I wasn’t alive in 1991 — the year that changed my hometown forever.
In March 1991, 25-year-old Rodney King’s graphic beating by Los Angeles Police Department officers became what Black city residents who’d long spoken up about mistreatment by law enforcement officers had never had: video recorded proof of police brutality in the United States.
A year later, the officers who beat King were acquitted and Los Angeles began to burn.
It has been 30 years since the 1992 LA Riots, and although this seems like many years past, the memory of Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD remains fresh in the minds of Angelenos — like me.
All LA natives, and citizens of the greater country at large, whether they were born after 1992 or not, have been impacted by the legacy of these uprisings. King’s beating and the riots came during a moment in Los Angeles history when the war on drugs and ongoing systemic racism created an environment where the unjustified brutalization of Black people became the norm.
Many hoped that the LA Riots would lead to permanent change in the way we allow our communities to be policed — and some might say that things have changed for the better.However, since the LA Riots, innocent Black people have continued to be terrorized and killed by police, and similar uprisings have erupted in cities across the nation as a result.
In the face of calls to “defund the police,” the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department remains the largest sheriff department in the U.S., and the Los Angeles Police Department is the third largest police department in the U.S., amassing between them a $5.5 billion budget in 2021 and 2022. Still, the LA Riots effectively changed the narrative in Los Angeles by showing that Black people are willing to fight for the safety of their family and neighbors.
I remember telling my mom that I planned to support the protests against the murder of George Floyd in Washington, D.C. in 2020, and she expressed fear about what harm I might find there. My mother grew up in LA in the ’90s, and she was in the city when violence overtook it, so I understood her concern. Still, for me, the memory of the LA Riots are not something to fear. Instead, after I was taught about these uprisings, I learnedmy community can be hurt and still learn to survive, and even thrive, again. I wanted to go to the protests against the murder of George Floyd because I knew, from the history of my city, that it was a necessary action.
For many young people, the legacy of these uprisings and the impact of police brutality have greatly informed the work they choose to do in their communities. 30 years later, we are still asking ourselves — How can we all do better? When will we see lasting change?
I spoke to several young voices from the LA community to learn about their experiences first hearing about the LA Riots, the impact these uprisings have on their ideas surrounding protests, and how they continue to work today to eliminate inequalities and uplift Black folk in the face of violent, systemic racism.
When do you first remember hearing about the LA Riots and what were you told — was it with family, or at school?
“My parents are both educators that were raised in Los Angeles. They taught at public predominantly Black secondary schools in the city. I don’t remember whether or not I learned about it in school first or from their own stories. I do remember them telling me how they felt that night — about how the wrath of the unheard, unprotected, and now enraged Black community was ready to set the city ablaze. No justice, no peace.”Zuhura McAdoo, Age 22
“I was born in ’94, so all my life I’ve heard about it. Because it was fresh, kinda. It was fresh and there wasn’t social media to speed up new news. But even before hearing about the riots, we experienced hearing about the people versus the police. So when we heard about Rodney king, and when I saw the video, I saw how it changed how people moved around the police and perceived them. Specifically with my parents, who were trying to raise a Black man in America, it left a scar on the Black man in Los Angeles.”Na-Kel Smith, Age 27
How do you think the uprising in Los Angeles shaped the city you grew up in and the Black experience in it?
“By the time I was a senior in high school, John Singleton’s “L.A Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later” debuted at the Crenshaw Mall Pan African Film Festival. I knew my neighborhood in the Crenshaw District was in the heart of it all, considering I like to call us the ‘Heart of Black Los Angeles’. The community viewed it as an atrocious act that had an ill-fated verdict. There were a lot of talks not only about the LA Riots but the overarching issue of police brutality faced by the Black community.”Zuhura McAdoo, Age 22
What was your perception after you heard about the protests and how did it inform your view of protests?
“I feel like when I understood the riots and the whole situation, I understood why people did what they did, and felt how they felt, and banded together. I also felt like there was no point, maybe because of, through the years, I was watching people go through the same thing and do the same thing. It expanded what the government is able to do with the National guard and increase militarization with the emotions of a situation.”Na-Kel Smith, Age 27
What do you think is the connection between what happened in Los Angeles and recent uprisings after the murder of George Floyd and the others killed by police brutality in recent years?
“Every uprising is connected because of the root of injustice that we witness across cities, states, and even countries. Police brutality, corrupt legal systems, and other residual institutions of white supremacy/colonization have devastated Black people across the African Diaspora. We all have that shared experience of pain, rage, and hope. Thus we must all eventually share that same desire for liberation through any means that we can.”Zuhura McAdoo, Age 22
How is your work inspired by and grounded in eliminating inequalities, uplifting Black folk, and pursuing justice?
“I believe in creating experiences for Black people, and in that creation I take into account the historical dispositions we have faced as a community. My art curation is in tandem with the curation of a community. Each art exhibition, creative event, or media project I assemble aligns with my mission to protect, serve and uplift Black people through education, accessibility and philanthropy. The Black community is often neglected or excluded from the art world while ironically becoming a great source of ‘inspiration’ (plagiarism). This is why I aim to create these spaces for young Black artists, art historians, and audiences to be able to gain access to these experiences without relying upon proximity to whiteness or traditional institutions.”Zuhura McAdoo, Age 22
“I feel like right now my contribution is to fixing the turmoil left behind in Los Angeles, specifically because it’s been my life forever. [The turmoil] creates damage in the home. It creates a different insecurity within yourself. It creates a different identity. Because it causes fear. Because you know the police are not here to protect you. But it’s a lot of sh*t for the police to protect you from in LA…It changes the perception of the Black man in LA and the perception of the people vs the government and people vs people.”Na-Kel Smith, Age 27
Zuhura McAdoo is a Los Angeles native, entrepreneur, activist, and art and event curator. She provides safe spaces throughout the city where Black people and LGBTQ+ folk can come together and share their voices and passions.
Na-Kel Smith is a musician, actor and professional skateboarder from Los Angeles. He works to provide opportunities for other multi-faceted artists to share their talents.