Destruction in 1992 L.A. Upheaval: How law enforcement let the largest urban riot/rebellion rage on

 By
Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Illustration by Carl Robinette / Daily Sundial

Twenty years ago, our city convulsed with a tremor that could not be measured on the Richter scale. Fifty-three lives were lost, thousands were injured and property damage equaled $1 billion. The livelihoods of immigrants and small business owners – their American dream – were destroyed in the blink of an eye.The upheaval which occurred during the last week of April means different things to different people. Some call it a riot because it caused mass chaos and destruction; social activists may label it as an uprising or a rebellion by an impoverished and oppressed community in need of basic goods; for Korean Americans, the upheaval simply known as Sa-I-Gu, or “4-2-9,” the day when they lost everything and their civil rights were put to the test.

In hindsight of the week of destruction which transpired after Rodney King’s abusers were acquitted, today’s media offers slightly better analysis and reporting about the largest urban riot in American history, than when the events went down. More Korean and black and Latino South L.A. residents are being directly asked to share their experiences, their voices obscured by the talking heads 20 years ago. There is even some healthy criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department’s lack of response to the violence.

Still, the conversation never seems to get past the idea of the “black-Korean” conflict, Rodney King and black anger. This is because the L.A. “riots” were in many ways, indicative of the desperation plaguing poor communities of color, something that greater society chooses to ignore and minimize as a cultural or racial problem, rather than an institutional issue. In the year leading up to the riots, the mainstream media did not examine the complex causes of poverty and violence within South L.A., but hyped up the minimal “black-Korean” conflict, after a young black girl was shot by a Korean liquor store owner.

The week of upheaval 20 years ago is proof that these poor communities of color did not matter to those in power. The first day, the few LAPD officers deterring people from mayhem pulled out of the community, leaving no consequence for those seeking to burn and loot. This day saw an explosion of violence. One famous incident of which was the beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was pulled from his vehicle at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenue by black men and severely beaten. This intersection was the site of a second case of exteme violence, the lesser known beating and robbery of Guatemalen immigrant, Fidel Lopez.

For about a week, Koreatown and South L.A. residents were left to fend for themselves and thousands of businesses were destroyed. According to accounts by Radio Korea, Korean-American business owners repeatedly called 911, but were told that they were on their own. Korean-American men, not willing to give up their livelihoods so easily, took up arms to protect their businesses and ran into burning buildings to save their cash registers and any merchandise they could manage.

Where were the police? According to Dr. Tracy Buenavista, professor of Asian-American studies at CSUN, many armed personnel were sent to north and west Los Angeles, concerned that the violence would spread to areas like Beverly Hills.

“What a lot of the research shows is that the primary responsibility of the military that were present was to geographically constrain this violence from moving into the more affluent white suburbs of Los Angeles,” Buenavista said. “The presence of police and military was really there to concentrate the actions within this already downtrodden area… their presence wasn’t there to actually stop the events.”

“It’s really impossible to believe that they could not stop these events from occurring,” Buenavista said. In first six hours of the riots, thousands of national guardsmen were deployed to the city. According to libcom.org,  5,000 LAPD officers, 1,000 sheriff’s deputies, 950 county marshals, 2,300 highway patrol cops, 9,975 National Guard troops, 3,500 Army troops and Marines with armored vehicles and 1,000 Federal Marshals, FBI agents and border patrol SWAT invaded the city to quell the unrest on May 1.

With over 10,000 armed personnel, the riots should have stopped on the third day, at the very latest. Instead, it took six days to completely stomp out violence and crime, and as a result of the surge of armed enforcement, the death toll climbed to 53.

According to Buenavista, the policing continued for weeks after the upheaval, when a curfew was set in the worst parts of the city. During this time, more than 11,000 people were arrested – mostly black and Latino – directing the already traumatized and policed citizens of South L.A. into jails.

“The prison industrial complex was and is still treated like the solution to our political, social and economic problems,” Buenavista said.
It seems ironic that the immediate solution to civil unrest sparked by excused police brutality, was to invade these communities with thousands of armed personnel with the mission not to protect the people from violence, but to punish and police more victims and send them to prisons.

The L.A. upheaval still mystifies some because of the extensive violence and lack of institutional help for poor people of color residing in Koreatown and South L.A. In our collective memory, we must not forget that these events were part of an outbreak of a disease caused by private and governmental divestment, social stigmatization and marginalization and the ease at which our society wants to incarcerate and criminalize citizens.

 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Disclaimer: The Daily Sundial is not responsible for comments posted on dailysundial.com. In accordance with the Communications Decency Act of 1996 the Sundial is not liable for the content of comments. By commenting, all persons posting on dailysundial.com have agreed to our comment policy. If a comment does not abide by the comment policy the Sundial reserves the right to delete comments without warning. The Daily Sundial advises persons commenting not to abuse their First Amendment rights, and to avoid comments of hate speech or encouraging violence.

  • JoeKirkup

    What pathetic and unmitigated crap.
    Joe Kirkup
    http://www.joekirkup.com

  • Michelangelo_L

    I actually have to side with Oh on this one, at least at the core. When resources are low or a decision must otherwise be made, certain segments of the city get shafted in favor of certain other ones. 

    I grew up in Koreatown and saw first hand how slow police were to respond to an emergency there. You were more likely to see a police officer leaving you a parking ticket than you were of seeing them at a crime scene. I gave up the idea of ever getting decent service in Koraetown when, after reporting a shooting, police didn’t show up till the next day. I want to think I simply had the misfortune of seeing isolated cases, but I doubt it. I’m not too big a fan of the LAPD (or LAUSD while we’re at it), and I wish that the San Fernando Valley secession movement had succeeded. A more locally run police department would definitively improve in efficiency.

     I am disappointed that gun rights weren’t brought up in this article. In the absence of being adequately protected by LAPD, and other authorities, many people ended up having to protect themselves and their property with their own guns during the riots. I can’t find it right now, but there is this one photo of a korean standing on top of his business during the riots holding off muggers with a rifle. The authorities could have definitively done more to have avoided that mess. For starters, they could have rolled back on the gun control laws.

    • BurgerLess

      LAPD has slow response time everywhere. Not just Koreatown. It is all about resources that are spread too thin. The LAPD is made up of honorable men and women serving the community. But I don’t want to see a cop on every street corner. Absent riots and natural disasters, I think we have just enough law enforcement to get the job done.

      • Michelangelo_L

        The LAPD is made of some honorable men and women. Just like any profession is made of some honorable men and women.

        On the average though.. Police etiquette could certainly be improved.  

        I do agree that we have an issue about resources being spread thin. Which is why I point out an observation that it seems like certain districts of the city have faster response times than others. I think that the valley would benefit greatly from becoming an independent city and assuming control of its own police department. 

        Law enforcement is, I believe, paradoxically two large and too small in the city. Response times for violent crimes are embarrassing, yet we have far too many officers devoted to victimless crimes such as drug possession, or traffic violations. 

  • BurgerLess

    What should the police have done? They were overwhelmed by the situation. If there were a sufficient police presence for such an event, we would be living in a police state.

    What would you have had the National Guard do? Shoot a few people for looting? All they were capable of doing, they did. 

    All the rioters managed to do was; wreck their own communities and drive away capital investment.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/BE3TPYFCPRJQ6NNOP6PFGGH3N4 ambrit

    Dear Mz Oh;
    As one living in Mississippi, I am no stranger to the ‘demonization’ rationale. Despite the comment from the Troll above, your mentioning of the pattern of deployment of the enforcement troops does more than suggest a paternalistic mind set at work among the ‘elites’ who managed the response to the civil unrest of ’92. We here in the Deep South are very familiar with this sort of thinking. From the Post-Reconstruction period on down to today the power elites here have acted with the assurance of aristocrats. The ’92 civil unrest shows your coast has the same dynamic at work.
    May I suggest that race is a straw man arguement? The better term for it would be class. Pitting two ‘peoples of colour’ against each other is a tactic as old as civilization itself. A perfect example is the Byzantine chariot cliques in Constantinople during the Eastern Empire days. So what if the Greens and the Blues riot against each other? At least the two of them aren’t thinking it through and joining forces to riot against the wealthy and powerful. So, the deployment of troops to guard the upper class areas like Beverly Hills makes perfect sense.

  • David the small-L libertarian


    It seems ironic that the immediate solution to civil unrest sparked by excused police brutality, was to invade these communities with thousands of armed personnel with the mission not to protect the people from violence, but to punish and police more victims and send them to prisons.


    Huh?  Do you just make this stuff up?


    In our collective memory, we must not forget that these events were part of an outbreak of a disease caused by private and governmental divestment, social stigmatization and marginalization and the ease at which our society wants to incarcerate and criminalize citizens.


    Silly me!  I just thought this was caused by criminals and others with broken moral compasses.  Thanks again, Ms. Oh, for another, shall I say, “enlightening” piece.