It’s impossible to understand the history of race and police brutality without the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the events that led up to them. Rodney King, a Black motorist, was beaten and kicked by four LAPD officers after a traffic stop in the spring of 1991. King wasn’t the first or the last Black man to endure a police beating. Unlike many similar incidents in that era, this assault was filmed by a bystander. The tape went viral, and the police were arrested and charged. But months after that videotape ignited a national debate, the officers were acquitted of all charges. Hours after the verdict, the city erupted in protests and destruction that lasted for almost a week. When the smoke cleared, more than 60 people had been killed—most of them African American—thousands were arrested, and millions worth of property was damaged.
Decades later, Americans are still dealing with the legacy of the L.A. riots. And they’re the centerpiece of the latest season of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast. Veteran journalist Joel Anderson is the host of Slow Burn, Season 6: The L.A. Riots, which premiered this week. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Anderson about the roots of the 1992 crisis, and whether it’s better understood as a riot or an uprising. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: If you talk to people today in Los Angeles, there is a concerted effort to say the L.A. uprising instead of the L.A. riots. It’s like today, we’re trying to push press and public discourse to say enslaved people, instead of slaves. Did you think about that when you were putting Slow Burn together? Did you think of saying the L.A .uprising? I mean, because people know it as the L.A. riots, but was that a conversation that your team had?
Joel Anderson: Absolutely, from the very start. When I would reach out to people to talk, depending on who I thought the audience was, I’d say, “oh, I want to talk to you about the L.A. riots or I want to talk to you about the L.A. uprising.” But because media is what it is, this is shorthand. People are familiar with the L.A. riots. And so that’s the nomenclature we decided to use for this season. But yeah, there’s a debate to be had about whether or not it was actually a riot, which is a loaded term. Or an uprising by marginalized people who finally were fed up with being denied justice and being told that their lives didn’t matter.
So, I’m a person that leans toward uprising. If I had to use that language myself that’s probably what I would settle on. But I understand the people that say, “no, that was a riot.” There was a lot of like senseless chaos, senseless death, senseless destruction. Among some people, not everybody. There were some opportunists among the crowd. But at the heart of it, there was a real sense of purpose for what people were doing and getting out to the streets and saying, “we’ve had enough of this.”
I remember being influenced by the press and thinking that Rodney King wasn’t a great guy. And I remember feeling like, the cops are bad, but I don’t know if I want Rodney King to be my neighbor. What do we know that the media got wrong at that time about what happened and about Rodney King, and what did they get right?
Well, I mean, I think there are a couple things at play here. One, what happens when a Black person is victimized? Whether it’s by police or somebody else to make them have to defend their own selves. And so it was really easy to sort of caricature Rodney King because he had been to prison before. And after 1991, he did have repeated run-ins with the law. I mean, from domestic abuse to DUI, all these other things. So in some ways it was fair to say that he was a troubled person, but I think the thing that media didn’t do and probably still couldn’t necessarily do today was humanize him: some of the problems he was having as a result of the trauma he had growing up. He had an abusive father, an alcoholic father, so he had that to deal with.
But after that, I mean, once you get your ass kicked on a camera like that, there are plenty of people that I’ve spoken to that knew him that said, “If Rodney King had been a smaller person, he probably would’ve died.” He was beat up really bad. And so to try to recover from that—it was really easy to villainize him. But I think that people, one thing media didn’t do was sort of contextualize this source of all these issues. They didn’t say, “well, Rodney King is a problem.” You know, he’s having all these problems, but they didn’t say why. This is a guy that clearly is suffering in the wake of suffering a huge national embarrassment, and he was really embarrassed about getting beaten like that on camera.
Can you tell our audience a little bit about the Latasha Harlins story and how that played into the L.A. riots?
A couple of weeks after the Rodney King beating, Latasha Harlins—a 15-year-old Black girl who lives around the corner in south central L.A.—goes into a convenience store and was accused of stealing a bottle of orange juice by the woman behind the counter—a Korean immigrant named Soon Ja Du. In only a few seconds, the confrontation escalates to the point where Soon Ja Du shoots Latasha in the back of the head. It was not a huge story nationally at this point. This is not a common occurrence, but it’s not an infrequent occurrence that there’s some sort of a fight or murder involving shopkeepers and Black people in south central LA. But when the trial came around and the surveillance tape from the community store comes out and it shows literally shows Soon Ja Du holding a gun, aiming it at the back of a 15-year-old girl’s head and shooting it, pulling the trigger, that really inflamed a lot of people.
I’ve told you these basic facts about the case. Well, what if I told you the jury found Soon Ja Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter? The judge does not send her to any jail time. And it’s such a huge miscarriage of justice in that way. Black people who have been living in this city for years and have seen so many acts of brutality and just like this remorseless violence against them. And you can’t even get jail time for something like that—of course it inflamed people. And I would argue, and having talked to the people that we have, that the shooting of Latasha Harlins played as much of a role in why L.A. went up in flames as Rodney King. It’s viscerally jarring, even today.
I’ve had to look at that video to write these scripts and stuff and to report, and it’s shocking to see a girl just get shot in the back of the head and fall to the ground like that. It’s just really heartbreaking. It’s as bad as any of the videos that we see today. Like the Philando Castiles the George Floyds, it’s pretty damn bad.
Latasha Harlins is really, as you’re saying, the catalyst to the level of anger and frustration that people felt so that, yeah, the flame was already starting with Latasha Harlins, it was Rodney King that sort of lit the match. One of the other things that I remember was the first time that I remember public discourse about Black–Asian relations. Did you have the opportunity to talk to any members of the Korean American community about how their lives or how they perceive what happened in Los Angeles?
We talked to several, including one of the founders of the Black–Korean Alliance (BKA), Edward Chang, who is an academic at UC Riverside, which is in Southern California. For years there had been this tension between Black folks and immigrants, particularly Korean and Korean American immigrants. Because in these neighborhoods, there’re these convenience stores, Black people didn’t necessarily have the capital or the opportunity to avail themselves of opportunity to invest in their own communities and run these convenience stores. And so you’ve got people that are immigrating to this country, buying up these business opportunities. I don’t want to make too broad of a statement here, but there was some cultural differences. Like people just didn’t understand each other.
For instance, if you were coming to a store and look somebody in the face, that’s showing respect here, but in Korea, it’s disrespectful to look somebody in the face. To touch their hands when you give them money, that’s something that’s a normal transaction here. In Korea to touch somebody’s hands and put their money directly into the hand that’s not something you do, that’s a sign of disrespect. So there was all of these like little conflicts and misunderstandings. When Soon Ja Du kills Latasha Harlins, that’s a real inflection point in the relationship between Black folks and Koreans.
After the verdict, and or even really the shooting, the BKA fell apart essentially. Because at that point, the tensions were so bad, the anger was so bad within the communities that it was really sort of beyond repair. But yeah, it was symbolic of a diversifying city, a diversifying area, and people are fighting for these resources and they want to be heard and they’re trying to stake their claim to the American dream or whatever. And of course minorities, people from marginalized communities have very limited resources and they’re fighting against each other for it instead of against white folks.