As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Crisis in Los Angeles: The Rodney King Riots

Following are the discussion notes for today:

To see a 2-minute video on the Watts Riots, see

The Geopolitical Realities of South Los Angeles:





Discussion Goals:

  1. To understand the evolution of South Central Los Angeles prior to and after the Watts Riots.
  2. To follow the growth of South Central L.A. prior to and after the Rodney Riots.
  3. To understand one woman's attempt to make sense of the Rodney King Riots - Anna Deavere Smith in Twilight.Picture of restricted housing development in L.A. in 1950sPhoto of a racially restricted housing development in L.A. in 1950.

Changes in the Watts Community, 1940-1960. The black population of Watts increased eightfold and by 1965, African-Americans were 87% of the population in Watts making it the most segregated city in the west. Some of the consequences of such rapid population and segregation in Watt include:

All of these conditions contributed to the Watts riots which began on the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, when a young black man was arrested for drunken driving and many people in the area of the arrest stated that two black women were victims of police brutality. This is what happened next...

And what was the aftermath of the Riots?

  1. 1965 - The state sponsored the McCone Commission Report, Violence in a City - An End or a Beginning? - which identified numerous contributors to the explosion: inequities and conditions that had been observed for at least 20 years prior to the riot; congestion that resulted in decaying neighborhoods, severe underemployment, police harassment, limited opportunity and inadequate education; increased poverty; functional illiteracy; general racial discrimination of African Americans of all classes. However, while it admitted that black residents of Watts were disadvantaged, they also stated that instead of protesting, residents needed to shoulder "a full share of the responsibility of his own well being."
  2. Robert Fogelson's critique of the McCone report - which stated that the report used the language of romantic capitalism to justify the fact that there was no sufficient cause for such violence. It concluded that violence in Watts was unacceptable and that no matter how grave the residents' grievances, "there are no legitimate grounds for violent protest."
  3. 1970 Institute of Government and Public Affairs study, The Los Angeles Riots: A Socio-Psychological Study - which based the following findings on interviews with 586 residents of South Central LA:

Photo of Rodney KingEvents leading to and following the Rodney King Trial and Riots:

1991 - On March 3, Los Angeles motorist Rodney King was chased by two Highway Patrol officers who tried to arrest him after an 8-mile long chase. The Highway Patrol officers were assisted by LAPD Sergeant Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind. From his nearby apartment, George Holliday videotaped the scene as three officers hit the unarmed King over fifty times with metal batons before finally handcuffing him. King was taken to a hospital by ambulance. The tape - usually edited to delete a 13-second piece in which King charged the officers- was repeatedly shown on TV.

March 4, Holliday took his videotape to Los Angeles television station KTLA which broadcasts it on the evening news.

March 5, CNN obtained a copy of the Holliday videotape and played it on its nationwide cable news program. The FBI opened an investigation of the King beating.

March 14, the grand jury returned indictments against all four LAPD officers.

On March 16, just 13 days after the King beating, a 15-year-old African American girl was shot in the back of the head by a Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du in South Central L.A.

In the trial of the shopkeeper - People v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County - the jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter and recommended a 16-year prison sentence, believing that Du's shooting was fully within her control and she fired the gun voluntarily. The presiding judge reduced the sentence to five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.

1992 - On Feburary 3, the trial of four LAPD officers on charges of beating King began in Simi Valley.

Private residence after Rodney King RiotsOn April 29, the jury - 10 whites, one Hispanic, and one Filipino-American - acquitted Koon, Wind, and Briseno of all charges and is unable to reach verdict on one charge against Powell. By 5pm, violence and looting broke out in South Central Los Angeles - violence that lasted three days. When the riots were over, 53 people were killed; over 16,000 people were arrested; businesses were looted or burned in areas as diverse as Koreatown, Hollywood, Watts, Beverly Hills, Long Beach, and Pomona; the fire department responded to over 500 fires; and over $1 billion total property losses occurred. The photo to the left is of a private residence destroyed during the riots.

On April 30, President George Bush ordered the Department of Justice to investigate the possibility of filing charges against the LAPD officers for violating the federal civil rights of Rodney King.

1993 - On April 16, the federal jury convicted Koon and Powell on one charge of violating King's civil rights and found Wind and Briseno not guilty. No disturbances followed the verdict.

On August 4, Judge Davies sentenced Powell and Koon to thirty months in a federal correctional camp.

1994 - On April 19, in a civil trial, King was awarded $3.8 million in damges for medical bills and pain and suffering after he gave graphic testimony describing his beating and asserted that he had heard racial epithets as he lay on the ground. He did not receive punitive damages.

1995 - On January 13, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Judge Davies' sentence was too lenient and sent the case back for resentencing.

October 15-16, Koon was released from the Federal Work Camp in Sheridan, Oregon, to enter a halfway house in California, while Powell was released from a Federal Work Camp near Edwards Air Force Base.

Dec. 13-14, Powell and then Koon were released.

1996 - On June 13, the U. S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and upheld the sentence of Judge Davies on most points, but ordered resentencing on the basis of two errors.

On September 26, Judge Davies refused to extend Koon and Powell's sentences, thus reimposing the 30-month sentence. The case was closed.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993, Anna Deavere Smith said of Twilight - "I'm just trying to create possibilities for dialog, to decentralize the race discussion, to try to bring more voices to it that don't get heard. I believe we haven't found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that language is by talking in it - not about it - and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties a so big that we can barely speak."

Photo of Anna Deavere Smith acting in "Twilight"

Questions for discussion of Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith:

  1. Which of the characters provided the most convincing portrayal of injustice? How and why?
  2. What do you think she wants us to understand about the causes and consequences of the riots?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with LAPD Chief Gates when he said that the Rodney King beatings had nothing to do wih race? Why or why not? How does his response compare and contrast with what Lou Cannon found in his research?
  4. One of the accused who was let go said the riots were the work of "cynical, diabolical predators." What does this mean? Why might he feel this way?
  5. Maxine Waters said the riot was "the voice of the unheard." Do you agree? How and why? How is looting a function of that voice - or is it?
  6. According to Smith, in 1999 - 7 years after the riots - not much had changed in South L.A. Why?