When Los Angeles Burned: Remembering the LA Riots 25 Years Later

Following the acquittal of police officers for the brutal beating of Rodney King, as well as a light sentence for a Korean shopkeeper in the shooting death of Latasha Harlins, the LA riots began. From April 29 – May 4, 1992, South Central was beset by mass riots, looting, and fires. Over 11,000 people were arrested and an estimated 63 people were killed, including 10 by police. Tom Jennings, a local reporter at the time—and producer of the documentary ‘The Lost Tapes: LA Riots,’ premiering April 23rd on the Smithsonian Channel—writes about the legacy of the riots on their 25th anniversary.

Steve Grayson/Getty

At 3:15 p.m., on April 29, 1992, I was standing in the newsroom of The Outlook newspaper in Santa Monica, California.

Along with a dozen other reporters, watching a grainy television hung from the ceiling, the verdicts in the trial of four white LAPD officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney King were read.

Even for the most cynical journalists who said Rodney King had done himself no favors by leading police on a 100 mph chase across northern Los Angeles, the famous videotape of him being beaten by up to 20 LAPD officers was too much to take.

We all believed they would be convicted of something.

We thought following the verdicts we would head to shopping malls, churches, government offices, police stations and into the city streets to get people’s reactions to at least some of the officers being convicted.

“Not guilty… not guilty… not guilty.” And it kept coming.

With those words, we all knew something terrible was about to happen.

And it did. The city went up in flames. More than 60 people were killed. The veneer that all was right with the world in the land of endless summer was laid bare for the world to see. Klieg lights were replaced by the blinding beams of police helicopters.

It’s been 25 years since Los Angeles ripped itself apart. This week, our documentary The Lost Tapes: LA Riots is appearing on the Smithsonian Channel. Unlike most documentaries, ours has no narration and no interviews. Instead, we use the media from the time to tell the story. We feel it is the best way for viewers to experience what happened in real time.

There are currently six documentary films about the riots on television networks. People have asked me, “Why now? Why so many films on the 25th anniversary?” Some have suggested that the tragic events should be allowed to fade into history. I disagree.

The riots were a watershed moment in modern American history. The nation’s second-largest city lost control. Law enforcement was overwhelmed. Businesses were destroyed. Lives were tragically cut short. It is a moment that deserves to be examined with the advantage of time passed, in an effort to try and understand what happened and why.

But unlike past anniversaries, remembering how Los Angeles nearly destroyed itself is needed now more than ever. The nation is divided in ways that we have not seen in decades; racial divisions in some places are as strong as ‘92. In retelling the story of the riots from all points of view, we hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask: How much have we changed?

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Or have we changed at all?

The person who filmed the beating of Rodney King is named George Holliday. He happened to be living at the wrong place at the right time, and had a camera—one that recorded what can be argued is one of the world’s first viral videos. Today, in a society where just about everyone has a cell phone with a camera, we are all George Holliday.

Recordings of police brutality have become common on the internet. These images outrage us. They show that what happened in Los Angeles in 1992 is not a fading memory, but still very much a tragic part of America’s cultural fabric. Riots have occurred in places like Ferguson, Missouri, lit by the same kind of fuse that exploded into violence in 1992.

By not trying to understand what happened in Los Angeles, the videos that now travel around the world in an instant live in the vacuum of the moment.

At a recent screening of our film, former Los Angeles City Council members Nate Holden and Michael Woo—both key political figures during the riots—said that only by making the effort to understand the differences between races and cultures can we move forward. That is the legacy of the LA riots. The city made changes. The LAPD is different today than it was then. It’s far from perfect, but the effort was made. From the council chambers in City Hall, to police precincts, to gatherings of neighborhood groups, people stood together said, “enough.”

Our film details what happens when those caught up in the heat of the moment forget that those who are different have the same hopes and fears as anyone else. That is what we learn from the past. It cannot be legislated into existence. It’s a desire to change that comes from within.

Without making that effort, cell phone cameras will continue to capture images like the King beating. And we will be left to wonder, “Why does this keep happening?” instead of asking ourselves where have we come from, where are we going and what can we do to make sure it never happens again.