28 years ago today marked the beginning of one of the most prolific events in American History: the LA riots. Five days of civil unrest led to numerous assaults, property damage, and race relations deteriorated drastically. But, how did this all begin? For years, there was always tension building up between multiple ethnic groups, and the government, but what really sparked the riot was the Rodney King trial.
On April 29 1992, people eagerly waited for the verdict on the trial of Rodney King. The trial was to decide whether the court should indict four white officers who were charged for assaulting Rodney King, an African American, after they had pulled him over for speeding through a highway and for trying to dodge the officers¹. Before the trial began, it was already problematic. Of the twelve jurors who had served on the trial, nine of them were white, none of them were African American².
Three hours after the court acquitted the officers, people started rioting: businesses were robbed and destroyed, and white Americans as well as light-skinned Latinos became became targets³. In addition, the LA riots also involved the Korean community, which already had a tense relationship with the African American community. Around the same time as the Rodney King incident, a Korean store clerk shot and killed a 15 year of African American who they had thought was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice⁴.
Race relations in the United States continue to be in flux, often meandering between many high and low points. Even in a city as diverse as New York City is not exempt from this problem. Growing up in New York City, I’ve had the benefit of experiencing one the city’s most valuable assets--its diverse community. But, despite this, communities in New York City continue to struggle to build a strong relationship with one another, and especially with the government. For example, under “Stop and Frisk”, one of the most controversial policies in New York City, a majority of the people who were stopped were African American and Hispanic⁵. Even if it wasn’t their intent to target those groups, given the long complicated relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, it’s hard to not feel like they were being targeted. Pernicious policies such as this continue to have an everlasting impact on those affected and it is a part of the legacy of those who fail to curtail it. In this case, it was former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who had supported the policy, but he has since backtracked when presidential candidates derided him on the efficacy of this policy during the Democratic debates⁶.
Communities that are in close proximity to one another that are vastly different from one another often clash. Speaking from my own experience having grown up in a community that is mixed with Chinese, Italians, Jews, and Hispanics, something that can be considered normal in one group can be perceived as an offensive slight to someone else. Cultural and language barriers, as well as socio-economic status, often prevent people from building the relationships that are integral to the well being of the entire neighborhood, which creates racial enclaves where people are socially closed off from outsiders of their group.
Ultimately, I believe that all groups must come together to have a hard discussion about what their needs are and how they can work together to create policies that are beneficial to all groups involved. During my tenure working for a few social services nonprofits, something that stood out to me was having community leaders and representatives work closely with government officials to address the needs of the neighborhood.
Additionally, one thing that I thought was beneficial was to have community events. In my old neighborhood, there were frequent block parties where all local residents, and those outside of it, gathered to enjoy the festivities and get to actually build relationships with one another. This is by no means a panacea to the problem, but I believe that it is one of the many ways we can build a positive relationship with members of the community.
- The Associated Press, “Rodney King riot: Timeline of key events”. The Associated Press, 2017. https://apnews.com/fa4d04d8281443fc8db0e27d6be52081/Rodney-King-riot:-Timeline-of-key-events
- Serrano, Richard A., Lozano, Carlos V., “Jury Picked for King Trial; No Blacks Chosen”, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1992, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-03-03-mn-2987-story.html
- Bates, Anjuli, Bates, Karen Grigsby, “When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots”, NPR, April 26, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots
- Southall, Ashley, Gold, Michael, “Why ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Inflamed Black and Hispanic Neighborhoods”, The New York Times, February 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/17/nyregion/bloomberg-stop-and-frisk-new-york.html