I don’t know if it was the wisest thing to watch given my mood on Friday, but last night I watched National Geographic’s documentary on the LA riots of 1992. It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years, most painfully because we are in a place where I believe it would not take much for us to return to see this happen yet again.
The most striking part of the documentary was the juxtaposition of the riots of 1992 to the Watts Riots of 1965. Both were sparked by clashes between LAPD and the Black community, issues with police brutality, and the city’s tone-deaf response to these issues. What made the Rodney King incident different was that his March 1991 beating at the hands of four white police officers was recorded. The four officers were actually charged for the incident, but were later acquitted of all charges. Their acquittal on April 29, 1992 was the spark that lit the match of unrest and anger.
Another thing the documentary brought out was the compounding of frustrations that made the verdicts even more painful. In the same month that King was beaten by the officers, a Korean convenience store owner shot and killed a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins as she walked out of the store after a dispute over orange juice. This also was videotaped. Harlins can be seen walking to the counter with orange juice and money in hand. An argument ensued, with the store owner, Soon Ja Du grabbing for Harlins’ backpack. Du believed Harlins was trying to steal the orange juice, despite the presence of money in the girl’s hands. The two argued, and Harlins turned around to leave the store, money in hand and without orange juice. Du threw a stool at her and then grabbed her gun and shot Harlins in the back of the head.
Du was found guilty of manslaughter, but received a sentence of 5 years probation and 400 hours of community service for the crime. In her ruling, judge Joyce Karlin cited her belief that Du was unlikely to be a repeat offender as part of her reasoning for the sentence, saying that it was not at time for “revenge but for healing”. This was not sufficient for the Harlins family or the community and was seen as an appalling act of injustice and devaluing of the life of a Black teenager.
In essence, this verdict reinforced their belief that Black life meant nothing to the criminal justice system, therefore was deemed not worth defending. While revenge was not on the minds of most, justice most certainly was; and probation for the senseless death of a teenager did not feel like justice. As one person who was interviewed stated: “It is not racism that a Korean woman shot Latasha; it is racism that the justice system let her get away with it.” Tensions were high in the community as a result, and this is the atmosphere into which the King verdict was released. Like open flame to natural gas, it exploded on that fateful day.
Watching the documentary was hard. There was no commentary; it consisted completely of original footage from that time. In piecing together the story from the perspective of the police, the courts, city officials, state and federal government, and the news media, the producers excelled in portraying the build up of tension that led to the violent outbreak. The actions of news outlets seeking to bring the reality into the homes of Americans made what some would call crazy decisions as they covered the story, risking their lives to record the drama unfolding. One of the most dramatic scenes for me was a shootout in Koreatown, as Korean business owners armed themselves to protect their businesses from looters. With shots being fired all around them, you can hear the newscaster shout “Someone has been shot in that car? I think we need to get out of here.” The footage is raw and graphic, the anger and frustration and pain palpable. The senselessness of it all clear and poignant.
Rioting is a phenomenon I will never fully understand. I cannot condone it, but I can see and feel the pain and frustration that brings it to life. The feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. When you have nothing to lose, you can come to a point where you cease to care. When you have turned to the one place where you think you can find relief, and it lets you down, you feel as if you have nothing left to do. The anger and fury demand an outlet, and violence becomes the only option that seems available. It will get the attention of those who have refused to listen, those who have shown indifference to your pain, those who have even derided and demeaned you for those things that are out of your control.
But the rioting only causes those who were innocent to suffer, to lose. It brings attention, but not necessarily the kind that will bring lasting, tangible, real results that will make things better. And in the end, all lose, as the community where people must now live is left in disarray and devastation. Even more devastating than the loss of property and livelihood is the loss of life, and the reality that law enforcement now has tangible justification for heavy-handed tactics to tamp down crime, . And the vicious cycle continues on…
In the aftermath of the riots, over 1,000 structures were damaged or destroyed by looting and/or fire. Whole city blocks were reduced to smoldering rubble. South LA and Koreatown were the hardest hit, but fires were also set in areas like Hollywood. More than 60 people died during the riots, most of them Black and Latino. More than 2,000 people were injured. The cost of the damage has been estimated at over $1 billion.
The LA Riots of 1992 lasted for five days.
In many ways, I don’t believe we have gotten over the LA Riots. As I watched the documentary, I felt a tremble in my soul, as if to say, this can and will happen again. Comparing the Watts Riots of ’65 with the LA Riots of ’92, the same spark started the flame, the same frustrations mounted and were ignited with a single “final straw incident”, and the outcome was the same. People died and property was destroyed. Community leaders came together in the aftermath to clean up and call for peace and unity. City officials made promises to do better and address legitimate issues. But as time wore on and the memory faded, status quo returned, frustrations began to mount anew, as one incident piled on top of another with no resolution in sight until critical mass was reached. And we sit in this place now, walking ever closer to the edge of a large precipice that will plunge us into chaos yet again.
In his address to the nation, then President George H.W. Bush appealed to the rule of law, stating that we must allow the system to do its “slow work of justice”, even when we disagree with it. He denounced the rioting without acknowledging the underlying injustices that lead to such frustration and rage. We have waited for the “slow work of justice” – but in this case, it was the justice system that failed the people. It was the justice system that failed Latasha Harlins’ family. It was the justice system that the people did not trust. And it is the justice system that we still cannot trust. How then, shall we wait for it to “work”?
Tears streamed down my face as I watched last night. As if to add insult to injury, I watched a second time, and wept even louder. I am not a prophet, but I cannot shake the feeling that this will happen again. And who knows how it will turn out this time given who we have in the White House and at the helm of our Justice Department.
So much more to be said, but no time right now. More to come…
Grace and peace…