Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Do we count? Do we matter?' Perspectives on the riots, 20 years later

A fire department crew sprays water on a burning mini-mall in South Los Angeles, April 30, 1992
A fire department crew sprays water on a burning mini-mall in South Los Angeles, April 30, 1992
Photo by Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images

During the last month, KPCC brought together four panels of Angelenos to share their recollections of the deadly riots that began April 29, 1992 in an informal series of private conversations, led by journalists and other members of the staff.

The panelists were people from throughout the city, of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many had little in common save for having been old enough 20 years ago to remember the rioting began that day, after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of savagely beating black motorist Rodney King. In the violent, confusing, smoke-filled days that followed, more than 50* people died and property damage mounted close to $1 billion as arson fires and looting spread. To this day, the riots remain a defining moment in L.A. history.

The discussions were broken down by ethnicity: a panel of black Angelenos, a panel of Latinos, a panel of Korean Americans and one simply dubbed “others.” The resulting conversations were eye-opening. Panelists shared not only recollections, but how they interpreted the legacy of these traumatic few days long ago, and how the riots have shaped the city since, for better or worse. 

The discussions, which informed a recent town hall event at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum, were not open to the public. But those who led the talks will be sharing what they learned throughout the week on Multi-American. We start today with KPCC reporter Corey Moore, whose intimate panel consisted of three black men, himself included. His two guests were native Angelenos; he had watched the riots unfold long-distance as a young man in Detroit.

Here's what Corey shared:

Working as a KPCC reporter is sort of like taking a daily trip to the barbershop. I often get to hear frank, intelligent and compelling opinions on any number of issues - from the goings-on in our nation’s capital to what’s happening in our own backyards.

In 1992, I’d just started interning for a local radio station in my hometown of Detroit. I remember the stark video footage of the fires, the looting and the violence. I recall how the images played out around the clock on the local news. Listener phone lines at the radio station were lit up for weeks following the uprising. Listeners continuously asked, "Could the events of the LA Riots happen in our own city (again)?" The events forced people - from politicians, to merchants, to children - to take a hard, closer look at race relations in our own communities in and around Detroit.

I was always curious to hear from Angelenos about how they were affected. In the discussion I facilitated, I spoke at length to a couple of L.A. natives, Chris Pulliam and Joseph Devall.

Pulliam, a paralegal, was a teenager on April 29, 1992. He and his mom lived near the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. Pulliam told me he doesn’t know if he’ll ever fully comprehend what was happening around him at the time - the killings, the arson, the looting.

Pulliam did emphasize, however, that he understands what helped fuel the anger. There were a number of factors, including the tense relationship between people of color and an L.A. police force that many people say was rife with racism. There were the dire economic circumstances of the time. Poverty was rampant. Many blue-collar jobs were lost. And the crack cocaine epidemic that had emerged in the mid-1980s was destroying communities.

Nonetheless, Pulliam saw a palpable difference between the justified hostility surrounding the events versus mere opportunism; some people used the mayhem of the L.A. riots to "go out to get something for themselves," as he put it, hence the looting.

Joseph Devall, who works with the South L.A. advocacy group Community Coalition, was also a teenager when the riots occurred, though he prefers to call the events a “civil unrest.”

In our conversation, Devall emphasized that the disorder didn’t begin nor end with the videotaped Rodney King beating - or the acquittal of the police officers, three of them white and one Latino, who were involved. People of color, particularly African Americans, had long dealt with a “lot of mess,” as he put it. They were fed up. “People were asking ‘Do we count? Do we matter? How do we get some semblance of respect?’ “ he said.

These days, Devall thinks people are much more sensitive about race. He said he’d be shocked if a similar unrest were to occur. He emphasized that the LAPD has evolved thanks to progressive and veteran activists (like former Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack, who heads the L.A. Police Commission).

These leaders have applied the pressure. They’ve implored the force to “do right,” as he put it, and that now, two decades later, we see a more diverse LAPD that doesn’t do what it use to. A prime example, Devall said, is the way the department peacefully handled the Occupy LA movement. Would L.A. police officers have carried out a similar operation 20 years ago?

Pulliam and Devall are adding context to a conversation which, both agree, extends far beyond the beating of Rodney King, or the riotous acts that followed the verdict. Perhaps most significantly, the conversations that are occurring now afford everyone an important opportunity to reflect and learn from other people’s vast experiences.

Hear more viewpoints by linking to the recent Crawford Family Forum discussion here.  

*This estimate has been updated.