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It seemed like just another L.A. police chase in an era before such events were carried live on local TV stations. When the chase ended, the police felt the African-American driver was acting aggressively, so they beat him severely as he lay face down on the street. In the space of a few minutes they kicked him, shocked him twice with a taser gun and smashed his head with baton blows. By the time Rodney King was handcuffed and in police custody, he had sustained kidney damage and eleven skull fractures.
It seemed like just another night for the LAPD when they filed a false report on the arrest and Officer Laurence Powell, who had done most of the beating, taunted King at the hospital: "We had a pretty good handball game tonight. You lost and we won." Later Powell bragged in a computer message: "I haven't beat anyone this bad in a long time."
What made this night different was that some of the incident had been videotaped by a nearby resident from the balcony of his home. The following day, March 4, 1991, the public was shocked and outraged by the brutality of the beating as the tape was broadcast all over the world. Because of the publicity, prosecutors were forced to file charges against some of the officers involved.
Four white Los Angeles police officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and using excessive force. The trial was moved from L.A. to a mostly white suburb in Ventura County. On April 29, 1992 all four defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury. Within hours the serenity of a warm Los Angeles afternoon was shattered by violence. Starting in South Central L.A., where some of the city's poorest neighborhoods are located, the anger fueled an ever-widening circle of destruction.
The rebellion was triggered by the verdict, but its roots went much deeper. In the midst of a national recession, unemployment in African-American and Latino neighborhoods was at depression-era levels. And there were ethnic tensions too. Many blacks resented the way they were treated by Korean merchants whose small businesses benefited from being situated in black communities.
During the next three days large pockets of anarchy developed over fifty square miles of Los Angeles, essentially shutting down the nation's second largest city. A dawn to dusk curfew was imposed. Looting was widespread as the poor suddenly saw a way to help "redistribute the wealth." Over one thousand buildings were set on fire, including most of the Korean businesses in the South Central district. Dozens of people were killed. Thousands were injured and arrested before troops from the Army, Marines and California National Guard were able to restore order. King appeared on TV to stutter his now famous words: "Can we all just get along?" The uprising was called the worst riot in modern U.S. history.
A year later, two of the police officers were tried again in federal court. This time Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon were convicted of violating the civil rights of Rodney King and each were sentenced to thirty months in prison.
When the Rodney King uprising began I was living in the heart of Koreatown. During the first day and a half of rioting I cowered in my apartment, watching the action on TV like it was a big-budget disaster movie. I could hear the news choppers overhead as I watched aerial scenes of stores burning just a block away. From my window I could see the smoke from dozens of fires. Koreans dressed in battle fatigues and carrying assault rifles prowled the roof of my local Korean grocery store. Every time there was a burst of automatic weapons fire, I heard a woman scream in the apartment upstairs. Fear and danger infused the smoky air.
On the first of May I bravely ventured outside with my camera. There was still some looting going on and a few buildings continued to burn. But the atmosphere had changed. The streets were filled with local residents who chatted excitedly with strangers and took snapshots of firefighters that raced from one fire to another. In the warm spring sunshine it almost seemed like a festival. For the most part, there were no police in sight. Over the next few days, as the troops began to take back the streets of L.A., I photographed some of the scenes of destruction. Some of those pictures are presented here.
LINKS TO RELATED PAGES ON THIS SITE
LINKS TO RELATED PAGES ON OTHER SITES
L.A. Police Officers' Trials
Everything you wanted to know about the trials of the four L.A. police officers accused in the beating of Rodney King.
Los Angeles Riot Research Page
Links to other pages about the uprising.
Los Angeles-A City in Stress
For the serious researcher: key government studies and documents produced in the aftermath of the Rodney King rebellion.