The Rodney King Riots

The Rodney King incident exposed racism in the L.A. police department, and triggered five days of violent rioting.

The Rodney King Riots


What does a “normal” racist sound like in Los Angeles? A former L.A. police chief won attention as a possible candidate when he explained why African-Americans were dying so frequently when placed under arrest by local law enforcement officials. “We may be finding,” Darryl Gates said, “that in some blacks, when the choke hold is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up like in normal people.”

A racial incident in California galvanized the nation's attention in the early 1990s.

Police officers in Los Angeles stopped the Hyundai of African-American driver Rodney King after a high-speed chase through city streets in the early hours of the morning. Sgt. Stacey Koon and three other LAPD officers (Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind) struck King more than 50 times with metal batons before finally handcuffing him and calling an ambulance. From a nearby apartment, an amateur videographer, George Holliday had recorded the scene.

When Holliday's tape of the beating was shown on national TV, it caused widespread outrage among people of all races. The four police officers were indicted for excessive use of force; on April 29, 1992, an all-white jury acquitted the four police officers involved in the King beating.

Immediately, rioting broke in Los Angeles, and there were serious disturbances elsewhere. When the smoke cleared five days later, 54 people lay dead. The riots had the dubious distinction of having brought about one of the highest death tolls of any civil disturbance in the twentieth century.

On the March

Can't we all just get along?

—Rodney King, during the Los Angeles riots.

On April 30, President George Bush announced that he had ordered the Department of Justice to investigate the possibility of filing charges against the LAPD officers for violating the federal civil rights of Rodney King. On August 4, a federal grand jury indicted the four officers. In their second trial, begun February 23, 1993, with two African-Americans now on the jury, two of the police officers were acquitted and two convicted. No riots ensued.

In the wake of the rioting, some media reports focused on the sharply differing assessments of African-Americans and whites when it came to governmental bodies, the police, and the criminal justice system. The “interim period” of the civil rights movement concluded with national consensus on racial matters seemingly limited to a single conclusion, one that could be dated back to the Great Migration: There was something deeply wrong in the inner cities of America. It was something that had been wrong for a very long time indeed.

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