When I moved to Los Angeles in 1998 to teach in Compton, friends and family members in Chicagoland were worried: The murder of the Notorious B.I.G in 1997, the insanity of the OJ Simpson trial in 1995, his infamous Bronco chase up the 405 Freeway in 1994, the Northridge Earthquake in ’94. East Coast vs. West Coast rap beef. And Compton. “NWA Compton? Bloods and Crips Compton?“
“The biggest gang in L.A. is the LAPD,” I’d reply. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice is more eloquent. “What we had was aggressive paramilitary policing with a culture that was mean and cruel, racist and abusive of force in communities of color, particularly poor communities of color,” she said in 2017.
The March 1991 video footage of 25-year-old Rodney King being brutally beaten by four officers, his teeth and bones broken, his eye socket crushed, his brain permanently damaged — everyone had seen it. Then, from April 29 to May 4, 1992, the world watched news footage of bloodied, terrified people running for safety, burning buildings spewing thick black smoke, and blazing palm trees glowing orange against the hazy night sky.
We watched Rodney King plea for people to stop and think of the children and the old folks. “Can we all get along?” he begged during a press conference, his voice hitching with emotion. King had just turned 27, and when you watch the footage with modern eyes, you see the trauma and shock written all over his face… and then people mocked him for it.
But what was it like to be in L.A. during that time, and what have we learned? Our stories matter, our history matters, so I asked a few folks whose work and life experience grounds them in the community to share their memories and perspective: Founding NWA member Arabian Prince; “LA 92” director TJ Martin; literature professor Derik Smith; journalist Tony Pierce; film professor Timothy Conley; business professor Carolyn Roper-Conley; and the Godfather of West Coast hip- hop, World Class Wreckin Cru founder Alonzo “Grandmaster Lonzo” Williams.
Officially, the 1992 L.A. riots caused 58 deaths, 2,383 injuries, 11,000 arrests, and damages of roughly $1 Billion. But in the following stories, you see the true toll on the hearts and minds of Angelenos is incalculable. There is hope and activism there, too. But as long as racism remains the most challenging issue facing this nation, I can’t tell my loved ones L.A. won’t burn again — and it’s not just L.A. we should worry about.
The names of Black people brutalized and killed by police keep coming: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose, Korryn Gaines, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and on, and on, and on. “Can we all get along?”
Arabian Prince: Futurist, technologist, producer, DJ, and original NWA member
It is sad to me that a lot of the things that happened back in the 1980s and 1990s with police are still happening now. What happened to Rodney King still happens in the inner cities and the urban communities — we all saw what happened to George Floyd in 2020, and there’s been so many names since then of Black people brutalized by law enforcement.
There is more awareness now of police brutality because of technology — like officer body cams and our own personal cell phone cameras — so we see a lot more of it, but also we know a lot more of it is still hidden.
I believe that we have come a long way towards equality overall, but we’ve also gone backward regarding white violence against people of color. We really need to do better as a community, and as a people. I also believe that we need to stand up — everyone needs to stand up — because we are seeing a lot more current situations between people of color and police.
I understand that we need law enforcement. We need good law enforcement, we need trustworthy people, we need transparent people, and we need good people on both sides to work together and create solutions. We need to create a community of trust between law enforcement, government, and people. Once we get there and stop kidding ourselves, then there can be transparency and healing.
There are things in place that will make us better as a society. In any community, access is the key — access to healthcare, access to mental health services, access to money, and access to business ownership. All of these things will make a difference in a community, and all of these things will make a difference in inner cities.
So what is the 30th anniversary of Rodney King getting beat up by the LAPD? It’s sad that we even have to talk about it or say, “Hey, there’s a 30th Anniversary.” But I think these types of things that happened always have to be brought back into people’s memory so we don’t forget — and we also can see that we still have a hell of a long way to go.
T.J. Martin: Oscar and Emmy award-winning director of the documentary “LA 92”
Given the breadth of diversity of Black America, I would imagine this anniversary of the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles has a multiplicity of meanings — especially a historical moment of such layered complexity. Personally, it continues to be a reminder of the brazen injustices perpetrated against our culture and the systemic dehumanization that fuels these injustices.
While making our film “LA 92,” it became abundantly apparent that violence against the Black body has been well documented over the course of time. What happened in LA in 1992 was nothing new. The system did exactly what it was designed to do by protecting those in power, specifically the power of whiteness, and the civil unrest was the natural response to an environment that exploits Black life but does not value or care for Black life.
But its meaning is not fixed. There are moments in history that demand to be revisited. The variables of time, dialogue, and the creative inspection that is art give us the opportunity to reappropriate, retell, and re-understand this narrative.
One of the goals we set for ourselves in making “LA 92” was to change the collective perception of this moment in history. We believed that if we could retell this ostensibly well-known story with empathy and focus on humanizing the communities at the center of these events, it could inspire a more thoughtful dialogue about race and class in America.
This 30-year anniversary may present another opportunity to reevaluate these events. Maybe we can look beyond the pain and reappropriate the narrative as a celebration of the resilience of a community who steadily, steadfastly fights for dignity in the face of an America that still struggles to see its whole, true self.
Derik Smith: Associate professor of literature at Claremont Mckenna College
A few weeks before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. famously explained that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” In just a few words, he gave eloquent meaning to the uprisings through which Black people have spoken loudly and rhythmically throughout American history. With King serving as an interpreter, the enduring meaning of the 1992 L.A. Rebellion is clear enough. It was a cry for freedom, justice, and opportunity.
But a riot is not the only language of the unheard. While the L.A. Rebellion was spectacular and loud, it shouldn’t drown out another form of language that rose out of L.A. just one day before the Rebellion. On April 28, 1992, the historic Watts Truce was put into effect.
Organized at the grassroots by self-sacrificing Black protagonists, the 1992 Truce transformed the social landscape of Los Angeles, and beyond. It may have saved thousands of lives. By orchestrating a lasting cease-fire between Crips and Bloods, little-known champions of peace, like brothers Daude and Aqueela Sherrills, spoke in a constructive language that has a long history in Black America.
As we decipher the language of the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, we can also honor the community-building language of the Watts Truce, its organizers, and those who upheld it. Thirty years later, the dulcet tones of the 1992 truce — sounding like courage, protagonism, and soul-love — echo into the future.
Carolyn Roper-Conley: Professor in the business department at Santa Monica College
1992… The curfew, the street traffic curtailed, and palm trees and buildings burning. A feeling of chaos surfaced again from my memory — the memory of being a kid and what erupted in the 1965 Watts riot. All that came back during the 1992 L.A. Riots. Oh, my error, The Los Angeles Disturbance — that was the politicians’ name for it in 1992.
This time, there were military tanks rolling on the street in front of my home. Before that, I’d never seen one up close.
Truly, there are lessons that are somewhat learned from repeating the past. My son and daughter finally understood what the news clips were that I had shown them from the Watts riot. We lived just two minutes away from the corner of Florence and Normandie, where the ’92 uprising started. And, we waited for it to get under control.
And so it did, eventually, with many of the familiar places gone — burned — such as a neighborhood market (now a Rally’s Fast Food) and a supermarket (now an L. A City Library).
There were no winners. But who lost? The Koreans who owned local businesses had had difficulties building relationships. But a neighborhood meat market (owned by a Korean) was left standing. The owner’s rapport with the community saved his day.
What happened next? What we need more of: The communication and talking, with everyone asking for a better tomorrow. “Can we all get along?” That’s what Rodney King asked. Thirty years later, I still hope we can.
Timothy Conley: Department chair of cinema and film, Columbia College Hollywood
I’ll never forget the day the 1992 L.A. Riots began. My mother used to drive me, my sister, and future NBA superstar Baron Davis to school in Santa Monica every day so we could attend better schools. It was about an hour’s drive each way.
On the way back home that day, we had no idea what was going on. From the I-10 freeway, as we drove east near the Vermont exit, we began to see a series of fires emerging all around the area.
My mother tuned into the news on the car radio. The news said rioting was taking place after the officers who had beat Rodney King were acquitted. We headed south on I-110 freeway, heading home, and I never could have imagined what I saw as we exited at Florence.
At the time, we lived two minutes from the corner of Florence and Normandie. By the time I got to high school, my neighborhood was full of gangs, drugs, prostitution, and racial tension — 15-year-old Natasha Harlins had been shot and killed by the Korean store owner. I remember my great-uncle saying that, when he lived in Texas, the LAPD would recruit there. They looked for good old boys. So, by the time we get to the riots, tension had built for a generation.
As I looked into my mother’s eyes, I saw a fear I had never seen before but was familiar to her. She had lived through the 1965 Watts riot and a racist LAPD force. And, like the Watts Riot, one could argue that LAPD started the L.A. Riots of 1992.
What initiated the violence at Florence and Normandie? LAPD had gotten into an altercation with members of the Eight-Trey gangster Crips just minutes before the riots began. LAPD began to ruff-house one of the gang members, and the fam decided they had enough — especially after the King verdict with the officers. One of the Crips threw a brick at the back window of that car and made their way towards Florence and Normandie.
For five days we were without power, and my block, Florence and San Pedro, smelled like soot. On day two of the riots, an Army National Guard tank rolled down my street with military personnel armed with M-16s, one of them holding a bull horn yelling words I’d never heard before: “martial law.”
When I think about that time in April 1992, and I reflect on the horrific day in 2020 when George Floyd lost his life, I wonder when will be the appointed time as Dr. King spoke of so many years ago when we as a people, “Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles” will see each other as one human family.
When will we rise up as a nation with laws that reflect and protect Black lives? And when — truly when — will Black Lives Matter?
The work must go on. As Dr. King said in his last speech, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Tony Pierce: Journalist and host of the podcast ‘Hear in LA‘
On the infamous night in 1992 when the Simi Valley jury acquitted all four LAPD officers of assault, I was one of the 36,000+ at Dodger Stadium to watch a baseball game.
I was living in Isla Vista, California at the time, working in Santa Barbara, and I made the drive down, in part, to support my friend, record producer Taavi Mote, who earlier asked me to help him stop being such a workaholic.
Even though we both knew something might go down if the verdict was unpopular, we agreed to go to the game anyway because clearly those men would be found guilty. It was on video!
That night, Dodger Stadium was a bubble. There were no mobile phones back then, and the news was not being presented on the outfield jumbo screens, so most of us were oblivious to it. I didn’t know of the riots until I turned on the radio as I headed home, north on the 101, around Ventura.
A year later, I moved down to L.A., and I haven’t forgotten what a neighbor told me: “The riots reset the vibe. Now people know if you mess with Black folks too much, there will be hell to pay.”
Soon after that, I overheard a Black man, who felt disrespected at a convenience store, say to the cashier, “Don’t let me catch you at the next riot.”
That threat — and the fact that “Black Owned” signs saved some small businesses — were fascinating side-effects I never expected to see after such a shocking acquittal.
Alonzo “Grandmaster Lonzo” Williams: World Class Wreckin Cru founder
I’ll never forget where I was. I wasn’t far from my club on Avalon and El Segundo. I had just bought two back tires at the tire shop, then I headed to my cousin’s house, and we saw the situation over on Normandie and Florence. I sat there and watched everything — the chaos, the guys beating Reginald Denny.
Shortly after that, I went home. I could see the fire trucks. I saw the smoke in the air. Being a survivor of the first riot in 1965, I started to have a little personal flashback. Then I noticed there was not a cop anywhere. I’d never seen that! And I started seeing people burning down businesses they needed.
I lived near Gardena, and during the riots, people in Torrance and Gardena were very reluctant to let Black people in stores. I remember I ran out of gas. I went with a can to buy some, and the guy would not sell it to me. I had to give someone else my money to pump gas in my can.
Afterward, for the first time, gangs were getting along. I wasn’t a gangbanger, but shortly after the riots, some of my friends and I organized a peace picnic at Magic Johnson Park, and we had about 5,000 gang members there — Compton, Watts, and L.A. all came together. It was almost like watching “The Warriors.” The police were all out there with cameras and video. They were videotaping everything. When I applied for my liquor license in 1999 for a club I was opening the Inglewood, the Inglewood PD called me and told me that they were going to dispute my liquor license because they had footage of me speaking at a gang rally for the Crips.
I said first of all, “If that’s your intelligence, you’re not too smart.” And I said, “Number two, don’t ever tell anybody I was a Crip in Inglewood because that will get me killed!” I said, “I don’t know what you think you saw, but look at it again. There was a peace treaty. If you ever saw me speaking at any kind of event for gangs, it was a peace treaty.”
Then I started seeing that the news had a very cavalier, almost cynical attitude toward the peace treaty. “Well, today is day two of the peace treaty. Let’s see how long this lasts.” It was really just disturbing. It’s like nobody wanted peace.
Probably the one thing that bothers me the most during that time was my dad’s friend who owned a mortuary in Lynwood, California. He came to my dad’s house, and my dad asked how were things going. He said, “Man, thing’s ain’t too good. They stop killing each other, business is horrible.” It didn’t dawn on me until then that there is a financial factor to gangbanging and violence. If there’s peace, the funeral business is going to start suffering. And he made it very clear that, you know, “This peace treaty is driving me out of business.”
If we don’t want riots to happen again, cities should put more money into the youth programs — pay the kids money to do things in their community. A lot of these kids now are just broke. Inflation has gone through the roof. And there’s no real way for them to see past their personal financial problems without doing some stupid.
I’m heavily involved in different reentry programs. And once you go to jail and get a felony, you come out of jail, there are all kinds of programs to help you get back on your feet. There are very few programs to keep you from getting in trouble in the first place.
I see how far we’ve come, but again, how far we need to go. I listen to grown men talk about how much of a gangster they are. It’s amazing how these guys pride themselves on destroying their own people. I don’t understand that. I’ve experienced enough pain. We don’t want pain to come to your house.