From “race riots” to multiracial urban rebellions (pt. 1: LA 1992)


In 1991–92, the beaten Black man was Rodney King and the perpetrators were Los Angeles Police Department officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano. The fires began across Los Angeles on the afternoon of their acquittal.

The morning after the LA riots began, a trusted friend at my high school asked if I “beat myself up last night.” (I’m biracial.) Because that was the paradigm for understanding a Black-led uprising in response to police brutality: a race riot. As in Tracy Chapman’s “Across the Lines” (1988):

Little black girl gets assaulted
Ain’t no reason why
Newspaper prints the story
And racist tempers fly
Next day it starts a riot
Knives and guns are drawn
Two black boys get killed
One white boy goes blind

Choose sides
Run for your life
Tonight the riots begin
On the back streets of America
They kill the dream of America

On the streets of South Central LA, but above all at one intersection, Florence and Normandie, the antagonism of the first day did run on race line and target white, Latino, and Asian civilians for violence and humiliation. The beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was dragged from his trailer and beaten until his skull fractured, became the first national symbol of the riot, a chromatic negative of King’s beating made flesh. This brutal scenario had evolved out of a nearby confrontation with police earlier in the afternoon, but took on a momentum of its own.

In fact, “virtually all of the victims [at Florence and Normandie on that first day] were struggling Hispanic and Asian immigrants who spoke little or no English,” (per U.S. News) but the national narrative was set: “black rage, white fear,” as a New York Times headline would read on May 4, 1992. In any case, it was cast as a “race riot” — a term that can encompass and conceal many historical events under a single category: white massacres of post-Civil War freedmen communities (from Memphis 1866 to Tulsa 1921); genuine clashes of white and Black civilians aided by white-dominated police forces (Detroit 1943); and Black uprisings against police violence (notably the Long, Hot Summer of 1967). The framing of “race riot” conceals questions of power, authority, and domination within the guise of ethnic antagonism. The only question left in this frame in that posed by a distraught Rodney King: “Can we all get along?”

And yet, the six days of civil disorder in Los Angeles was many other things.

The anger and fearlessness and outrage were contagious and they spread widely. They targeted not just racial adversaries but first of all the police, and secondly an economic system that excluded many. On the same morning-after page of the New York Times that cast the riots as “racial disorder,” there was the account of a “rainbow of rage”:

“Yeah, it’s madness,” Mr. Ming said of the riots, touched off by the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of a black motorist. “But it’s also understandable. And if the social conditions don’t change, it will happen again and again and not just in L.A.”

Like most people here, Mr. Ming condemned the violence and mourned the dead and the newly homeless. But he and a broad range of others, from solidly middle-class blacks like Al Myles to young Hispanic residents like James Garcia, also expressed ambivalence and guarded admiration for the rioters’ rage at “the system.”

The explosive violence here had been smoldering for 27 years, said scholars, ministers, advocates and residents of the city’s arson-scarred and riot-torn neighborhoods in more than two dozen interviews.

Many said the acquittal of the four police officers charged with using excessive force in the beating of the black motorist, Rodney G. King, was only a spark put to a tinderbox of anger constructed from years of deep poverty, governmental neglect, racism, charges of police abuse and high unemployment.

But unlike the Watts riot, which was largely within the predominantly black neighborhood, this week’s violence and arsons were spread out, and the rioters included black, Hispanic and white residents, displaying a growing sense of despair.

The riot was a rainbow of anger.

“The police treat us very bad, too,” said Mr. Garcia, a 17-year-old Hispanic high school student. “People want justice. They hit Rodney King; we hit them. It cost them money to do us wrong this time.”

Don Terry, “Decades of Rage Created Crucible of Violence,” New York Times, May 3, 1992.

Black poet and scholar June Jordan spoke to the emotional heart of the riot, its refusal to accept and serve a social order, praising the youth at its forefront for their refusal to comply.

Is there horror? Is there heat unbearable? And is there light where, otherwise, we could not see ourselves? Is there an unexpected, unpredictable colossal energy alive and burning, uncontrolled, throughout America?

Behold my heart of darkness as it quickens now with rage! Behold the hundred— no, a thousand—young black men whose names you never knew/whose neighborhoods you squeezed into a place of helpless desolation/whose music you despised/whose backwards baseball caps and baggy jeans you sneered at/ whose mothers you denied assistance/whose fathers you inducted into the Army or you broke to alleyways where, crumbling at the marrow of their spine, they aged in bitterness.

Behold them now: revengeful, furious, defiant, and, for hours on end, at least, apparently invincible: They just keep moving, and the fires burn. And white kids and Chicanos and Chicanas join them, yes! And Asian-American teenagers join them, yes! There they stand or run, beside and among these young black men who will not bow down. They will not say, “OK. I am nobody. I have nothing. And you hate me and that’s fine! Where should I sign, now, for service to my country? Show me how to worship at the shrine of law and order.”

And what was the crime of Rodney King? He was a young black man, not yet dead, and not yet ready, and not yet willing to die: He was black. He should have been dead. He should not have been born.

Or, as defense attorneys for the police explained, Rodney King kept getting up on “all fours.” He wouldn’t stay down. He kept raising up his head. He kept rising and rising. He would not lie down. He never assumed “a compliant mode.”

And now we have Los Angeles in flames. The mode is nowhere compliant. People of color run around, or walk, without fear. We’re off our knees. Heads up, fists in the air, and fire everywhere.

June Jordan, “In the Light of the Fire,” 1992.

In April and May 1992, these two realities overlapped in Los Angeles. Antagonism with the police was real and ten people were killed by law enforcement during those six days. Throughout the city, people engaged in what Martin Luther King had called “a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution,” looting stores or setting them on fire. Despite the media’s characterization of the riots as Black-led, 51% of those arrested for rioting were Latinx, versus 36% African American. Yet, racial antagonisms took the forefront, notably between Blacks and the Korean American shopkeepers who were positioned and targeted as middlemen between them and the larger economic system. The killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper, and the latter’s November 1991 acquittal, sparked these tensions. Three quarters of the sixty deaths during the riots did not involve the police. In the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles, much of the property destruction was local, and one estimate found that “1,867 of 3,100 businesses destroyed or looted” were owned by Korean Americans.

The one thing that a “race riot” is not is an open invitation for rebellion, for co-participation across race lines. This framing, and on-the-street actions that define people as targets due to their race alone, limits the scope of an uprising, and (outside spaces where there is a single dominated racial group in the overwhelming majority) smothers any potential for collective change. I would argue that those with power, those who defend “the system” prefer that any rebellion against police authority take the form of a race riot. What they rightly fear most is a “rainbow riot,” a multiracial urban rebellion.

Yet that is the direction that collective outrage against police violence has been trending towards for a long time.

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