But the cause of the riot (or uprising, depending on your point of view) lies in the most searing image of all-a videotape of an unarmed black man named Rodney King, laying face down on the ground as four white police officers savagely beat him. This incident from spring 1991, in which the police hauled King out of his car after a high-speed chase (King had originally been speeding and would not stop for the police) was captured on tape by an apartment dweller who saw the beating unfold on the street below. He sold it to television news stations and it played endless across the nation. It was uncontestable evidence of a great injustice that many people had read about but few had actually witnessed.
The police officers were promptly brought to trial. The venue was changed to Simi Valley, a predominantly white suburb far from the urban core of LA, located on the northernmost boundary of that vast metropolis. On April 28, 1992, the jury delivered its verdict-the four policemen were innocent. The next day, the multi-ethnic citizens of South Central Los Angeles took their rage, grief, and decades of frustration out to the streets.
Los Angeles had experienced riots before. The Watts riots erupted in 1964 after an altercation between a white police officer and black man. In 1967, riots broke out in more than 150 American cities, causing then-President Lyndon Johnson to convene the Kerner Commission, examining social conditions for the urban poor. California congresswoman Maxine Waters pointed out that the issues cited twenty years ago in the Kerner Report--poverty, racial profiling by LAPD, and deteriorating social services and public education-were the same causes of the 1992 LA riots. Nothing had changed.
Anna Deavere Smith, an award-winning actress, monologist, and professor of drama at Stanford University, was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum in downtown LA to interview the participants and create a play. She wrote in the introduction to that play (entitled Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), "Los Angeles shows us that the story of race in America is much larger and more complex than a story of black and white. There are new players in the race drama. Whereas Jewish merchants were hit during the Watts riots, Korean merchants were hit this time. Although the media tended to focus on blacks in South-Central, the Latino population was equally involved. We tend to think of race as, us and them -- i.e. black or white depending on one's own color. But the relationships among peoples of color and within racial groups are getting more and more complicated."
- Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith, Anchor Press, 1994
11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.