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

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.