How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

On the legacy of Rodney King and the 1992 riots

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Rodney King during a press conference in May, 1992

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.


Recollections of the riots, 20 years later

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What do you call what happened in L.A. 20 years ago in April-early May, and how did you come to learn about what happened back then?

This was the question to the audience that kicked off a community town hall event on the 1992 Los Angeles riots at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum last week. It was the preamble to a long and nuanced conversation about where the city has gone since, with a panel presentation from the moderators of several KPCC focus groups addressing the riots (the results of which be shared next week on Multi-American) and the results of a survey from Loyola Marymount University, which took the temperature of race relations in L.A. twenty years later.

But it was that initial question asked of the audience by senior news editor and moderator Cheryl Devall - what we remember of those confusing days that began April 29, 1992, and how their legacy has stuck - that defined the evening.


How safe do you feel in L.A.? It depends on your race

Photo by Erika Aguilar/KPCC

An officer at the scene of the double murder of two University of Southern California students in Los Angeles' West Adams neighborhood, April 11, 2012

Angelenos needn't brace themselves for another riot anytime soon, according to a new survey released today. But they don't see life in the city the same way, with differences in how they perceive race relations, their safety, and other aspects of life depending at least somewhat on their race and ethnicity.

A couple of weeks ahead of the 20th anniversary of the city's 1992 riots this April 29, Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles has released the results of a survey that shows Angelenos to be generally optimistic about their hometown.

Asked if it was "likely or unlikely" that there would be riots or disturbances like those experienced in 1992 within the next five years, only 41 percent of 1,600 respondents said yes, compared with 61 percent during a similar survey in 1997. An overall majority also said they'd seen progress in race relations.


The cultural mashup dictionary: Sa-i-Gu

Photo by TexasT/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A month from tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which began on April 29 that year after a jury acquitted four L.A. police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a black motorist pulled over after a pursuit. Over the next few days, parts of the city burned in arson fires as Angelenos rioted and businesses were looted. Fifty-three people died in the violence, thousands were injured, and property damage mounted close to $1 billion.

A large amount of the damage was sustained in Koreatown, one of the epicenters of the violence. As businesses went up in smoke, some Korean immigrant shop owners took up firearms. In the end, many of those who were uninsured or underinsured lost their life savings. To this day, the riots remain one of the defining events of the Korean American experience.