1992: The LA riots

A brief account of the six days of rioting which set Los Angeles aflame following the acquittal of four police officers who were filmed beating black motorist Rodney King.

Submitted by Ed on September 19, 2006

"There's a difference between frustration with the law and direct assaults upon our legal system."
- George Bush Snr., May 3rd, 1992.

The first rocks started to fly as the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King and the jury who acquitted them were leaving the courtroom in suburban Simi Valley. Subsequent to the acquittal, on the afternoon of April 29th 1992, thousands of people began pouring into the streets of Los Angeles. In a few hours rioting spread across the LA metropolitan area. Conditions rapidly approached the level of civil war. The police withdrew from the main areas of fighting, ceding the streets to the insurgent poor. Systematic burnings of capitalist enterprises commenced. More than 5,500 buildings burned. People shot at cops on the street and at media and police helicopters. Seventeen government buildings were destroyed.

The Los Angeles Times was attacked and looted. A vast canopy of smoke from the buildings covered the LA Basin. Flights out of LA airport were cancelled and incoming flights had to be diverted due to the smoke and sniper fire.

The rioting was the single most violent episode of social unrest in the US in the twentieth century, far outstripping the urban revolts of the 1960s both in sheer destructiveness and in the fact that the riots were a multiracial revolt of the poor. In the initial phase of the LA riots, the police were rapidly overwhelmed and retreated, and the military did not appear until the rioting had abated.

The New York Times noted:

"Some areas took on the atmosphere of a street party as black, white, Hispanic and Asian residents mingled to share in a carnival of looting. As the greatly outnumbered police looked on, people of all ages (and genders), some carrying small children, wandered in and out of supermarkets with shopping bags and armloads of shoes, liquor, radios, groceries, wigs, auto parts, gumball machines and guns".

The 30,000 square foot military enlistment centre for all nine counties of Southern California was burned to the ground on the first night. The state portrayed the rioting as an episode of indiscriminate mayhem where rioters attacked each other like sharks in a feeding frenzy.

While most media coverage and subsequent histories have focussed on a few negative events, such as the horrific beating of truck driver Reginald Denny, in fact crimes against people, such as rape and drive-by shootings, virtually disappeared as previously atomised working people of different colours and ethnicities came together in mass collective violence, proletarian shopping [looting] and a potlatch of destruction. There were far fewer rapes and muggings during the period than there are in LA under the normal rule of law. on a conservative estimate, more than 100,000 rebel poor in the greater LA area have now collectively experienced, in arson, looting and violence against the police, the intelligent use of violence as a political weapon. The number of participants in the uprising is well into the six-figure range. We know this because there were around 11,000 arrests (5,000 black, 5,500 Latino, 600 white) and the vast majority of participants got away scot-free.

Following the lead of events in the nation's cultural capital, mass spontaneous rioting spread to several dozen cities across the US. In San Francisco more than a hundred stores were looted and rich areas were attacked. One of the large posh hotels had its windows smashed by a gang of youths chanting "The Rich Must Die". Protesters marched o­nto the Interstate Freeway, causing a massive tailback affecting several hundred thousand car commuters. In San Jose, students looted and attacked police cruisers. Police were shot at in Tampa, Florida, and in Las Vegas, armed rioters burned a state parole and probation office. Armed confrontations between the police and locals continued in Las Vegas for the next 18 days. In Seattle a burning police car was pushed into police ranks and there was loads of looting, smashing and burning in downtown Seattle. Similar events happened all over the US.

On May 2nd, 5,000 LAPD, 1,000 Sheriff's Deputies, 950 County Marshals and 2,300 Highway Patrol cops, accompanied by 9,975 National Guard troops, 3,500 Army troops and Marines with armoured vehicles and 1,000 Federal Marshals, FBI agents and Border Patrol SWAT teams moved in to restore order and guard the shopping malls. Hundreds were wounded. Most of the people killed in the uprising were killed in the repression of the revolt. After much fighting and the largest mass arrest in US history the LA 92 insurrection came to a close.

Edited by libcom from an article in Anarchy - A Journal of Desire Armed, No.34, Autumn 1992. Photo by Hyungwon Kang (kang.org)