On April 29, 1992, a Simi Valley jury announced its verdict in the trial of Laurence Powell, Stacey Koon, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseño. Despite damning video evidence, the four Los Angeles Police Department officers were found not guilty of assaulting black motorist Rodney King, and — with the exception of Powell, for whom the jurors remained deadlocked — they were also found not guilty of exercising excessive force during the course of King’s arrest.
Outraged that the criminal legal system had delivered such an astonishing result, countless Angelenos stormed the streets, looting and burning stores throughout the city. Over the next six days, the violent uprising took more than 60 lives and caused almost a billion dollars of property destruction.
The looting and arson now sweeping Minneapolis in response to George Floyd’s killing has no doubt triggered many ambivalent memories of that prior revolt 28 years ago. Indeed, the two historic moments share more than a few similarities. Both fiery insurrections erupted as immediate reactions to police violence. Yet, in both cases, the faster, more spectacular violence of looting and arson arose from the slower, more insidious violence of racism against these communities.
As unrest continues in Minneapolis and in cities across the country, we should reflect on the Rodney King revolt and its aftermath to reckon with ways to build a just society moving forward.
The Rodney King uprising calmed after armed forces deployed to Los Angeles, but Mayor Tom Bradley knew that to prevent outbursts in the future, he had to address deeper, underlying issues. Like Minneapolis today, L.A. in 1992 had its troubles: a police department that antagonized locals, a segregated geography that distributed housing and other resources unevenly, a public health crisis — the HIV/AIDS epidemic — that policymakers were slow to acknowledge and a weak labor market that funneled workers into low-paying service sector jobs.
Sensing that simply hiring more police officers would not correct the underlying injustice, on May 2, Bradley unveiled an ambitious project called Rebuild Los Angeles (RLA). It was intended, the mayor suggested, to revive the ailing city by repairing demolished buildings and tackling egregious urban problems.
Using tax breaks and other financial incentives, RLA would entice corporations and businesses into setting up shop in Southern California. In doing so, Bradley believed, the project would kindle a trickle-down renaissance of jobs, ultimately resulting in “a better Los Angeles” that would “leave no one behind.” In an era of slashed budgets and economic austerity, many agreed that the private sector was best equipped to carry out Los Angeles’s reconstruction and fix its problems.