Frustration & Fire: The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising

Today’s post was written by Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

On April 29, 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of all charges, in an East Ventura County Courthouse in Simi Valley, for the brutal attack on an unarmed Black motorist. Rodney Glen King was pulled over on March 3, 1991, by two California Highway Patrol Officers, after a high speed chase from an attempted traffic stop. As these patrolmen attempted to arrest King, four officers from the Los Angeles Police Department arrived on the scene and began to intervene. Sergeant Stacey Koon, along with officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Brisenio viciously assaulted King by kicking him and beating him with their metal batons. Just by chance, the incident was captured on video by George Holliday, and within days the footage was broadcast across the nation and around the world.

Koon, Powell, Wind, and Brisenio were indicted by a grand jury on March 14, 1991, and charged with excessive abuse. Defense lawyers sought a change in venue, citing extensive media coverage, and the trial was moved out of Los Angeles County to nearby Ventura County. The jury was made up of nine whites, one Latin American, one Asian American, and one person of mixed race. They deliberated for seven days before giving their verdict. The decision of this case angered many in Los Angeles and around the country. In an effort to express their frustration, crowds gathered on the corner of Florence and Normandie, in South Central Los Angeles around 5:00 pm. Protesters threw objects at passing cars, set fires to buildings, and rioters of all races looted the stores in the area. At the conclusion of the six days of unrest, sixty-three people were dead, over 7,000 were arrested, and an there was an estimated $1 billion in property damage.

one person walking by a burned out 2 story bldg w/palm trees in the background
Burned out building after the LA Uprising (Wikimedia)

The uprising in Los Angeles was the result of years of mistreatment by the police, racist policies with housing and employment, and economic decline in the Black community. Additionally, many Black Los Angelenos were still furious over the lenient sentencing of Soon Ja Du in the murder of LaTasha Harlins. On March 16, 1991, fifteen-year-old LaTasha Harlins went to Empire Liquor Store, which was owned by Du, to purchase orange juice for her grandmother. A confrontation ensued when Du suspected Harlins of trying to steal. Security cameras showed that when Harlins turned to leave, she had money in her hand, and Du shot her in the back of the head. Du was charged with voluntary manslaughter and found guilty in a jury trial. However, Judge Joyce Karlin overruled the jury, and sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. Harlins’ death elevated already existing tensions between the Black community and the Korean American community, and coupled with the Rodney King verdict, Black Los Angelenos were at a tipping point.

The Public Papers Collection is available online through the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum website. This collection contains several speeches made by the president during these events in 1992. After the first night of protest and fires, President George H. W. Bush released a public statement on the collective feelings of frustration and the violent night in Los Angeles, further stating that the Attorney General of the United States William Barr, would work with California Governor Pete Wilson and Los Angeles City Mayor Tom Bradley to take steps to ensure law and order. Later on April 30th, from the Briefing Room at the White House, President Bush expanded on his earlier remarks, and on May 1st, he made a televised address to the nation concerning the events in South Central Los Angeles, and the next steps that the Department of Justice would pursue in investigating whether or not Rodney King’s federal civil rights were violated.

President Bush traveled to Los Angeles on May 6th to survey the damage and meet with people around the area. He provided his opening remarks about the aftermath of the uprising at the Los Angeles International Airport, and the next day he visited Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where he gave a speech and also held a roundtable with Black community leaders. President Bush also participated in another roundtable at the Radio Korea Broadcast Studio, to address the concerns of Korean Americans and how the federal government planned to assist in rebuilding their community. President Bush concluded his visit to Los Angeles by speaking to firefighters and law enforcement at the Fire Station No. 26, and gave another speech to community leaders at the Challenger Boys and Girls club describing what he had seen in Los Angeles. 

President Bush arriving in Los Angeles (C-SPAN)

Prior to his trip to Los Angeles, President Bush had asked the Department of Justice on April 30, 1992, to investigate the possibility of filing charges against Koon, Powell, Wind, and Brisenio for violating the civil rights of Rodney King. The four officers were indicted by a federal grand jury on August 4, 1992, and charged with willful use of unreasonable force. The trial began on February 25, 1993, in the US District Court for the Central District of California. The jury convicted Koon of willfully permitting the other officers to use unreasonable force during an arrest, and found Powell guilty on one charge of violating King’s civil rights. Wind and Briseno were acquitted. Judge John G. Davies sentenced Koon and Powell to thirty months in a federal correctional camp, but many in the Black community felt the sentencing was too lenient.  The DOJ appealed the sentencing, and on January 13, 1995, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with community leaders and sent the case back to Judge Davies to issue a harsher sentence, for which he refused.

However, on September 28, 1995, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeals for Stacey C. Koon, Petitioner v. US [Case 94-1664] and Laurence M. Powell, Petitioner v. US [Case 94-8842] (NAID 118975114). At first the Supreme Court agreed with the Ninth Circuit Court, but on discovery of two errors, they reversed the ruling and upheld the sentencing of the District Court. Koon and Powell were released in December 1995.

Rodney King never fully recovered from the Foothills incident. His personal struggles with addiction, along with the mental and physical effects from the beatings contributed to a tumultuous life that was often played out in public view. On the evening of June 17, 2012, King died while swimming in his pool.

The National Archives at Riverside, California holds the textual records relating to recovery efforts in Los Angeles after the uprising in the series RG 220 Records of the Presidential Task Force on Los Angeles Recovery, 1992-1993 (NAID 66776514).


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