As we remember the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, incidents such as the 2012 Trayvon Martin tragedy, widely believed to be a case of racial profiling, continue to highlight the challenges of American race relations.
|Police arrest a man during the 1965 Watts riots.|
Help young people understand the significance of rioting behavior and place it in historical context, as you explore race riots that occurred in L.A. at two different points in history.
1. First, put the L.A. riots in the context of a broader U.S. timeline.
Race riots began in this country as early as 1862 (during the Civil War) in New York City. Several race riots occurred in 1919 in several Northern U.S. cities. In 1921, a major riot overtook Tulsa, OK; another occurred in 1923 in Rosewood, FL.
During the later Civil Rights era (at its height from the 1950s through late 1960s), a government report on the 1965 L.A. (Watts) riots indicates there were seven race riots in major cities in 1964 (resulting in a total of 5 deaths, nearly 1,000 injuries, more than 2,000 arrests and more than 1,000 businesses damaged). (Point out to students that this was the same year in which President Johnson signed the most sweeping Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction [the post-Civil War period]).
Following the 1965 L.A. riots, there were race riots in 125 American cities in 1967. In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, our nation experienced a significant increase in riots, particularly in large urban areas with high concentrations of poverty and racially based residential segregation. The race riots that occurred in L.A. again in 1992 reminded us that racial tensions are still very much alive in our country.
Students can gain deeper historical perspective by examining this Civil Rights Timeline (covers 1948-2009) and noting other national events that occurred around the same times as the race riots that occurred during the 1960s (in particular 1964, 1965 and 1967) and later. Interestingly, in the same year as the Rodney King beating, President George H.W. Bush (the elder) signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
2. Next, define the term "riot" and discuss the details of each of the L.A. riots.
The History of Riots defines a riot as “a social occasion involving relatively spontaneous collective violence directed at property, persons, or authority.” Different from protests or demonstrations, riots are relatively spontaneous, arising largely from the cumulative effect of many negative prior events and circumstances.
The “last straw” (precipitating incident) immediately preceding a riot is sometimes an event that in the minds of rioters symbolizes the larger injustice of earlier incidents. A good analogy for students is a brush fire: even though the immediate cause of a brush fire is a small spark, the fire wouldn’t have spread out of control so quickly if it had not been preceded by a long period of drought.
The 1965 L.A. Riots
The events known as the “Watts riots” began in the inner-city Watts neighborhood of L.A. on August 11, 1965. An incident of alleged police brutality involved Lee Minikus, a white highway patrol officer who pulled over Marquette Frye, an African American man, on suspicion of drunk driving. As Frye failed sobriety tests, he became angry and started to resist arrest. A rumor circulated that police had assaulted Frye, his mother and maybe his pregnant girlfriend.
Fighting broke out, and the violence soon spread. Over the next six days, the riots left 34 dead, more than 1,000 injured and more than 600 buildings damaged. Rioters looted stores, set fires, beat up white passersby, shot at police, and stoned and shot at firefighters.
Aside from the immediate cause of the Marquette Frye incident, the larger, more cumulative causes of the 1965 L.A. riots were believed to be poor conditions in the predominately African American inner city, including:
For more information, see these sources: 1965 Los Angeles (Watts) Race Riots and Nine Witnesses Share Accounts of the Watts Riots. (NOTE: Use caution in allowing student to access these sources directly. The material may include quotations that contain occasional racial slurs or curse words.)
The 1992 L.A. Riots
The 1992 Los Angeles Race Riots began on April 29, 1992, after a group of L.A. police officers were acquitted for the March 3, 1991 beating of Rodney King, an African American man. The officers had arrested King for drunk driving and claimed his resistance to arrest justified their use of force. A nearby resident videotaped the officers beating King; the tape would play a large role in the events that unfolded. At the officers’ trial, the mostly white jurors saw the full, unedited video of King’s arrest, which included footage of King resisting arrest that was cut out of most news reports. In addition to suspected racism on the part of jurors, the fact that King didn't testify—and that the defense had better witnesses than the prosecution—resulted in the jury acquitting the officers. (Rodney King was later awarded a $3.8 million court settlement in a civil suit against the L.A. Police Department. In addition, two of the officers involved in the incident were convicted of federal civil rights violations and served prison time. Unfortunately, King continued to struggle with substance abuse and passed away in 2012.)
The riots started in South Central L.A. after the not-guilty verdicts were read. By the time the riots ended on May 3, 55 people (mostly Asians and Latinos) were dead, 10,000 businesses had been destroyed by fire, and there was over $1 billion in damages.White truck driver Reginald Denny became a symbol of the violence when he was pulled from his truck and beaten by rioters.
Issues associated with the riots
Police brutality and racial profiling were key issues in the events that immediately precipitated the riots of both 1965 and 1992. In fact, the precipitating events were remarkably similar in both cases (African American man gets pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, followed by excessive police response to the man’s perceived resistance to arrest).
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defines racial profiling as: “the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. Examples of racial profiling are the use of race to determine which drivers to stop for minor traffic violations, or the use of race to determine which pedestrians to search for illegal contraband.” The L.A. Police Department continues to struggle with accusations of bias and racial profiling, as evident in this 2009 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) media release.
The ACLU also describes the nature and extent of police brutality and excessive force across the nation, suggesting possible actions and responses for local communities.
3. Finally, discuss the nature and characteristics of riots of the type that occurred in L.A.
There are several types of riots. Discuss the specific characteristics of the L.A. riots:
Introducing the discussion to students
In 1992, devastating race riots occurred in Los Angeles, CA, sparked by an incident of police brutality involving an African American man named Rodney King. The 1992 riots were eerily similar to riots that happened in the same city nearly 30 years before that, in 1965. More recent incidents such as the 2012 Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida, widely believed to be a case of racial profiling, continue to remind us of the challenges of American race relations. (In fact, a small group of protesters did turn violent in Los Angeles in July 2013, following the not-guilty verdict in the case of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed the unarmed Martin.)
We’re going to explore both L.A. riots and put them in historical context. Then we’ll learn about how and why riots happen, and discuss the long-term meaning and significance of the L.A. events.
Together, let’s define some vocabulary words we will need to discuss these events: riot, communal riot, collective violence, racial profiling, segregation, cumulative, precipitating, socially constructed and social change.
Options for student discussion questions