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Rodney King, the LA Riots, and the Perils of Police Reform


I can still remember staring at the screen and listening to the verdict that the officers had been acquitted. I felt utter shock, on one hand, and deja vu, on the other. I, like millions of Americans, watched the video footage ad nauseam of the brutal beating of Rodney King at the hands of the LAPD and thought to myself there was no way these cops would get off. Yet many, including in my neighborhood of Richmond, California, were less sanguine about the prospect of justice being delivered. Such skepticism proved well-founded. The acquittal of the officers involved in the King case set off a wave of popular unrest, the so-called LA Riots of 1992 which cost 64 lives, caused over 2,300 injuries, and resulted in damages estimated at between $800 million and $1 billion.

Welcome to the Terrordome

The Rodney King case was visual proof that we lived in a society with a two-tiered justice system. As the video made the rounds of a burgeoning 24-hour news cycle hungry for content, pundits and activists deployed the discourse of racial grievance to sell policies framed in terms of transparency and anti-racism. Yet, there was a curious disconnect between this discourse and the reality of what happened.

Both before and after the LA Riots of 1992, there were calls for more police transparency and greater representation of minorities within law enforcement. This was perhaps understandable to some degree. An earlier round of unrest in LA – the Watts Uprising of 1965 – had been clearly a response to a racist white police force headed by a white supremacist in William H Parker. However, the racialized lens through which many liberals and leftists viewed police reform in the post-King era somewhat obscured reality. By 1990, 39% of the LAPD were ethnic minorities; in short, minorities were far better represented on the police force than ever before. Yet, this representation did not seem to improve the treatment of poor people of color. To understand why, and to expose some of the limitations of “anti-racism”, we must turn to the core functions of law enforcement, which are to police poverty and protect capital regardless of race.

How To Survive in South Central

South Central LA in the late 70s was one of the many predominantly Black inner cities that suffered from deindustrialization and economic stagnation. As the outer suburban areas of LA were prospering thanks to the finance sector, technology industries, and real estate, South Central became a forgotten enclave of poverty and violent crime. Of course, the economic good times experienced elsewhere in LA did lead to some job growth. However, this tended to be in non-union service sector jobs that lacked stability and benefits. Moreover, the end of the Bracero program in 1965 resulted in the emergence of a vast reserve army of labor made up of the undocumented who ended up with many of these new unskilled jobs.

As Ed Soja notes between 1965 and 1992, “more characteristically Fordist industrial sectors in Los Angeles… were wiped out entirely…” and “tens of thousands of well-paid, often quite senior, and to a significant extent minority and women blue-collar workers, lost their jobs in widespread layoffs and plant closures.”[1] The economic collapse was compounded by mid 70s inflationary spending and the rise of the neoliberal Reagan era which marked a decline in social services. This left a population bereft of opportunities and ripe for exploitation by the underground economy.

As cheap cocaine started to flow from Mexico to California, the urban decline of South Central LA provided the perfect setting for an open-air drug market for highly addictive “crack”. Crack cocaine – a potent and inexpensive derivative of powder cocaine- proved to be an economic opportunity for many of the city’s unemployed and disenfranchised youth, a section of society that would have at one time aspired to gainful employment in the city’sonce great manufacturing sector. Crack, with its extraordinarily high mark up and its cheap manufacturing costs, meant the amount of money to be made by the gangs was astronomical. And this, of course, resulted in the growth of brutal gang recruitment, an intensification of turf wars, and a general spike in criminality as users attempted to acquire the cash needed to feed their habit. As one police officer told the LA Times in 1987: “If a person is in such a need, they will do anything to get it…”. Anything included burglary, muggings, and even murder.

Violent drug-related crime in America peaked in 1992 with nearly 2 million such crimes, up from just over 1 million in 1980, according to FBI reports. Cities like South Central saw a massive increase in murders as well. In 1987, there were 387 gang-related killings in Los Angeles County, up from 187 in the previous year. The police were unable to contain the gangs and the street violence often spilled over into residential homes, making victims of bystanders and families. Moreover, the police response was often to trample on citizens’ constitutional rights precipitating a crisis of legitimacy for law enforcement. After all, the gangs may have been wreaking havoc, but they were not doing so under the banner of “keeping the peace”.

While many pundits and politicians continue to view crack as the cause for the downfall of the urban environment, the degeneration of the inner cities is much more complicated than just the arrival of a new drug on the scene. The crack epidemic did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in the context of the disappearance of well-paying union jobs, increasing labor precarity, and a private sector that more and more relied on undocumented workers. Moreover, significant to note – especially for those who tend to racialize the pathologies of modern America – these increasingly unfavorable economic circumstances did not affect all Black people equally.

A small minority was able to benefit greatly from the changing economy and the liquidation of the last legal vestiges of American apartheid. The LA of the 90s was home not only to some of the poorest Black communities in the country but also to some of the richest. In 1989 there were over 1.3 million Angelinos living below the poverty line. By contrast, in the 1990s, LA was home to more millionaires than ever before, including a growing number from minority groups. The poor have always had a multi-racial complexion, but in the 1990s the wealthy classes too were becoming increasingly diverse. Thus, while most poor and working-class Black people were relegated to floor-level seating, a small but growing cadre of wealthy Black and Brown socialites were popping bottles in the champagne room.

Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em

The degeneration of the inner city could not be contained forever, and violence soon boiled over into more affluent communities. The result was that the LAPD launched a merciless campaign of retaliation that stoked the fire already raging in the city. In January 1988, 27-year-old Karen Toshima was gunned down in the posh Westwood neighborhood, collateral damage in the pernicious LA gang war. Her murder became an excuse for the local security services to ramp up assaults on the impoverished citizens of South Central. Operation HAMMER would give LAPD cover to behave in a way indistinguishable from that of an occupying military force. And this unofficial imposition of martial law was instituted all in the name of “stopping gang violence”.

Popular movies such as 1988’s Colors show an undermanned andout gunned police force at war with an ultra-violent contingent of minority misfits. The reality was very different; LA law enforcement was a heavily armed organization of stormtroopers, with little to no regard for civil liberties. By Operation HAMMER’s end, there had been 50,000 arrests, most of them for minor offenses. Still, it is important to those who seek to reduce the question of policing to “race” that not all people of color fared the same in the early 90s. The upper-class – including a growing number of Black and Brown elites – were largely safe from the increasingly diverse LAPD, often hiding behind their own private security forces for extra protection. There were two LAs. In the LA of the rich, the police enforced the rule of law and protected private property. In the other LA, the only thing separating the gangs from the cops was the badge and permission to plunder. This concentrated two-headed occupation by law enforcement and gangs coupled with economic insecurity laid the groundwork for the riots of 1992.

Ironically, some saw the Rodney King videotape as a beacon of hope, many of whom had suffered under the regime of the LAPD. There was a hope that the rest of the country could finally see with their own eyes the way poor and working-class people were routinely treated by the police. The news media had no problem showing images of Black and Brown bodies lying dead in the street as a result of gang violence, or the crying mothers of lost sons to the urban civil conflict and wayward gunfire. Those scenes played out almost nightly. However, the King footage finally allowed us to clearly see the other side of this two-sided occupation: squadrons of armed mercenaries with badges ready to exact justice to the detriment of innocent citizens. Within this context, the collective response to the acquittal of King’s tormentors was completely understandable.

Don’t Believe the Hype

We are again living in an era in which we are supposed to be going through a “racial reckoning”. The public execution of George Floyd in May 2020 triggered a wave of public protests against police brutality and, once again the question of police reform is on the political agenda. However, we should be beware of discourse and solutions that seek to reduce the issue to one of representation and the appropriate anti-racist training.

After the rebellion of 1965 in LA, more racial representation in law enforcement did not and could not ease the tensions in a city that was being ravaged by the transformations wrought by neoliberal capitalism. The riots in 1992 were not a reaction to an isolated case of racism; they were a response to decades of economic decline compounded by police repression designed to contain the consequences of societal degeneration. Race was part of the story; capitalism has always created its ‘others’. However, the main event is capitalism itself and the role of the police in capitalist societies. This is a problem that can’t be “reformed”; there isn’t enough anti-racist implicit bias training in the world that can mitigate the basic realities of our present-day economic order.

Editor’s Note: This article is based on research for the video essay – “Welcome to the Terrordome: This is America” – released by This is Revolution Podcast on YouTube.

[1] Ed Soja, ?Los Angeles 1965-1992: The Six Geographies of Urban Restructuring?, School of Urban Planning UCLA, (11 April 1994), 14.