The Untold Story of the LA Riot

The prevailing view about its causes is flawed. The unsettling truth is that incompetence, alcohol, greed and hatred helped make it happen.

National Guardsmen watch a business go up in flames in South Los Angeles on April 30, 1992.

National Guardsmen watch a business go up in flames in South Los Angeles on April 30, 1992.

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Well before he heard the first siren, Rodney King knew he never should have slipped that key into the ignition. They had been having so much fun, he and his buddies Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, just kicking back, sipping some inexpensive 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor at the local park as they jawed and laughed while the daylight ebbed away. Afterward, they had stood in front of Allen's mom's house trying to croon a few tunes. King wasn't much of a singer but, when he switched to rapping, his buddies felt he was almost in a groove. And then it was after midnight, and suddenly King was driving his car, flying down the highway at 80 miles per hour, the radio blaring, he and Allen singing again, and then there it was—the flashing light atop the highway patrol car bouncing off his rearview mirror, filling his car with a red light that King had learned to dread.

King knew, as he later testified, that he was drunk and that if the police caught him speeding he'd soon be back in prison for violating parole. The fact was that liquor had tempted and cursed him for years. His father, an alcoholic, died at age 42, and King himself had built up quite a tolerance for "eightballs," the street name for Olde English 800, a high-alcohol beer. That evening King had consumed enough eightballs—roughly the equivalent of a case of regular 12-ounce beers—to put his blood alcohol level at twice the legal limit. But he wanted still more: When he spotted the highway patrol car behind him around 12:40 a.m., he had just exited the freeway on his way to another liquor store. Once the chase began, he ran red lights, pushed the speedometer up to 80 mph in 35 mph speed zones and ignored the hollered pleas of his childhood friend Allen to please "pull over." By the time King finally stopped, nearly 8 miles later, a small army of cop cars had joined the chase and a Los Angeles Police Department chopper was whirring overhead.

A Los Angeles jury decided last month that nothing King did justifies his manhandling by the LAPD. But even those who testified against the police described an encounter that was complicated by King's drunkenness. They say he responded slowly or not at all to commands to lie down and place his hands above his head. He smiled and danced a little pitter-patter, waving to the helicopter; he threw a kiss and wiggled his butt at a female officer who had ordered him, at gunpoint, to lie down; finally, he heaved four male officers off his back who tried to handcuff him and seemed to shrug it off when police stunned him with a Taser. King's behavior so alarmed the arresting officers that they mistakenly assumed he was on PCP. A second Taser dart fired by Sgt. Stacey Koon failed to incapacitate the 6-foot, 3-inch, 225-pound King. Then, across the street, an amateur videotaper named George Holliday turned on his camcorder and taped the conclusion of what soon became the most infamous beating in history. George Bush later called the footage "revolting." Afterward, as King lay hogtied on the ground, the bloodied, angry victim alternately laughed and cursed into the chilly night air. "F--- you!" he screamed. "F--- you!"

THE 'REBELLION'

The story of how the worst American riot in this century began is a little like the story of Rodney King's beating: By now it has been twisted into a series of half-truths and misconceptions. Just as King was not simply a speeding motorist who was beaten after a routine traffic stop, so, too, the analyses of the roots of the Los Angeles riot require some revision. The official version runs roughly as follows: Angry blacks, indignant over a suburban jury's decision on April 29, 1992, to acquit four LAPD cops in the King beating, started the riot by pulling white trucker Reginald Denny from the cab of his truck and then beating him brutally to avenge the King beating. The subsequent riot was bred out of decades of racism and police brutality and nourished by the enraging conditions of ghetto life: unemployment, poverty, family breakdown, gangs, drugs, welfare and Reagan-era cutbacks in aid. When it was over, more than 50 people lay dead, 2,300 had been injured and $1 billion in property had been damaged.

A rioter breaks a glass door of the Criminal Courts building in downtown Los Angeles on April 29, 1992.
A rioter breaks a glass door of the Criminal Courts building in downtown Los Angeles on April 29, 1992.

No one doubts that deprivation and bitterness fill many neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles or that outrage at the cops' acquittal set the stage for the riot. But there are two core premises to the official version of the riot that are wrong in some instances and exaggerated in others. The first is that the grim conditions of South Central and the surprise acquittals combined to make a riot inevitable. The second is that the Los Angeles riot was fundamentally a massive protest over social injustice. Many liberal commentators, as well as prominent black and Latino Angelenos, now insist that the riot should be referred to as a "rebellion" or an "uprising." The men accused of beating, trampling and robbing Reginald Denny have thus been dubbed the "L.A. Four"—a moniker usually reserved for political martyrs.

The true story of the riot is more disquieting. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it began in one of South Central's better-off neighborhoods. Avenging Rodney King was only superficially present in the minds of those who started the riot at the now infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues. And the young men who nearly killed Reginald Denny were distinguished neither by their notoriety as thugs (as some conservatives would have it) nor by their militancy (as some liberals suggest).



A richer explanation of the riot's genesis must extend beyond the usual suspects. Neighborhood loyalties and simple greed motivated the mob as much as the desire to right a warped system of justice. And a massive riot might not have occurred at all were it not for a Keystone Kops performance by the LAPD. Liquor played a little-noticed role throughout the disaster, from King's arrest to the attacks at Florence and Normandie to the targets of the looters (story, Page 57). Last, and most sad, blacks attacked Anglos and Hispanics because of their skin color. Thankfully, numerous black bystanders dissented from that racial litmus test, coming to the rescue of the victims.v The popular understanding of how the riot began is based on the much replayed television clip of one incident, the beating of Denny. Once seen, the gruesome footage is indelible. Even so, it actually understates the reign of terror that prevailed at Florence and Normandie. U.S. News has reconstructed a fuller picture of how this epic riot started by interviewing residents, businessmen, police officers, reporters and photographers who were present at ground zero and by reviewing court records, police radio transmissions and amateur videotapes taken on the ground during the violence.

Collectively, they show how several dozen victims were assaulted and robbed. Sometimes, the perpetrators raged as they attacked passing motorists and pedestrians. Yet just as often they cheered, laughed and even danced. Their unadulterated language is profane and occasionally chilling. But as the opening of the divisive Denny trial looms this summer, a candid reassessment of the outbreak may assist officials in preventing future disturbances and help Americans understand just what it means to grow up in South Central Los Angeles.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD

At first glance, the area around Florence and Normandie seems an unlikely site to start a riot. There are virtually no high-rises or housing projects, the streets are wide and uncluttered and the vast majority of blocks consist of single-level, owner-occupied homes with neat lawns and trim hedges. Families—about 3 in 4 are black—hold weekend barbecues, friends pull up chairs to play outdoor games of dominoes and kids race around on 12-speed bikes. In the census tract that was home to Reginald Denny's attackers, 1 in 6 black households made more than $50,000 in 1990, and the majority of black males work. By contrast, in South Central as a whole, more than half of all residents age 16 and over don't hold jobs.

Ironically, the comparative success of the Florence and Normandie neighborhood may have made it a candidate for havoc. After the riots of the 1960s, sociologists found that neighborhoods characterized by "relative deprivation" were more often riot flash points than were the worst slums. Once some residents start seeing neighbors achieve upward mobility, expectations can get both raised and dashed. During the 1980s, the area around Florence and Normandie improved in economic terms: The poverty rate dropped from 33 percent to 21 percent, and even the proportion of households headed by single mothers dipped. Covetousness, more than rage, filled the streets. One example: The 1991 homicide rate in this census tract was not much above that of the average U.S. community; the robbery rate was nearly four times the national average.