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Lesson Plan Booster: The L.A. Race Riots

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
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.


History, civics

Grade level


Student objectives

  • Examine and put in historical context the Los Angeles race riots of 1965 and 1992
  • Understand the history, causes, significance and impact of rioting on American civil rights and race relations
  • Consider the issues of police brutality and racial profiling in the past and present
  • Suggest related social-justice action steps


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:

  • Lack of jobs
  • Lack of job preparedness (lack of access to the few available jobs)
  • Educational inequities
  • Resentment and hatred of police

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:

  • The L.A. riots of 1965 and 1992 could be characterized as communal riots, where collective violence is directed at an opposing group (defined by race, ethnicity or religion).
  • The goal of collective violence is inflicting harm or destruction for the purpose of producing social change. (Ironically, however, riots rarely result in a transfer of power from one social group to another.) Collective violence is typically directed at property, persons or authority. Both L.A. riots involved backlash against police (authority) and against whites (persons of a particular social group). L.A. rioters also engaged in significant property destruction.
  • Riots are socially constructed in that rioters define their behaviors in non-conventional ways that are common only to other rioters. For example, although looting would normally be defined as stealing, during the L.A. riots, participants changed the meaning of this activity to “taking what is owed due to past racial discrimination and mistreatment by police.”
  • As mentioned previously, although a riot may have an immediate precipitating incident (e.g., the treatment of African American men Marquette Frye and Rodney King), the violence is really the result of cumulative negative events and circumstances that preceded it.
  • Riots are relatively spontaneous and involve neither centralized leadership nor a significant amount of planning and coordination.


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

  1. What was similar about the 1965 and 1992 L.A. race riots? What was different?
  2. What has been the legacy of the 1965 and 1992 L.A. riots? Did they make effective statements? If so, what were the statements? Did Americans, as a whole, listen to these statements?
  3. African American author John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote the article “Burned, Baby, Burned” about the impact of the L.A. riots. In the article, he suggests that the infusion of violence into African American protest set the Civil Rights movement back, rather than having the intended outcome of social change. Do you agree with McWhorter? Why or why not?
  4. In terms of race relations, are things different today than they were in 1965? In 1992? Regardless of what may be different, are we better off as a country today than we were at those points in history?
  5. From reviewing the Civil Rights Timeline, does it seem that race riots more often occur (ironically) at times of political change that seems to be in a positive direction (e.g., passage of Civil Rights laws)? Can you think of any reasons to explain this apparent paradox? (NOTE: This government report offers possible explanations.)
  6. Consider rioters’ “socially constructed” meanings of violence and looting (defining them as acceptable and justified activities). At other points in history, have groups participated in similar controversial activities that had similar socially constructed meanings?
  7. If you could have spoken to the L.A. rioters in 1992 or 1965, what would you have said? What would you have said to Marquette Frye, Rodney King and the L.A. police?
  8. Based on this media release, what has changed in the L.A. police department since the 1992 riots? What has not changed?
  9. In 2012 George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, admitted to killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American male, in Sanford, FL.Zimmerman had been following Martin, believing that the youth looked suspicious. After confronting Martin, Zimmerman maintained that Martin attacked him, leaving him no choice but to defend himself. Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July 2013. What is similar about the Trayvon Martin case and the incidents involving Marquette Frye (1965) and Rodney King (1991)? What is different?
  10. A key factor in the 1992 L.A. riots was the existence of videotape of the Rodney King incident. Since that time, how has the wide availability of videotape changed police response? How has it changed public perceptions and assumptions? (Consider YouTube and countless “caught on video” incidents.)
  11. Are police brutality and racial profiling issues in our community? What responses do you recommend, either on the local or national levels?
  12. Throughout U.S. history, race riots have tended to occur in large urban areas with high concentrations of poverty and racially based residential segregation, where jobs are hard to come by, and where residents feel isolated from mainstream society and cut off from pathways to success. In this context, perceived police mistreatment has often been the “spark” that turned a long-smoldering fire into the uncontrollable blaze of a riot. What are some social-justice and Civil Rights-related action steps that could be taken to prevent future riots? Who would need to lead and participate in these action steps?


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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