Los Angeles Riots – Speculating About Causes
May 14, 2012 Born of Neglect – The Los Angeles Riots “It was the city that failed…It was police management, past and present, that has failed. This has to be taken into account to reflect a just and fair sentence…There simply has to be some allowance for the official negligence of the city which allowed this to take place and which will take place again” (qtd. in Cannon 3) On April 29, 1992, the day the verdict in the Rodney King trial was read, I was seventeen years old.
Standing in the living room, I watched the news with my parents as they waited for the verdict.
When the four “not guilty” verdicts were announced, I asked my parents why the police were found not guilty if they were caught on tape, that didn’t seem fair. My mom answered, “No one ever said life is fair. ” This was news to me; however the people of Los Angeles had learned this lesson the hard way. The people of L. A. and the justice system have had a long and rocky relationship. There have been three major riots in L. A. since 1942, and coincidentally or not, each has a direct correlation with racial bias of the judicial system.
While there is good cause to question whether mob mentality took over and created the riots themselves, the circumstances that created the perfect atmosphere for violence cannot be discounted. The Zoot Suit Riots of 1942 involved the predominately Mexican youth of central L. A. and the predominately white servicemen that had been stationed there. Tension between the two had been building, partly due to the servicemen’s rowdy behavior and perceived disrespect to the Mexican community, and partly due to the Mexican youth’s territorialism and pride.
Due to the current wartime state of the country however, the media and most citizens gave favor to the servicemen, and portrayed the Mexican Zoot Suitors as gangsters and troublemakers. When Jose Diaz was discovered murdered, the media and police were quick to label it a gang killing. The subsequent arrests and trial were such a charade of justice that all of the convictions were later overturned. However, the resentment the Mexican youth had for being treated so unfairly simmered, and created the tinderbox that ignited the Zoot Suit Riots. In 1965 the L. A. P. D. ulled over Marquette Frye, a young black man suspected of drunk driving. Frye was new to L. A. , and did not realize the seriousness of the police in L. A. He attempted to joke with the officers, and being close to his home, Frye’s mother arrived on the scene and began to scold Frye for getting into trouble. At this time a crowd had begun to form, and look on as the police used their batons to subdue Frye, his mother, and his cousin with excessive force. The crowd began throwing things at the police, and the rumblings of what became the worst riot in Los Angeles’s history began.
Unlike the previous riots, The Los Angeles Riot of 1992 started abruptly. Still, there was a general distrust between the L. A. P. D and the people of Los Angeles, and many complaints of police brutality were ignored. In March of 1991 a fifteen year old girl named Latasha Harlins walked into a Korean-owned store to buy some juice. She had her money in her hand, but put the juice into her backpack before she paid. The store owner, Soon Ja Du, perceived Latasha to be stealing, and grabbed her arm. Latasha struck Soon Ja Du and knocked her down.
She threw the juice on the counter, and turned to leave the store. Soon Ja Du pulled out a gun and shot Latasha in the back of the head as she was leaving, and instantly killed her. The community went into an uproar, and racial tension was stronger than ever. Soon Ja Du went to trial and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and her recommended sentence was sixteen years. When she went before the judge for sentencing however, the judge assigned her five years probation, 400 hours community service, and a $500 fine.
During this same time period, a black man named Rodney King was pulled over after leading the police on a high speed chase, and brutally beaten by five white police officers. The police were unknowingly being videotaped, and the tape was released to the public. The trial of the officers involved was followed by the entire country, and the conviction of the officers seemed a sure thing. When a white jury returned four “not guilty” verdicts to an already tense city, it had the effect of setting a match to a fuse. The verdicts were announced at 3:15pm; 45 minutes later a flash mob formed at the intersection of Florence and Normandie.
The group of people, angry and betrayed, began throwing bricks, shouting, and breaking windows. When the police arrived, they did not call for back-up to control the situation immediately, and instead retreated. The police formed barricades around the city, effectively protecting the upscale neighborhoods surrounding the city, as well as trapping anyone who might have wanted to escape. Around this time the line between righteous anger and mob mentality may have become blurred. In the full scale riot that ensued, building were looted and burned down, pedestrians were brutalized, and some were killed.
One of the most remembered events of the riots was the live broadcast of Reginald Denny being dragged from the cab of his truck, knocked down, and being beaten with a fire extinguisher, hammer, and brick. In retrospect many people considered this a hate crime, because Denny was white. However, some people consider this merely a crime of opportunity, with Denny simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Duncan, Hugh Dalziel. Introduction. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. By Kenneth Burke. 1935. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. xiii-xliv. Print.