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

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”:

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