L.A. 1992: How Race Riots Have Shaped America

From Harlem to South Central to Ferguson, how the riots of our past are a glimpse into America's future

On April 29th, 1992, riots erupted in Los Angeles following a not-guilty verdict for the police officers who beat Rodney King. Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty

The smoke and billowing flames from South-Central Los Angeles crept as far north as Hollywood during the Rodney King riots, dubbed by street-corner pundits the "L.A. slave rebellion of 1992." An all-white jury in Simi Valley, California, had exonerated four white cops for the brutal beat-down of Rodney King, an unarmed African-American motorist. It had been filmed and seen around the world – most notably in the same Southern Cali hoods that didn't need a translator to rally behind N.W.A'S "Fuck Tha Police" – yet once again, white authority was given a pass for racially motivated violence. The people took to the streets and began to destroy everything within reach.

Three days later, 55 members of the city's African-American and Hispanic community were dead, 2,000 seriously injured, 11,000 arrested and a billion dollars-worth of property had been decimated; much of that targeted commercial real estate was not white but Asian operated – retribution, some said, for the widely reported shooting in the back and killing of an African American teenager, Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner in 1991. But in truth, this was an anger that had been simmering in the neighborhood – and areas like it – for generations.

As Martin Luther King once observed, "a riot is the language of the unheard." By the time Watts Rebellion went down in 1965 – and its Newark and Detroit counterparts in 1967 – the language of the unheard had become understood by embattled African-American communities as an eloquent, incendiary and chaotic tool for folk who'd had enough of second class citizenship, particularly after honorably and heroically serving in every war since that Revolutionary one which established the country's sovereignty. The racial America we live in today was shaped by the dozens of American cities in which the unheard once again made their seething resentment towards a clueless white American majority manifest on private property after the assassination of King on April 4th, 1968.

The first 'race riots' reported in this country were white mobs attacking African Americans, lynching them in public, hanging them from lampposts, shooting and hacking and burning their homes. In New York, Irish-Americans rioted in 1864 to protest being conscripted to fight in the Civil War to protect enslaved Africans, not yet constitutionally protected. In 1921, a thriving, self-sufficient community in Tulsa, Oklahoma – called Black Wall Street for its banking, businesses and commerce – was not only burned to the ground by enviously enraged white neighbors, but also marked the first time an American city was bombed from the air by the U.S. government. In 1947, in the South-Side Chicago neighborhood of Fernwood, whites rioted because a few African-American veterans and their families moved into the neighborhood; these un-neighborly caucausoids' fury took three days and 1,000 cops to extinguish.

The Harlem riot of 1935 has been called "the first modern race riot" not because it was African-Americans rising up against the racist power structure within their city, but because it was targeted at property rather than people – they weren't trying to kill anybody, but to strike at the heart of capitalism. In 1943, Harlem was once again subjected to destruction by inflamed racial tensions over police violence; that same year, African-Americans seeking equal employment were beaten on by white defense industry workers in Mobile, Alabama and Beaumont, Texas.

After these riots, a succession of gubernatorial and presidential commissions made up of "urban experts" – including progressive black thinkers like E. Franklin Frazier and Countee Cullen – blamed toxic relations between African-American communities and white, abusive police forces as the cause of these eruptions by Negro citizenry. Yet history doesn't seem to show such ensembles of experts were convened after Tulsa or Fernwood, Beaumont or Mobile – but then again, no official explanation has ever been sought for white violence against kidnapped Africans and their descendants over the entire course of the country's history. Why bother analyzing what's so easily excused as this implacable, inevitable fact and force of nature – white men and women being driven to genocidal acts of racially incensed annihilation by the sheer sight of unchained, unarmed negroes?

By the time Watts Rebellion went down in 1965 – and its Newark and Detroit counterparts in 1967 – the language of the unheard had become understood by embattled African-American communities as an eloquent, incendiary and chaotic tool for folk who'd had enough of second class citizenship, particularly after honorably and heroically serving in every war since that Revolutionary one which established the country's sovereignty. The racial America we live in today was shaped by the dozens of American cities in which the unheard once again made their seething resentment towards a clueless white American majority manifest on private property after the assassination of King on April 4th, 1968.

It should be American History 101 that a centuries-deep series of racially motivated disruption, resistance, property incinerating and violence episodically precedes and anticipates prosecutorial failures like what occurred in Los Angeles a quarter century ago. Future reciting of these histories will be greatly abetted by Ezra Edeelman's 2016 Oscar-winning film O.J.: Made In America, which devotes ample screen time documenting the decades of police abuse that L.A.'s African American community was subjected to before 1992. Not to mention actor Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King, a just-released collaboration with Spike Lee, drawn from his one-man show, re-humanizes King. It zooms in with intimacy, empathy and deeply researched detail on a much-maligned symbol of history, whose life was already a narrative of Greek proportions before his assault by as many as eight LAPD officers; 56 times by baton strikes, 6 by kicks, all while gagged, handcuffed, face down in highway dirt.

The racial playing field in America got future-shocked by the juggernaut stampede of unbridled black cultural and political dynamo between 1968 and 1992, and between 1992 and now. Playwright Katori Hall's work The Mountaintop, which takes place on Martin Luther King's last night, ends with a kaleidoscoping, warp-driven montage of every spectacular and triumphant act of cultural resistance that emerged from the African-American community to sweep the mainstream far beyond 1968 – from James Brown's "Say It Loud" to Soul Train to Ali's Rumble In The Jungle to Flo Jo to Pfunk's Mothership Connection to Off The Wall to Purple Rain to Run Jesse Run to the lily-white suburban embrace of The Cosby Show and Oprah and that of the three super-powered Michaels – Jackson, Jordan and Tyson – and for The Chronic and beyond to Kanye vs. George Bush amidst the Katrina disaster to Obama's 2008 and 2012 victories.

Yet as recent evidence of the unheard freestyling for justice in Ferguson and Baltimore demonstrated, tolerance for state-enabled terror against African-American communities refused to be abated by a two-term President of African descent. Who can count how many more popular spokespersons from the African-American community – rhyming and not – have followed in King's footsteps and attempted to make plain (per Malcolm X's preference) the state of things in a still-segregated America?

Black people have developed zero tolerance for watching the state forgive killer after killer of our unarmed folk. We've been strangled to death by police, our children shot to death on tape by trigger-happy cops for playing with toy guns, shot in the back while running away at low-speed, shot while handcuffed and face-down on asphalt, shot in their parked vehicles visibly reaching for no weapon while their horrified wives keep filming.

Post-Cosby, post-Oprah, post-Prince, Jordan, M.J. and hip-hop, blackfolk in Los Angeles were the first among us to reckon with the fact that a defenseless black man being beaten senseless by maniac cops generated zero empathy from most white Americans – even after it was endlessly broadcast across the country. Footage provoked blame-the-victim apologias from the white citizen’s council – and Simi Valley jury – for the psychotic, racially motivated rage which the officers near interminably rained down on King. Whatever went unheard in the jury room would come to bite a terrified, pale-skinned America on its ass.

Just three years later, when O.J. Simpson was acquitted for the gruesome murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman after a spectacularly lurid year of televised trial, a majority African-American jury agreed with suave limerick-chiming defense attorney Johnny Cochrane – and most of black America – that the glove alleged to be the killer's did not fit so they must acquit. Retaliatory disengagement from white woundedness via O.J.'s not-guilty verdict is what it took for the unheard to force their fellow Americans finally grow some compassion, so be it. That wake-up call by vengeful jury verdict was cheerfully, publicly underscored when every-day, not especially militant African-Americans – from the jury box to the beauty parlor to the barbershop to the gridiron – openly and wantonly cheered the pain and horror of their pinkish-hued fellow citizens. If 400 years of vociferous public protesting at being violently disenfranchised and othered by America had failed to humanize our folk, then so fucking be it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin devoted hundreds of pages to spelling out – in language that the cultural elites of white America embraced – how white supremacy produced a form of pervasive moral blindness in the average white American. But no novelistic retelling of riots-past by Ellison, nor book-length prophecies of the next fire by Baldwin, has yet mitigated the need for a Black Lives Matter movement or its calls for not just police but prosecutorial reform and the abolition of the secret grand jury system – errantly imported to America from England's last days of recognizing the divine rights of kings.

One can't not look at recent roll call of New York Times Best Sellers, Tonys, Emmys, Grammies, Oscars, MacArthur Awards and international book awards garlanding our best and brightest literati and not wonder whether there’s some orgiastic thrill that white readers derive from descriptions of Black bodies in pain, in trauma, in massacred death. All the grand contributions to American racial letters aren't going to be enough to the next unarmed, compliant Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland who pops up dead after an encounter with the next deputized – or, in George Zimmerman's case, self-deputized – psychopath whose exercises his or her anti-black-life rage.

And yet there will be this expectation for our spokespeople to concur when the next lame, tone-deaf but avidly repulsed white-wing commentator response to Black Lives Matter is that white and blue lives matter too. This begs the question of whether white America en masse will ever be capable of acting as if the descendants of the global slave trade, which bankrolled centuries of American Exceptionalism, are actually human, too – or recognize that R their privilege makes them complicit in perpetuating the status quo: unequal treatment before the law.

Years before Ellison, Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison, no less than Albert Einstein proved that being white wasn’t the impediment to seeing the nation's darker brothers and sisters as human. The fault which lies within themselves, Einstein rightly figured, is derived from white Americans being obsessed with maintaining the guilt-free delusion of racial innocence. Heeding Einstein’s words on this score 70 years ago could have spared the nation bucket-loads of terror, blood and handwringing anguish.

The good professors statement is not rocket science, yet it took a literal Einstein to grasp what still escapes many educated white Americans today: "Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition." And until this is understood and rectified, the unheard will continue to rise up – yesterday in Los Angeles, today in Baltimore and Ferguson and tomorrow, wherever racial-messaging-by-molotov is next provoked.