I have had immense privilege in my life to have never had a life-threatening or violent encounter with the police, and to have grown up in an area, Commerce, that was relatively quiet. I have always known very little about the 1992 L.A. Uprising apart from the infamous April 29, 1992 Sublime song, “There was a riot on the streets/tell me, where were you?” It was not until the 28th anniversary this past April that I watched the 2017 documentary LA 92, directed by TJ Martin and Daniel Lindsay. It is a documentary woven together with archival footage from the 1992 Uprising and is book-ended with footage of the civil unrest from the Watts Uprising of 1965. At the time of my first viewing of the documentary, I, like many people, could not have predicted what would unravel across the nation in the coming months. On May 29, 2020, in Los Angeles, the historical memory that fueled the riots was reignited and the scene became a familiar one, a city in flames, looting, and mass protests.
LA 92 begins with a black screen while police radio plays and we can hear the police using racial slurs to describe Black people, as well as describing the scenes of crime and looting. This is followed by black and white footage of Los Angeles in flames, utter chaos and confusion on the ground unfolding, interrupted with abrupt silence and bold letters at the center of the screen, “August 1965, Watts District of Los Angeles.” The 1965 Watts Uprising erupted from a case of police brutality, as the newscaster describes, after the cops had stopped two young Black men suspected of drunk driving, which quickly escalated. Shortly after the police detained one of the individuals suspected of drunk driving, a crowd had already gathered. The unrest escalated once police began to clash with the crowd; this, compounded with high tension between the police and the community of Watts, catalyzed the rebellion. The majority of the deaths as a result of the riots were Black folks, and unsurprisingly the police chief described those whose lives were lost (as well as protesters) as less than human to detract from the issue at hand. A young man is interviewed and describes the events as something that have been coming for a long time after years of brutality. Bill Stout of CBS Los Angeles speaks bluntly, in concluding his segment, “So serious and explosive is the situation…the August riots may be only a curtain raiser to what could blow up one day in the future.” Within the first five minutes of the film, the viewer is faced with a harsh realization — the anger and frustration that fueled the uprising in 1965 is the same frustration that fueled the uprising in 1992, and unequivocally the same anger and frustration that fueled the uprising in 2020.
The film shows Mayor Tom Bradley overseeing a city full of promise and the potential for an economic boom as the 80s end and US troops are pulled out of the Middle East. Underneath the illusion of promise, though, L.A. was reeling from escalating tensions with LAPD as a result of Operation Hammer, which was implemented in 1987 to combat gang violence. As a result, police presence was heavily concentrated in working-class communities of color, leading to these neighborhoods being disproportionately affected by police violence. 1991 was a tumultuous year for Los Angeles because of two high profile cases of violence against Black Angelenos. This is the year that the Rodney King beating footage is shown on TV, sparking outrage, and this is the that year Latasha Harlins is killed. Harlins was a 15-year-old Black teenager who had a heated conflict with Soon Ja Du, a liquor store owner who thought Harlins was going to steal a box of orange juice. The conflict turned tragic when Du shot Harlins in the back of the head, which was caught on tape, as Harlins began to walk away. Du was taken to court and served no jail time because of a sympathetic judge, Joyce Karlin, who let Du off the hook (going against the recommenced sentence of 16 years). Against this backdrop, the police became increasingly militarized and brutal towards people of color. The rush of music and archival footage of police brutality, including the Rodney King beating, cuts straight to the heart of the viewer, because after years of such behavior from the police towards communities of color, an egregious example was finally caught on tape for the world to see. Yet, as in the cases of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Oscar Grant, George Floyd, and so many others, this video footage would not guarantee a path to any type of justice. Due to public pressure, the four police officers who beat King were indicted and arrested, in an attempt to quell public outrage. The archival footage is presented and edited without voiceovers or commentary, woven together with a brilliant score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, who capture the rollercoaster of emotions from such an important period in history. The tragic and intense footage is perfectly matched with a score that does not impede on the film’s message but presents it in a way that reflects the bold images that unravel throughout the film.
The film itself completely floored me because I had never seen such an eruption of pure anger and frustration in my life, with the exception of the Ferguson Uprising after Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown (which I saw on the news from afar). The acquittal of George Zimmerman after he murdered Trayvon Martin also generated a huge response in Los Angeles for a couple of days in 2013, but the response was nowhere near the level of intensity of the 1992 Uprising. I felt an intrigue and curiosity about 1992 because of the similarities between then and now and wondered to myself if Los Angeles would ever reach a similar point again (pre-George Floyd).
LA 92 does an excellent job of illustrating the disaster of the Rodney King trial, which inevitably sparked the uprising. Footage of tensions before the acquittal of the police officers outside of the courthouse are like a preview into an awakened sleeping giant as the riots are just moments away. As in 2020 and 1965, the circumstances of this case created a perfect storm that lead to such a powerful revolt. The footage of the citywide reaction is like a tapestry of collective rage, frustration and utter exhaustion as the words “not guilty” repeat like a broken record player.
The trial of Rodney King was ultimately set up to fail in various ways, whether it was the nearly all-white jury, the area to which they moved the trial (majority white suburbs), or the history of cops in the U.S. seldom getting any jail time for their heinous actions. All these factors, in addition to growing tension within the city between cops and different ethnic groups, created a powder keg in which the King trial was the final straw. The not-guilty verdict would become the norm across the U.S. countless times as videos of murderous cops and complaints of police brutality would fall on the courts’ deaf ears.
The sounds of sirens, broken glass, and angry voices are captured moments after the not-guilty verdict is announced, and the film splices in footage of the enraged protesters and religious leaders who called for peace. Their sentiments are the same as those in the current political moment, calls to end racial violence and unjust killings at the hands of police. It brought tears to my eyes because I haven’t seen much change since then — rarely has justice been served. No wonder that 28 years later another uprising would begin and the whole country would be engulfed in flames.
The raw footage of the beatings of random passersby in South Central is hard to watch, no narration or overbearing soundtrack, only the brutal reality of the displaced anger toward innocent bystanders. LA 92 shows the destruction of working-class communities of color as a result of the riots, some of which was a byproduct from anger over the killing of Latasha Harlins. The destruction of neighborhoods became a focal point for many people, and some criticized the violence to shift focus away from the uprising itself, and the conditions that caused it. During the 1992 Uprising, and still today, the value of property was often spoken of as higher than the value of human life, which is simply not true.
The film does not overlook or sugarcoat the violence and death toll of the 1992 Uprising. The tragic images of the aftermath of the destruction, bloodied abandoned bodies, and burning buildings while the National Guard rolls into the streets of LA captures the reality of the moment. The situation was eventually quelled, and after a montage of photos of the riots, the film shows George H.W. Bush, who unsurprisingly condemns the violence, delivering a toothless statement about racism in the U.S. What follows the unrest are waves of peaceful protests led by Korean-Americans in LA who called for peaceful demonstrations against police brutality (there’s even a cameo from Edward James Olmos) while volunteers clean up the burnt remains of withered buildings. Although some had condemned the looting and called for peace instead, the protesters’ stance remained the same: justice for Rodney King.
After watching LA 92 again nearly two weeks after the national uprising had sparked, I couldn’t help but notice the repetition of history and the ongoing need for radical change. The material conditions that led to the 1965 and 1992 uprisings have not changed, and as a result the 2020 uprising has flourished in both huge metropolitan cities and small towns across the country. Heightened awareness of protests from social media, the disproportionate affect of COVID-19 on working-class people of color, and widespread unemployment led to mass participation in the current movement. Although the protests began specifically because of George Floyd’s murder, the discussion has broadened into defunding the police, as well as questioning the function of police in society as a whole. It hurts to see the militaristic response to people in genuine anguish, and to see the same empty responses from political leaders that gloss over the same sickness that has been plaguing LA and the U.S. since the Watts Uprising of 1965, and since the inception of the country itself. The documentary is a timely, important, and tragic adrenaline rush that transports the viewer to 1992, showing us the prelude to the current political moment. Although it was initially released in 2017, the events unfolding in Los Angeles and across the country are the legacy of historical trauma and longstanding issues of racism within the U.S. The current uprising has been born out by the harsh reality of minimal progress nearly 55 years since the Watts Riots, the harsh reality of political leaders spewing out the same empty script, and the harsh reality of the demands of the people being largely ignored and dismissed. “No justice, no peace” isn’t a just a protest slogan but something to be taken literally; it means chanting in the streets, it means burning shit to the ground, it means expropriation of wealth, and it means unrest until people see material results.
LA 92 has a running time of one hour and fifty three minutes and is available to watch for free on YouTube and you can watch it by clicking here.
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