On this dayMay 04, 1992

Five Days of Unrest After Rodney King Beating Trial Ends in No Convictions

Image |  African American Registry

In late April 1992, residents of Los Angeles, California, took to the streets to protest after four police officers captured on video beating an unarmed black man named Rodney King during a traffic stop, a year earlier, faced no punishment at trial; three of the officers were acquitted while jurors were unable to agree on a verdict for the fourth. The jury included no African Americans.

The video of Mr. King's violent arrest in March 1991 depicted the four officers kicking and striking him with batons for nearly 15 minutes, while more than a dozen law enforcement officers stood by. Mr. King sustained life-threatening injuries, including skull fractures and permanent brain damage. Video of the unrelenting assault was played at trial and broadcasted into homes across the nation and around the world.

The legal system’s refusal to hold the officers accountable seemed to compound the years of anger and despair within the Los Angeles black community that had endured decades of racial discrimination, violence, and police brutality. Many community members found the outcome inexplicable, since the officers’ conduct had been caught on camera, and similar to other recent tragedies. The same month that Rodney King was beaten, a Korean store owner in South Central Los Angeles shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins after accusing her of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. Latasha was clutching money when she was killed, but the store owner received only probation and a $500 fine. 

The same day the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial was announced, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley responded, “The jury’s verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.” Meanwhile, members of the Los Angeles black community spilled out into the streets and channeled their outrage and anguish into a five-day uprising. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots ended on May 4, 1992, resulting in an estimated $1 billion in property damage, 58 deaths, and countless injuries and arrests.

In the summer of 1965, similar unrest had broken out in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood after police beat and arrested two young black men following a traffic stop. A commission convened to investigate the so-called "Watts Riots" concluded that the unrest stemmed from black residents’ dissatisfaction with policing, high rates of unemployment, and inadequate schools. Despite these conclusions, little changed in the decades that followed.

In 1991, just months before the unrest sparked by the King beating verdict, a federal court concluded that Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies continued to use racially motivated “terrorist-type tactics” to violate the civil rights of African Americans.

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