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Rodney King and the Los Angeles Race Riots

Written by: Michael Parrish, UC San Diego

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of continuing policy debates about the role of the federal government over time

Suggested Sequencing

Use this narrative with the Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing Narrative; the Tech Giants: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates Narrative; the Is Affirmative Action Justified? Point-Counterpoint; and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1987 Primary Source to discuss domestic issues between 1980 and the present day.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Los Angeles, California, endured considerable domestic turmoil, suffering violent and destructive urban riots that erupted in the wake of confrontations between African Americans and the police. And like many of the recent encounters that have escalated into fatal shootings, those in 1965 in the Watts area of Los Angeles and in 1991 on Foothill Boulevard involving Rodney King each began with a traffic violation.

Unlike older, urban, African American communities in the East and Midwest, which were mostly products of the first Great Migration by southern blacks during and after World War I, the neighborhoods of Watts and Compton in Los Angeles had drawn African Americans because of the job opportunities associated with massive military spending during World War II. With its single-family bungalows, Watts did not have the outward appearance of the stereotypical black ghetto of the East and Midwest. But like the others, it remained rigidly segregated by means of racial covenants that kept blacks from moving into white neighborhoods. It suffered an unemployment rate double that of the city at large, its schools were underfunded, and public transportation was virtually nonexistent. In the 1960s, the predominantly white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was headed by Chief William H. Parker, a strict disciplinarian who had raised the department’s standards while maintaining law and order in Watts.

In 1964, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination in employment and public accommodations. In August 1965, African Americans in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the nation celebrated historic progress in ending racial injustice when the president signed the Voting Rights Act passed by Congress. But on August 11, five days after the Voting Rights Act took effect, a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer on his motorcycle stopped 21-year-old Marquette Frye, an African American, for driving his mother’s 1955 Buick erratically. The officer placed Frye under arrest for reckless driving after administering a sobriety test. Frye’s brother brought their mother, Rena Price, who lived nearby, to the scene of the arrest, where she initially reprimanded her son for drinking and driving but soon became involved in a shouting and shoving match with the CHP officer and members of the LAPD who had been called as back up.

By the time the police placed the two other Frye family members under arrest, a large crowd of their supporters had gathered around the officers, cursing and pelting them with debris. The crowds grew larger that night along Avalon Boulevard and assaulted the LAPD force with rocks and pieces of concrete. A meeting of community leaders and the police broke down the next day as looting and arson erupted in what had become a 40-square-mile riot zone in Los Angeles. Chief Parker equated the scene with the war in Vietnam, denounced the rioters as “monkeys in the zoo,” and called for the aid of 2,300 members of the California National Guard, who arrived on August 13, along with 16,000 other law enforcement officers from across the region. By the time the Watts riot was quashed on August 15, approximately 3,500 people had been arrested (mostly for violating an 8 p.m. curfew), 34 had died (23 shot by either guardsmen or police), and 1,000 private businesses or public buildings had been looted, damaged, or destroyed, at a cost of $40 million.

A bird's eye view of the city covered in smoke from burning buildings.

Arsonists set fire to buildings during the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles.

In the wake of the Watts explosion, the first of similar urban riots that rocked American cities during the 1960s, Governor Brown appointed a commission, headed by former CIA director John A. McCone, to investigate its causes. McCone’s 100-page report, “Violence in the City – An End or a Beginning?”, argued that the origins of the riot were found in the deplorable social and economic conditions endured by Los Angeles’s African Americans: police hostility and indifference, few job opportunities, inferior schools, and the absence of access to health care and other social services.

In the year of the Watts riot, Rodney King was born in Sacramento, California, into a troubled household with four other children and an alcoholic father, who died at the age of 42 in 1984 after the family moved to Altadena, near Los Angeles. Five years later, King had his first brush with the law when he robbed a convenience store in Monterey Park, assaulted its Korean-born owner, and made off with $200 in cash. King was arrested, tried, and convicted, and he remained in prison until the winter of 1990.

During the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, after a night of heavy drinking, King and some companions were speeding down the Foothill Freeway in his 1987 Hyundai when they were spotted by two CHP officers who gave chase but could not force the vehicle to stop. King feared his arrest while intoxicated would lead to a parole violation. He left the freeway and continued to elude his pursuers by speeding through residential neighborhoods, with LAPD patrol cars and a police helicopter soon joining the chase. Finally trapped, King’s car was surrounded by the two CHP officers and five LAPD officers – Stacy Koon, Laurence Powell, Rolando Solano, Ted Briseno, and Tim Ward. The CHP officers ordered King’s two companions out of the car; these two men later claimed they were struck on the head, beaten, and kicked while on the ground. When King emerged from the vehicle, officers said he acted in a bizarre manner, waving to the helicopter above and stomping on the ground. At this point, Officer Koon, who had asserted LAPD jurisdiction over the arrest, twice tasered King and ordered the four other officers to subdue him.

What happened next was captured on a camcorder by George Holliday, a nearby apartment dweller, in a 79-second recording showing King resisting the officer and the officers responding by striking King with their batons and kicking him 30 times. Koon later acknowledged that he urged Powell and Wind to hit King with “power strokes . . . hit his joints, hit the wrists, hit his elbows, hit his knees, hit his ankles.” Taken to a nearby hospital while under arrest, King was diagnosed with a broken ankle, a broken facial bone, and multiple lacerations.

Holliday took his videotape to KTLA, a local television station, which edited a few seconds and then broadcast the graphic display of police brutality. Viewing the tape, President George H. W. Bush told reporters, “What I saw made me sick. It’s sickening to see the beating that was recorded. There’s no way in my view to explain it away. It was outrageous.”

The Holliday video also sparked searing anger among the city’s African Americans. As a result, four of the LAPD officers went to trial on charges of assault and the use of excessive force. Given the widespread media coverage in Los Angeles, the defendants were granted a change of venue to suburban Simi Valley in Ventura Country, where they faced a black prosecutor but a jury with nine middle-class whites. On April 29, 1992, after seven days of deliberation, the jury acquitted all four of assault, and three of the four of using excessive force (the jury could not reach a verdict on the fourth officer). The Rodney King riots exploded a few hours after the verdicts as both African Americans and Latinos vented their rage at the police, white pedestrians and motorists, and Korean American businesspeople as well as their shops and stores.

Over the next six days, rioters committed 7,000 acts of arson and damaged 3,000 businesses in Los Angeles, resulting in financial losses that approached $1 billion. By the time the California National Guard, the U.S. Army, and the Marine Corps restored order, more than 60 people had been killed and 2,300 injured, including a hapless white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who was stopped and beaten by a mob at an intersection before being rescued by passersby. This incident was also filmed and broadcast nationally. Other uprisings occurred across the nation in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta. In the midst of the carnage, on May 1, 1992, King made a memorable appearance on local television where he appealed to rioters to calm down: “I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids. . . . it’s just not right – it’s not right.”

United States soldiers jump out of the back of a truck.

The National Guard was deployed to Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots in 1992.

In the fall of 1992, the Department of Justice secured federal civil rights indictments against Stacy Koon and three of the other officers for “failing to take action to stop an unlawful assault” and “intentionally using unreasonable force.” The four went to trial in March 1993. The jury found Koon and Powell guilty, and they were sentenced to 30 months in prison. Wind and Briseno were acquitted on all charges. King himself sued Los Angeles for negligence and was awarded $3.8 million. Mayor Tom Bradley appointed a commission headed by attorney Warren Christopher to investigate the internal practices of the LAPD, and its recommendations concerning recruitment, discipline, and complaints by citizens about police misconduct were slowly implemented over the next few years.

Rodney King later wrote a memoir with the assistance of Lawrence Spagnola, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, but he seldom remained out of trouble with the law, being subsequently arrested for committing traffic offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol, and assaulting his wife, Cynthia Kelly. On June 17, 2012, she found him at the bottom of his swimming pool, the victim of heart failure brought on by a fatal combination of alcohol and drugs.

The issues that sparked the Watts riot and the Rodney King incident defied easy solutions and revealed the continuing racial divide in twentieth-century America. Racism persisted into the new century and was often revealed in tensions between police departments and African Americans.

Review Questions

1. Two Los Angeles officers were convicted and sent to prison for their conduct during the Rodney King incident under

  1. local traffic law
  2. county civil law
  3. state criminal law
  4. federal civil rights law

2. The Los Angeles African American communities of Watts and Compton were created as a result of

  1. the exodus of former slaves during Reconstruction
  2. the Great Migration out of the South in the early twentieth century
  3. jobs opened up by massive military spending during World War II
  4. the white flight out of the cities during the 1960s

3. The Watts riot and the Rodney King incident both began with a

  1. traffic violation
  2. robbery
  3. case of breaking and entering
  4. kidnapping

4. The Los Angeles rioting connected with the Rodney King incident occurred in the aftermath of

  1. King’s initial arrest
  2. the acquittal of the officers charged with assaulting King
  3. the conviction of the officers who arrested King
  4. King’s conviction for assault

5. In the aftermath of the Rodney King incident, a commission headed by Warren Christopher recommended

  1. placing the Los Angeles Police Department under the control of federal law enforcement
  2. integrating the local school system
  3. altering the internal policies and practices of the Los Angeles Police Department
  4. placing Rodney King under house arrest

6. Events in the decades after the Watts Riots (1965) and the Rodney King incident (1991) best illustrate

  1. a significant lessening of racial tensions in the United States, especially in urban areas
  2. the success of minority policing in urban areas
  3. the widespread implementation of policing reforms
  4. the difficulty of reducing tensions between police departments and African Americans in many communities

Free Response Questions

  1. Compare the development and characteristics of the predominantly African American areas of Los Angeles with those of the cities such as Chicago and others in the Northeast.
  2. Compare the issues that sparked the Watts riot (1965) and the Rodney King incident (1992).

AP Practice Questions

“There are compelling reasons why law enforcement leaders believe the time has come to alter the policies and practices of their organizations. These reasons are rooted in the history of policing and police research during the last quarter of a century, in the changing nature of communities, and in the shifting characteristics of crime and violence that affect these communities. . . .

The implementation of community policing necessitates fundamental changes in the structure and management of police organizations. Community policing differs from traditional policing in how the community is perceived and in its expanded policing goals. While crime control and prevention remain central priorities, community policing strategies use a wide variety of methods to address these goals. The police and the community become partners in addressing problems of disorder and neglect (e.g., gang activity, abandoned cars, and broken windows) that, although perhaps not criminal, can eventually lead to serious crime. As links between the police and the community are strengthened over time, the ensuing partnership will be better able to pinpoint and mitigate the underlying causes of crime.”

Bureau of Justice Assistance, “Understanding Community Policing: A Framework for Action,” August 1994

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The excerpt was most directly shaped by

  1. calls to reform the U.S. financial system
  2. political debates over the role of governmental institutions
  3. new developments in science and technology
  4. conservatives’ belief in a reduced role for government

2. This excerpt most directly reflected a growing belief that

  1. law enforcement techniques need to rely on the newest technical innovations
  2. a positive relationship needs to be fostered among all segments of the community
  3. demographic changes have little impact on law enforcement needs
  4. conservative beliefs are inconsistent with social order

3. What group would most likely support the plan of action proposed in the excerpt?

  1. Proponents of white supremacy
  2. Advocates of racial profiling
  3. Supporters of sentencing reform
  4. Activists for mass incarceration/jailing for drug offenses

Primary Sources

Linder, Doug. “The Trials of Los Angeles Police Officers in Connection with the Beating of Rodney King.” 2001.

Suggested Resources

Cannon, Lou. Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Domanick, Joe. Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.

Felker-Kantor, Max. Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

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