How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

On the legacy of Rodney King and the 1992 riots

Rodney King during a press conference in May, 1992
Rodney King during a press conference in May, 1992 Photo by Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images)

Rodney King was an unlikely historical figure, thrust into the books at the age of 25 when his videotaped beating at the hands of Los Angeles police - and the officers' acquittal the following year - triggered the deadly 1992 L.A. riots. King would never be the same, nor would the city.

King died yesterday at 47, his body found by his fiancée in his backyard pool in the L.A. suburb of Rialto, Calif. His life had not been an easy one. Above and beyond his well-documented struggles with alcohol and drugs, he'd been saddled with living as a poster boy for police brutality. But as King is being remembered, his legacy includes the police reforms that followed the riots, along with memories of a defining period in the city's history that continue to resonate.

The riots, which some still refer to as the "Rodney King riots," began April 29, 1992 after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of savagely beating King, who had been pulled over after a chase. King was left with multiple skull fractures and a broken eye socket; a passerby had caught the beating on video, which was aired by news agencies.

In the violent, confusing days that followed the acquittal, more than 50 people died and property damage mounted close to $1 billion as arson fires and looting spread throughout the city. Among other things, the riots brought to the surface the tensions that existed not only between police and people of color, or between whites and blacks, but between different ethnic groups.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the riots in April, KPCC brought together several panels of Angelenos for an informal series of private conversations. The panelists were of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, with little in common save for having been old enough to remember the riots when they began. From the interviews, here are a series of recollections and perspectives on the riots and what led up to them:

  • ‘Do we count? Do we matter?’ From KPCC reporter Corey Moore, who interviewed an intimate panel of black men who recalled not only the riots, but what life was like in South L.A. at the time: A dismal economy, jobs lost, a crack cocaine epidemic that had destroyed lives, all in addition to the tense relationship between the community and police. “A lot of mess,” as one man put it.

  • ‘My family was victimized’ From KPCC’s Elaine Cha, who led an emotional conversation among Korean Americans. Many Korean business owners lost livelihoods in the riots to arson and looting; the 1992 riots became such a defining moment in the Korean American experience in the U.S. that there is a term for them, Sa-i-gu,  which literally means “4/29.”

  • ‘It wasn’t just about Rodney King’ From Power 106?s Wendy Carrillo, who interviewed a diverse panel of Latinos in a conversation that covered some of the unique dynamics of their role in the events: The trauma experienced during the riots by Central American war refugees, the horror of the beating of Guatemalan immigrant Fidel Lopez, and the conflict over looting, embodied by clashes between panelists with different points of view.

  • ‘We are on the side and never talked about’ From KPCC’s Andrew Gould, who moderated the panel dubbed “others,” which he thought would draw mostly white panelists but instead drew mostly non-Korean Asian Americans. Some expressed feeling doubly marginalized, among them two Chinese American sisters whose family business burned. ”We are on the side and never talked about,” one of them said. “We are just absent.

Of the many news reports and elegies out there today regarding King and his particular legacy, one from author Touré in TIME Magazine is especially good, noting how what befell King more than two decades ago is still not out of the ordinary for young men of color. Touré adds: "King was no angel - he had done time for a robbery with assault and was driving drunk - but the law is not here just to protect angels."

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