of The Cosby Show.[30][31]

The same members of LAPD Metropolitan Division C-platoon that were involved in a firefight at 114th Street and Central Avenue on the first night drove into a robbery in progress at the gas station at Vernon and Western. One robber was killed while a second was wounded.

[edit]Third day (Friday, May 1)

4,000 National Guard troops patrolled the city to enforce the law.

The third day was punctuated by live footage of Rodney King saying, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"[32][33] That morning, at 1:00 am, California Governor Pete Wilson had requested federal assistance, but it was not ready until Saturday. National Guard units (doubled to 4,000 troops) continued to move into the city in Humvees. Additionally, a varied contingent of 1,700 federal law-enforcement officers from different agencies from across the state began to arrive, to protect federal facilities and assist local police. As darkness fell, the main riot area was further hit by a power cut.

Friday evening, President George H.W. Bush spoke to the nation, denouncing "random terror and lawlessness", summarizing his discussions with Mayor Bradley and Governor Wilson, and outlining the federal assistance he was making available to local authorities. Citing the "urgent need to restore order", he warned that the "brutality of a mob" would not be tolerated, and he would "use whatever force is necessary". He then turned to the Rodney King case and a more moderate tone, describing talking to his own grandchildren and pointing to the reaction of "good and decent policemen" as well as civil rights leaders. He said he had already directed the Justice Department to begin its own investigation, saying that "grand jury action is underway today" and that justice would prevail.[34]

By this point, many entertainment and sports events were postponed or canceled. The Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Portland Trail Blazers in a basketball playoff game on the night the rioting started, but the following game was postponed until Sunday and moved to Las Vegas. The Los Angeles Clippers moved a playoff game against the Utah Jazz to nearby Anaheim. In baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers postponed games for four straight days from Thursday to Sunday, including a whole 3-game series against the Montreal Expos; all were made up as part of doubleheaders in July. In San Francisco, a city curfew due to unrest there forced the postponement of a May 1 San Francisco Giants home game against thePhiladelphia Phillies.[35]

The horse racing venues Hollywood Park Racetrack and Los Alamitos Race Course were also shut down. L.A. Fiesta Broadway, a major event in the Latino community, was not held in the first weekend in May as scheduled. In Music, Van Halen canceled two concert shows in Inglewood on Saturday and Sunday. Michael Bolton was scheduled to perform at the Hollywood Bowl for Sunday, but the concert was canceled. World Wrestling Entertainment (World Wrestling Federation <WWF> at the time) also canceled events on Friday and Saturday in the respective cities of Long Beachand Fresno.[36]

The Southern California Rapid Transit District suspended all bus service throughout the Los Angeles area. Some major freeways were closed down. The Federal Aviation Administration shut down Los Angeles International Airport for 6 days, disrupting air travel nationwide. Amtrak (Southern California) also suspended train service into and out of Los Angeles.

[edit]Fourth day (Saturday, May 2)

On the fourth day, 4,000 soldiers and Marines arrived from Fort Ord and Camp Pendleton to disperse the crowds and restore order. Soon after the military arrived, order was restored. With most of the violence under control, 30,000 people attended a peace rally.[citation needed]

On May 2, the Justice Department announced it would begin a federal investigation of the Rodney King beating.[citation needed]

[edit]Fifth day (Sunday, May 3)

Overall quiet set in and Mayor Bradley assured the public that the crisis was, more or less, under control.[37] In one incident, National Guardsmen shot and killed a motorist who tried to run them over at a barrier.[38]

[edit]Sixth day (Monday, May 4)

Although Mayor Bradley lifted the curfew, signaling the official end of the riots, sporadic violence and crime continued for a few days afterward. Schools, banks, and businesses reopened. Federal troops did not stand down until May 9; the state guard remained until May 14; and some soldiers remained as late as May 27.[citation needed]

Post-riot commentary

In addition to the immediate trigger of the Rodney King verdicts, a range of other factors were cited as reasons for the unrest. Anger over Korean American shop-owner Soon Ja Du's weak sentence for fatally shooting a black teenager Latasha Harlins was pointed to as a potential reason for the riots, particularly for aggression toward Korean Americans. Publications such as Newsweek and Time suggested that the source of these racial antagonisms was derived from perceptions amongst blacks that Korean-American merchants were taking money out of their community and refusing to hire blacks to work in their shops. According to this view, these tensions were intensified when Du was sentenced to five years probation but no jail time after a jury convicted her of manslaughter.[39][40]

Another explanation offered for the riots was the extremely high unemployment among the residents of South Central Los Angeles, which had been hit very hard by the nation-wide recession,[41] and the high levels of poverty there.[42] Articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times linked the economic deterioration of South Central to the declining living conditions of the residents, and suggested that local resentments about these conditions helped to fuel the riots.[43][44][45][46][47]

Social commentator Mike Davis pointed to the growing economic disparity in Los Angeles in the years leading up to the riots caused by corporate restructuring and government deregulation, with inner-city residents bearing the brunt of these changes. Such conditions engendered a widespread feeling of frustration and powerlessness in the urban populace, with the King verdicts eventually setting off their resentments in a violent expression of collective public protest.[48][49] To Davis and other writers, the tensions witnessed between African-Americans and Korean-Americans during the unrest was as much to do with the economic competition forced on the two groups by wider market forces, as with either cultural misunderstandings or blacks angered about the killing of Harlins.[25]

One of the more detailed analyses of the unrest was a study produced shortly after the riots by a Special Committee of the California Legislature, entitled To Rebuild is Not Enough.[50] After extensive research, the Committee concluded that the inner-city conditions of poverty, segregation, lack of educational and employment opportunities, police abuse and unequal consumer services created the underlying causes of the riots. It also pointed to changes in the American economy and the growing ethnic diversity of Los Angeles as important sources of urban discontent, which eventually exploded on the streets following the King verdicts. Another official report, The City in Crisis, was initiated by the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners and made many of the same observations as the Assembly Special Committee about the growth of popular urban dissatisfaction leading up to the unrest.[51]

In his public statements during the riots, civil rights activist and Baptist minister Jesse Jackson sympathized with the anger experienced by African-Americans regarding the verdicts in the King trial, and pointed to certain root causes of the disturbances. Although he suggested that the violence was not justified, he repeatedly emphasized that the riots were an inevitable result of the continuing patterns of racism, police brutality and economic despair suffered by inner-city residents — a tinderbox of seething frustrations which was eventually set off by the verdicts.[52][53]

Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, argued likewise that the violence resulted from the breakdown of economic opportunities and social institutions in the inner city. He also berated both major political parties for failing to address urban issues, especially the Republican Administration for its presiding over "more than a decade of urban decay" generated by their spending cuts.[54] He maintained that the King verdicts could not be avenged by the "savage behavior" of "lawless vandals". He also stated that people "are looting because ... [t]hey do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support."[54]

African-American Congressional representative of South Central Los Angeles, Democrat Maxine Waters, said that the events in L.A. constituted a "rebellion" or "insurrection" caused by the underlying reality of poverty and despair existing in the inner city. This state of affairs, she asserted, were brought about by a government which had all but abandoned the poor through the loss of local jobs and by the institutional discrimination encountered by people of racial minorities, especially at the hands of the police and financial institutions.[55][56]

Conversely, President Bush argued that the unrest was "purely criminal". Though he acknowledged that the King verdicts were plainly unjust, he maintained that "we simply cannot condone violence as a way of changing the system ... Mob brutality, the total loss of respect for human life was sickeningly sad ... What we saw last night and the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It's not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It's not a message of protest. It's been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple."[57]

Vice President Dan Quayle blamed the violence on a "Poverty of Values" –"I believe the lawless social anarchy which we saw is directly related to the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society"[58] Similarly, the White House Press SecretaryMarlin Fitzwater, alleged that "many of the root problems that have resulted in inner city difficulties were started in the '60s and '70s and ... they have failed ... [N]ow we are paying the price."[59]

Several prominent writers expressed a similar "culture of poverty" argument. Writers in Newsweek, for example, drew a distinction between the actions of the rioters in 1992 with those of the urban upheavals in the 1960s, arguing that "[w]here the looting at Watts had been desperate, angry, mean, the mood this time was closer to a manic fiesta, a TV game show with every looter a winner."[39]

Meanwhile, in an article published in Commentary entitled "How the Rioters Won", conservative columnist Midge Decter referred to African-American city youths and asked "[h]ow is it possible to go on declaring that what will save the young men of South-Central L.A., and the young girls they impregnate, and the illegitimate babies they sire, is jobs? How is it possible to look at these boys of the underclass ... and imagine that they either want or could hold on to jobs?"[60]

Media coverage

Almost as soon as the disturbances broke out in South Central, local TV cameras were on the scene to record the events as they happened.[61]Television coverage of the riots was near-continuous, starting with the beating of motorists at the intersection of Florence and Normandie broadcast live by TV news pilot/reporter Bob Tur, and his camera operator, Marika Gerrard.[citation needed] By virtue of their extensive coverage, mainstream television stations provided a vivid, comprehensive and valuable record of the violence occurring on the streets of L.A.[62] In part because of extensive media coverage of the Los Angeles riots, smaller but similar riots and other anti-police actions took place in other cities in the United States.[4][63] A message was also sent over the Emergency Broadcast System.



In the aftermath of the riots, pressure mounted for a retrial of the officers, and federal charges of civil rights violations were brought against them. As the first anniversary of the acquittal neared, the city tensely awaited the decision of the federal jury; seven days of deliberations raised fears of further violence in the event of another "not guilty" verdict.

The decision was read in an atypical 7:00 am Saturday court session on April 17, 1993. Two officers –Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon –were found guilty, while officers Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind were acquitted. Mindful of accusations of sensationalist reporting in the wake of the first trial and the resulting chaos, media outlets opted for more sober coverage, which included calmer on-the-street interviews.[64] Police were fully mobilized with officers on 12-hour shifts, convoy patrols, scout helicopters, street barricades, tactical command centers, and support from the National Guard and Marines.[65][66]

All four of the officers involved have since quit or have been fired from the LAPD. Officer Theodore Briseno left the LAPD after being acquitted on federal charges. Officer Timothy Wind, who was also acquitted a second time, was fired after the appointment of Willie L. Williams as Chief of Police. Chief Williams' tenure was also short-lived. The Los Angeles Police Commission declined to renew his contract, citing Williams' failure to fulfill his mandate to create meaningful change in the department in the wake of the Rodney King disaster.[67] Susan Clemmer, an officer who gave crucial testimony for the defense at the initial trial, committed suicide in July 2009 in the lobby of a Los Angeles Sheriff's Station. She rode in the ambulance with King and testified that he was laughing and spat blood on her uniform. She had remained in law enforcement and was a Sheriff's Detective at the time of her death.[68]

Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in damages from the City of Los Angeles for the attack. He invested most of this money in founding a record label, “Straight Alta-Pazz Records”. The venture was unable to garner any success and soon folded. Since the arrest which culminated in his severe beating by the four police officers, King has been arrested at least a further eleven times on a variety of charges, including domestic abuse and hit-and-run.[69][70] King and his family moved from Los Angeles to Rialto, California, a suburb in San Bernardino County in an attempt to escape the fame and notoriety and to begin a new life. King and his family later returned to Los Angeles, where they run a family-owned construction company. King rarely discusses the incident or its aftermath, preferring to remain out of the spotlight. Renee Campbell, his most recent attorney, has described King as “...simply a very nice man caught in a very unfortunate situation.”

Many Los Angeles residents were motivated to buy weapons for self-defense against further violence, though the 15-day waiting period in California law stymied those who wanted to purchase protection while the riot was going on.[71]

Nearly a third of the rioters arrested were released because police officers were unable to identify individuals in the sheer volume of criminals. In one case, officers arrested around 40 people stealing from one store- while they were identifying them, a group of another 12 looters were brought in. With the groups mingled, charges could not be brought against individuals for stealing from specific stores, and the police were forced to release them all.[72]


Riots and the Korean-American community

The Korean-American community in Los Angeles refers to the event as "Sa-Yi-Gu" (literally "4–29", in reference to the April 29, the first day the riots broke out). The riots prompted various responses from the Korean-American community, including the formation of activist organizations such as the Association of Korean-American Victims, and increased efforts to build collaborative links with other ethnic groups.[73]

During the riots, many Koreans from throughout the area rushed to Koreatown, after Korean-language radio stations called for volunteers to guard against rioters. Many were armed, with a variety of improvised weapons, shotguns, and semi-automatic rifles.[74]

According to Edward Park, the 1992 violence stimulated a new wave of political activism among Korean Americans, but it also split them into two main camps. The liberals sought to unite with other minorities in Los Angeles to fight against racial oppression and scapegoating. The conservatives emphasized law and order and generally favored the economic and social policies of the Republican Party. The conservatives tended to emphasize the political differences between Koreans and other minorities, specifically blacks and Hispanics.[75][76]

One of the most iconic and controversial television images of the violence was a scene of two Korean merchants firing pistols repeatedly at roving looters. The New York Times said, "that the image seemed to speak of race war, and of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands."[77] "I want to make it clear that we didn't open fire first," said David Joo, manager of the gun shop. "At that time, four police cars were there. Somebody started to shoot at us. The L.A.P.D. ran away in half a second. I never saw such a fast escape. I was pretty disappointed."[77]

Defending the armed response of the Koreans, Mr. Rhyu said, "If it was your own business and your own property, would you be willing to trust it to someone else? We are glad the National Guard is here. They're good backup. But when our shops were burning we called the police every five minutes; no response."[77]

Jay Rhee estimated that he and others fired 500 shots into the ground and air. "We have lost our faith in the police," he said. "Where were you when we needed you?" One of the largest armed camps in Koreatown was at the California Market. On the first night after the verdicts were returned in the trial of the four officers charged in the beating of Rodney King, Richard Rhee, the market owner, posted himself in the parking lot with about 20 armed employees.[74]

One year after the riots fewer than one in four damaged or destroyed businesses reopened, according to the survey conducted by the Korean American Inter-Agency Council.[78] According to a Los Angeles Times survey conducted eleven months after the riots, almost 40% of Korean Americans said they were thinking of leaving Los Angeles.[79] Before a verdict was issued in the new 1993 Rodney King Federal civil rights trial against the four officers, Korean shop owners prepared for the worst as fear ran throughout the city, gun sales went up, virtually all of them by those of Korean descent, some merchants at flea markets removed their merchandise from their shelves, storefronts were fortified with extra Plexiglas and bars. Throughout the community, shop owners readied to defend themselves as if on the eve of a war.[78]

"Like many others, Miss Hwang's family is armed now with a Glock 17 pistol, a Beretta and a shotgun and they plan to barricade themselves in their store to fight off looters." "[T]he Korea Young Adult Team of Los Angeles, bought five AK-47 rifles." "We made a mistake last year," said Yong Kim, the group's leader. "This time we won't. I don't know why Koreans are always a special target for African Americans, but if they are going to attack our community then we are going to pay them back."[78]