April 29, 1992 Los Angeles (Rodney King) Riot: Worst Race Riot in US History

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A Brief history

On April 29, 1992, the lower income areas of Los Angeles erupted with violence, pent up anger released after the acquittal of 4 white police officers accused of beating Rodney King, one of history’s most evil people, after a high speed pursuit.

Digging Deeper

The black community was on edge after the video taped beating of an African-American male (Rodney King) by the LAPD and the shooting death of a 15 year old African-American girl by a Korean grocer for stealing a drink worth less than $2.

Screenshots of King lying down and being beaten by LAPD officers

When the verdict from the all white jury was announced, African-Americans took to the streets in an angry and vengeful mood.  The greatly outnumbered LAPD was taped fleeing from confrontations with the mobs and also ignoring violence as it occurred.

Over the next 3 days violence claimed between 53 and 63 lives (depending on the source of your statistics) and hundreds of injuries. Over a billion dollars of damage was done to municipal and private property and almost 3,800 buildings were burned.  Eventually it took 13,000 police, National Guard, and Marines to restore order.

Marines disembark in Compton from their Humvees and trucks on May 2, 1992

Korean businesses were especially targeted as resentment against them had been building for a long time.  Reasons for resentment were the above listed killing and the feeling that Koreans looked down on African-Americans and were profiting from the black community with excessively high prices . Koreans of course had their own perspective, which was that prices had to be high because of either extremely high insurance costs or refusal of insurance companies to insure “ghetto” stores.  Additionally, a high theft and vandalism rate mandated high prices.

Burned buildings in Los Angeles

Almost half of all the private property damage done was to Korean owned properties, and the Koreans, frustrated with the perceived unwillingness or inability of the LAPD to protect them, fought back hard with firearms, firing thousands of rounds of warning shots and sometimes shooting looters.  Less than a quarter of the 2,600 ruined Korean businesses were reopened.

The Hispanic community also suffered, with almost all the other half of commercial losses incurred by Hispanic owned businesses.  About a third of the people killed were Hispanic, as well as nearly half of those arrested.

Ironically, the African-American community suffered the most, with more than half of the fatalities and injuries and the majority of the arrests.  Of the thousands arrested, many were later released without prosecution because of the inability of police officers to identify individual people with specific crimes.

The Caucasian community actually suffered the least, with only a few of the deaths, although here and there white people such as truck driver Reginald Denny were viciously assaulted, apparently just for being white. (Denny’s beating was also filmed.)

The 1992 Los Angeles riot was the second deadliest in US history, second only to the 1863 New York City anti-draft riot.  Few burned out buildings were replaced, and a large shift in population has occurred, with many African-Americans moving out and Hispanic-Americans moving in.  Although distrust and tensions with the police remain, that tension is far less than it was, and tensions between ethnic communities has also eased somewhat.

A drawing from a British newspaper showing armed rioters clashing with Union Army soldiers in New York City.

Numerous movies, books, and popular songs have featured aspects of the 1992 riot, so many that we cannot list them all here. Skeptics have alleged that the subsequent federal trial of the police officers resulted from a government effort to ease racial tensions and even that O.J. Simpson was found not guilty just to prevent new riots.  Did the riot hurt or help the African-American community?  Was the rioting, looting, murder and arson justified?  Did the media instigate the violence?  Was the temporary ban on firearm and ammunition sales a safety measure or did it leave helpless citizens unable to defend themselves?  Tell us what you think.

Simpson’s mugshot, 17 June 1994

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 Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Koon, Stacey.  Presumed Guilty: The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair.  Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1992.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.