April 29, 2022

The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

April 29, 1992. A jury acquits four police officers in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King, sparking six days of violence and unrest in Los Angeles.


Cold Open

CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains depictions of extreme violence and may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s just before 1 AM on March 3rd, 1991.

At their apartment in the San Fernando Valley, George and Maria Holliday wake to an unfamiliar sound.

George tries to shut out the noise and fall back asleep, but the sound only gets louder. Soon, it’s accompanied by police sirens.

George and Maria get out of bed and walk to their balcony to investigate the source of the commotion.

Outside on a street below, George spots a parked white Hyundai. He watches as police cars surround the vehicle which is illuminated by helicopter’s spotlight. Soon, four officers approach the car.

Instinctively, George runs back inside to grab his brand-new video camera. He rushes back to the balcony and presses record just in time to capture one of the police officers striking the Hyundai’s driver, a young Black man, across the side of his head. George watches as the young man falls to the ground and four officers surround him.

While George looks on and films, dozens of police officers also watch from the perimeter as the young black man is kicked, stomped, and struck 56 times before then being hog-tied and dragged to the side of the road to wait for an ambulance.

The driver of the Hyundai shown in George’s video will soon be identified as 25-year-old Rodney King. In the early morning of March 3rd, 1991, he was caught speeding on a Los Angeles freeway. But he didn't pull over fearing that his probation for a robbery offense would be revoked. Instead, he led LAPD officers on a high-speed chase for eight miles, before eventually coming to a stop and then enduring the LAPD’s brutal beating.

The attack will leave King with 11 skull fractures, a broken leg, broken teeth, permanent brain damage, a pulverized eye socket, and cheekbones so smashed they will require reconstructive surgery. Unaware the incident was being recorded, the police will claim in their official incident report that King sustained only cuts and bruises “of a minor nature.”

But, George’s footage will reveal the truth. Soon to be aired by television station, KTLA, George’s video will quickly become a media sensation, and it will lead to the indictment of four LAPD officers on charges of assault and use of excessive force.

The video will also spark outrage across the nation, showing an extent of police brutality the many white Americans had never imagined, but many Black Americans knew too well. Yet, even after the video’s release, the LAPD will deny the incident was racially motivated. Still, for many Americans, the video will be clear evidence of police brutality and systemic racism. And, one year after the police’s beating of Rodney King, public outrage will boil over when a jury acquits, on nearly all accounts, every officer charged in the beating of Rodney King on April 29th, 1992.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is April 29th, 1992: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

Act One: Injustice in the Courtroom

It’s 10 AM on March 16th, 1991 in South Los Angeles, thirteen days after the beating of Rodney King.

Nine-year-old Ismail Ali walks with his 13-year-old sister toward a Korean corner store.

For years, cheap real estate has drawn Korean business owners to South LA, a predominantly Black area. But tensions have been building between Korean store owners and their Black customers over racism and economic inequality. Many Black residents have struggled to watch Korean immigrants find opportunities in Black communities that they feel deprived of. But, Ismail is too young to know much about that. As he enters the market, the only thing on his mind is what candy to buy.

As Ismail browses the shelves, he notices a young Black girl enter the store behind him. He watches as she grabs an orange juice, puts the bottle in her bag, and walks toward the counter. In her hand, Ismail spots a couple of crumbled dollar bills.

But, as she nears the counter, the Korean shopkeeper’s voice rings out. Ismail listens to the woman behind the counter accuse the girl of shoplifting, before leaning across the counter, grabbing the girl by her sweater, and reaching for her backpack.

In response, the girl hits the shopkeeper, knocking her to the ground. Alarmed, Ismail reaches for his sister’s hand as the shopkeeper jumps to her feet and throws a stool at the girl. The girl dodges the stool, tosses her bottle of orange juice on the counter, then turns to leave the store empty-handed.

But Ismail spots the shopkeeper’s hand disappear under the counter. He's filled with dread as he watches the shopkeeper raise a revolver and fire a single shot into the back of the girl’s head.

The killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins will send shockwaves through LA’s Black community, escalating tensions between the city’s Korean and Black residents. Soon, the LAPD will call a press conference to quell rumors that the shooting was racially motivated. Police Commander Michael Bostic will acknowledge the tensions between the area’s Korean and Black communities, but dismiss claims that the incident had racial overtones, simplifying the killing to “just a business dispute.”

Eight months later, a jury will find the store owner, Soon Ja Du, guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a verdict that will come with a recommended 16-year prison sentence. But, Soon Ja Du will never go to jail. Declaring her not a danger to the community, the judge will reduce her sentence to community service and a $500 fine.

The lenient sentence will exacerbate many Black residents’ distrust of the criminal justice system, deepening a cynicism that will soon turn to outrage and violence.


It’s 3:15 PM on April 29th, 1992 at the East County Courthouse in Simi Valley, one year after the beating of Rodney King.

Prosecutor Terry White tries to hide his anxiety as he waits to hear the jury’s verdict. White knows that, with the video evidence the prosecution has, this should be an open-and-shut case. But, White also knows that he can’t count on a guilty verdict that the jury has got.

Two weeks after the beating of Rodney King, the LA County District Attorney charged four LAPD officers on charges of assault and use of excessive force. Five months ago, over concerns of a tainted jury, a judge made the decision to transfer the officers’ trial from Los Angeles to Simi Valley, a conservative and 88% white suburb 35 miles north of LA. Last month, a panel composed of ten white, one Hispanic, and one Asian-American juror was picked for the trial, a selection the LAPD officers' defense team labeled “a gem of a jury.”

When White heard about the white majority of the jurors, he knew the odds would not be in the prosecution’s favor. As a black man, White also wondered whether his race would be a liability at trial. Now, as he watches the clerk rise to deliver the jury’s verdict, all he can do is hope and pray.

"Clerk: We the jury, in the above-entitled action, find the defendant Laurence M. Powell not guilty of the crime of assault by force likely to produce great bodily injury, and with a deadly weapon."

White’s stomach sinks as the clerk reads the same verdict for the remaining three officers.

In the end, all four will be found not guilty on all charges save one: the jury will fail to reach a verdict on one officer’s charge of excessive force.

Immediately after the delivery of the verdict, the city of Los Angeles will erupt in anger and protest. Within 30 minutes, a crowd of over 300 people will appear at the Los Angeles Courthouse to protest the verdicts; hundreds will storm LAPD’s headquarters; and thousands will take to the streets with a common declaration: “No justice, no peace.”

Act Two: Violence in the Streets

It’s 6:46 PM on April 29th, 1992 in South Los Angeles.

On the TV in his living room, a black man named Titus Murphy watches in horror at the violence unfolding just a few blocks away from his home.

Over the last three hours, protests have given way to chaos. Titus has watched news coverage shift from the outrage outside the courthouse in Simi Valley to images of rioters lighting buildings on fire, looting businesses, and throwing rocks at white drivers. Now, just blocks from Titus, at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the violence has begun to escalate.

Titus watches helicopter footage of rioters pulling a white truck driver out of his 18-wheeler and tossing him into the intersection where they beat and kick him mercilessly. One of the rioters strikes him with a hammer. Another raises a cinder block and throws it at the truck driver’s head.

Seeing this, Titus decides he cannot stand by and watch a man die. So, Titus and his girlfriend Teri hop in their car and rush to the scene. When they arrive, they find another concerned citizen, a Black woman, at the truck driver’s side trying to keep him alive.

Titus and Teri join her, and then Titus looks around hoping to find a police officer for help. Instead, he sees a Black man running toward them. And for a moment, Titus worries that this man is a rioter who’s come to finish off the injured driver. Titus relaxes when the man explains he’s a fellow trucker who’s here to help.

Together, the four good samaritans drive the trucker to the nearest hospital. 

Reginald Denny, the truck driver, will come close to dying. X-rays will reveal 91 fractures in his skull, a trauma that will leave him with a permanent crater in his forehead. But, thanks to the help of Titus and the other residents who assisted in the rescue, Denny will survive.

But, the violence won’t end with Denny. Just minutes after his rescue, at the exact same intersection, a Guatemalan immigrant named Fidel Lopez will be mistakenly identified as white, pulled from his truck, and violently attacked. But still, the LAPD are nowhere to be found. From the moment the violence first started, it will take the LAPD three hours to respond. Lopez’s life will be saved by a Black minister who will shield him from the rioters with his own body.

As night falls, a crowd will gather for a peace rally at LA’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church. There, Mayor Tom Bradley, LA’s first Black mayor, will call for the violence to end, before declaring a state of emergency. But Bradley’s pleas will fall on deaf ears.


It’s April 30th, 1992 in East LA, the second day of the riots.

From her home in Koreatown, Jung Hui Lee watches as her TV is filled with images of fires, looting, and armed Koreans strewn across rooftops.

So far, at least 24 people have died and 900 have been injured in the riots. Two hours after yesterday’s attack on Reginald Denny, Mayor Bradley ordered a citywide curfew and declared a state of emergency, allowing California Governor Pete Wilson to call on the National Guard. But a lack of preparation has delayed their deployment.

Meanwhile, tensions between LA’s Black and Korean communities have caused Korean businesses to be disproportionately targeted by the rioters. Yesterday, Lee and her husband closed their stores to stay home with their son and daughter. And it's there, watching on TV, that Lee has seen her neighborhood in Koreatown be virtually abandoned by the police, leading many Korean residents to take up arms themselves to defend their stores and their community among these vigilante defenders as Lee’s son, Eddie. 

Earlier today, Eddie heard a rumor that a group of rioters had taken over the rooftop of a Korean-owned restaurant. So, against his mother Lee’s wishes, Eddie left the house to defend the neighborhood. Now, as Lee watches footage of armed Koreans stationed across rooftops, she worries for her son’s safety.

Feeling uneasy, Lee turns the TV off and listens to the radio instead. But her anxiety only grows as she hears a Korean man has been killed in a shooting in Koreatown. Lee tries to remain calm as she waits and prays for Eddie to walk in through their front door.

But, Eddie will never come home. Jung Hui Lee will learn that her son Eddie, on his way to defend Korea town, was mistaken for a looter, and shot by another Korean protecting the very rooftop Eddie left home to defend.

Soon, 30,000 residents will assemble in Koreatown to march for peace, Eddie’s family will be among them. And they won’t be alone in their desire for the violence to end. The day after Eddie’s death, Rodney King will decide it’s time for him to speak out.

Act Three: Rodney King Speaks Out

It’s May 1st, 1992, the third day of the riots.

Reporters swarm the site of a press conference where Rodney King prepares to make a televised statement.

Since the riots began, dozens have died and hundreds have been injured. But throughout the violence, Rodney King has stayed out of the limelight. Today though, he decides it’s time to make his voice heard.

"King: I just want to say – you know – can we, can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? And ... I mean we've got enough smog in Los Angeles let alone to deal with setting these fires and things ... It's just not right. It's not right, and it's not going to change anything. We'll get our justice. They've won the battle, but they haven't won the war. We'll have our day in court, and that's all we want."

The day of King’s plea, 4,000 National Guard troops will arrive in LA. By the evening, the bulk of the troops will be deployed in the streets. And, over the next three days, the riots will subside, coming to an end on May 4th, 1992. But the damage to LA will linger, with South Los Angeles and Koreatown bearing the brunt of the devastation.

All told, more than 60 people will die during the riots, ten of them shot and killed by law enforcement. Over 2,000 will be injured, and more than 12,000 arrested. The total material and property damage will be estimated at $1 billion. Damage to Korean-owned businesses will account for nearly half of this estimate.

And it will be one year later, that Rodney King will get his day in court. Three months after the riots, the four officers acquitted in King’s beating will be indicted by a federal grand jury on civil rights violations. Amid mounting public pressure and under criticism from his own rank and file, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates will retire as police chief the same day. And, on April 17th, 1993, the federal jury will convict two of the four officers.

But the criticism of the police won’t end with these convictions. For many, the lack of police protection during the LA Riots will only spur on a continued distrust of the LAPD. A distrust that many Americans feel is misfounded, until widespread use of video cameras in cell phones begins to build an increasingly convincing and disturbing case that systemic racism, police brutality, and economic inequality persist long after the jury read the verdict that sparked the LA Riots on April 29th, 1992.


Next on History Daily. May 2nd, 1938. Ella Fitzgerald begins her rise to fame when she records “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” with Chick Webb and His Orchestra.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.