Revolution #266, April 22, 2012

20th Anniversary of the Los Angeles Rebellion

It’s Right to Rebel Against Injustice!

Twenty years ago, April 29, 1992, the city of Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country, erupted in rebellion. Black people, joined by Latinos and people of many nationalities and coming from many different backgrounds, poured into the streets and refused to silently accept the unjust verdict which had just been rendered in the trial of the cops who brutalized Rodney King. The major news anchors in the country sat tight-lipped and nervous while walls of fire raged on the screens behind them. People were shown dancing in the light of those flames, venting their anger, fighting the police whenever and wherever they encountered them.

At some point in the first ferocious hours of the uprising, the authorities decided to pull back many of their armed enforcers from the city’s neighborhoods, concentrating instead on protecting the key centers of power and wealth. As that first day rolled over into three days, the powers mobilized the largest domestic military occupation since the 1960s. Still, people moved with pride and their eyes shined with a mixture of rage and ferocious joy, a joy rooted in the idea that it’s right to rebel against injustice! And the 1992 LA Rebellion became the largest urban rebellion in U.S. history.

The Day the Sky Cracked Open

On April 29, 1992, it seemed like almost everyone in Los Angeles—along with many, many others around the country—were holding their breath.

Fourteen months earlier, Rodney King, a young Black man, had been pulled over for speeding. Twenty Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and Highway Patrol officers flooded the scene as a police helicopter circled overhead. In the ensuing minutes, at least seven LAPD cops mercilessly beat and Tasered King, crushing the bones in his face, breaking his teeth and ankle, and causing numerous lacerations and internal injuries. Other cops stood around laughing, egging their fellow pigs on, while still others sent racist radio messages to other cops. When they finally took King to the hospital, the officers openly joked and bragged about the beating.

Unknown to the cops, a resident across the street videotaped the whole savage assault, which was subsequently played over and over on the news. National and even international outrage spread.

The LAPD and its then-Chief Daryl Gates lashed back, mounting a massive media campaign to criminalize King and somehow justify the beating. They claimed King was on PCP (tests proved negative). They argued that the videotape didn’t show the whole incident, that King attacked them. But the anger was so widespread that prosecutors eventually charged four of the cops with excessive force to try to contain things.

Then, as the trial approached, a judge moved the case from downtown LA to the overwhelmingly white suburb of Simi Valley where many cops and ex-cops lived. Still, people were guardedly hopeful. THIS time the police brutality was caught on tape. THIS time what Black people knew happens all the time was documented and broadcast for the whole world to see. THIS time with the reality of what it means to be Black in America out there for all to see, millions felt the jury had no choice but to convict. Finally, there would be some justice delivered.

At 3:15 pm on April 29,1992, the jury decision was announced on live TV: “Not guilty... Not guilty... Not guilty” over and over again. Not a single officer was convicted of any crime!

People’s Anger Explodes

The verdicts were met with shock and disbelief, but also a deep anger. A young Black woman in the Crenshaw district described an empty, hollow feeling and a pain that went from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. In the Nickerson Gardens housing project a young Black man said, “It was almost like somebody took a shotgun and blew a hole through you but there was no blood and you was just sitting up there with a hole and you could see life going out of you.” Some of those considered the “hardest” people in the projects were standing out on the sports field with tears of rage coming down their faces.

Within less than an hour, people were gathering on street corners, outside stores, in front yards all over the city. Some had homemade signs, others simply screamed out their denunciation of the acquittals. Shouts of “No Justice, No Peace” and “Fuck tha Police” filled the air.

Hundreds and hundreds spontaneously gathered downtown in front of LAPD headquarters. A traffic booth in the parking lot went up in flames. Local news pictured glass doors and windows being smashed as cops in riot gear lined the inside of the building. At one point demonstrators tore down a U.S. flag and set it on fire. News reports said that cars were flipped over and torched, including at least one police car. The crowd surged through the downtown area, attacking symbols of power from City Hall, to the courthouses, to the LA Times building.

Over the next several days, the media reported that crowds attacked the Military Induction Center in the Crenshaw district, that the DMV building in Long Beach was torched, and that there was a firebombing of the probation office in Compton. Police set up concrete barricades surrounding many stations.

Florence and Normandie

Some of the earliest and fiercest fighting broke out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central LA. Dozens of angry people had come to the area after hearing about the verdicts. Cops reported that they were met with hostile looks and shouts almost as soon as the verdicts were announced.

Twenty to 30 cops came into the area, brutally assaulting several youth and busting anyone who spoke out. By this time the crowd had grown to 100. The cops, outnumbered, drew their batons. Reports said that rocks, bricks and bottles began to rain down on the cops. Within minutes they broke ranks, scrambled into their cars and retreated.

Once the police had been run out of the area, people took their protest to the main intersection. Shops were broken into and set on fire. People began to lash out at white, Latino and Asian people driving through the intersection, including the televised attack on white truck driver Reginald Denny that the authorities later seized on to try to deliver the verdict that the rebellion was nothing but senseless and criminal, and characterized by violence aimed at innocent people.

Before long the live TV coverage of the scene at Florence and Normandie, combined with thick columns of smoke visible for miles, helped spark outbreaks elsewhere.

A Multinational Rebellion

Much of the initial action was in heavily Black areas in South Central. A veteran of the 1965 Watts Rebellion described driving through whole neighborhoods that were “on the verge.” A young sister talked about how this was the first time in her life she was proud to be Black. But as the upsurge spread, it created a huge opening through which the suppressed anger of many nationalities burst forth and a deep, palpable and almost universal rage swept through the communities of the oppressed.

Latinos in huge numbers joined the upsurge. This was especially true in areas like the Pico-Union district west of downtown and parts of Hollywood with heavy concentrations of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Tens of thousands swept into the streets and up against the authorities. Crowds mocked the cops and immigration police wherever they gathered. TV news showed store windows being smashed, buildings being set aflame, and people taking everything from kids’ shoes to Pampers to furniture.

There were reports of white and Asian youth joining in as well, often together with the Black and Latino masses.

Overcoming Divisions Among the People

As the rebellion unfolded, the mainstream press worked to whip up antagonisms between different nationalities, painting the whole rebellion as a “race riot” of Blacks against Latinos, whites, and especially Korean store owners.

It is true that many of the small liquor and convenience stores looted and burned in South Central and in the Pico-Union/Hollywood areas were owned by Koreans, and many Korean people wrongly stood with the system instead of the people. Long-standing divisions between Blacks and Latino immigrants were (and are) consciously promoted by different powers-that-be. Mouthpieces for the system worked to channel the people’s anger over being locked down in ghettos with no jobs, over racist discrimination and daily deprivation, and over being criminalized as a people and being set against other peoples and nationalities.

But what stood out is how people of different nationalities and races overcame these conflicts in the midst of the rebellion, how they stopped blaming and fighting each other—and how they came together in resistance to this system. A middle-aged Black man’s face lit up as he talked about the rebellion. “I felt the same way all our people felt when we blew up. Equality wasn’t in my favor for a long time now. Look, we are tired of this. People all over felt the same way in their hearts. Not only people in LA, but people all over the country. Not only people of color, but a lot of white people too.”

The graffiti on the walls told much of the story—”Bloods + Crips + Mexicans,” “4/30/92 Together Forever,” “Rodney King No Mas,” and later “Yankee Go Home.” In the midst of this, the idea of revolution was in the air—and was warmly received. “Revolución es la Solución! Revolution is the Hope of the Hopeless” appeared on the walls.

There were reports of Black youth coming into the mainly Latino immigrant neighborhood of Pico Union, opening up storefronts, and calling on the Latino people to take what they needed. And one of the most under-reported incidents during the rebellion was a demonstration of 300 to 400 Korean-American students outside City Hall demanding the resignation of then-LAPD Chief Gates and the federal prosecution of the cops who beat Rodney King.

The rebellion also drew support from many middle class and better-off sections of society. Filmmakers, actors, musicians, professors, playwrights and poets spoke out in support of the people and against the verdicts. Hundreds of UCLA students rallied on campus in support of the rebellion and many made their way downtown and to the neighborhoods to stand with the people.

Gang Truce

Just before the rebellion erupted, a truce was worked out by warring gangs of Bloods and Crips. The truce suspended more than a decade of brutal and senseless fighting and killing among the people. A new situation was established and it gave strength to the rebellion, especially in Watts.

For years the cops complained about “gang violence” and used it as justification to carry out wholesale attacks on Black and Latino youth. Now that the youth were beginning to overcome their differences and to think about fighting against their common oppression instead of each other, the authorities moved hard to shut the truce down. There were hundreds of unity meetings and parties in the weeks after the rebellion, and each one was attacked and broken up by the pigs.

Extent of the Rebellion

By the time the rebellion peaked, hundreds of thousands had taken part, predominantly people from impoverished Black and Latino communities. Black and other oppressed people and a wide range of others rose up in 79 other U.S. cities, inspired by the people in LA. And the rebellion was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement by people around the world.

The rebellion was finally put down, but only with the help of more than 20,000 armed enforcers of law and order. It was one of the largest military forces ever marshaled in the U.S. against a domestic uprising. There were 5,000 LA cops; 9,975 National Guard troops; 3,313 federal military troops; 2,323 Highway Patrol officers; and 1,950 federal agents from the FBI, ATF, the Bureau of Prisons, immigration police and Border Patrol.

Fifty-three people were killed, mostly Blacks and Latinos. The police admitted killing 11 of them but the actual number murdered by cops, vigilantes or other reactionaries is probably much higher. People like Cesar Aguilar, who was held in a mass arrest and then shot in the back because he refused to lower his head, or DeAndre Harrison, Anthony Taylor and Dennis Jackson shot by police in the Nickerson Gardens housing project. Or Louis Watson, an 18-year-old Black graffiti artist shot by an “unknown gunman” as he stood in a store window passing out food to people in the street. More than 12,500 people were arrested, and 1,500 immigrants were turned over to immigration police.

Struggling to Sum Up the Rebellion

In the aftermath, one of the main ways the authorities tried to go after the rebellion was the prosecution of the LA4—four young Black men charged with the attack on white truck driver Reginald Denny at Florence and Normandie. While the judge, prosecutor and mainstream media tried to railroad them to prison, the jury would not go along and delivered not guilty verdicts on nearly all of the charges. In a heroic development, when Denny himself took the stand he called for no jail time and expressed some real understanding of what led to the rebellion. The Los Angeles Times quoted Denny: “Everyone needs respect.... And as soon as you take a group of people, and put them on a shelf and say they don’t count. Let me tell you, they count in a big way.... It’s hard saying what those guys have gone through." The RCP joined with a wide range of people to mount a campaign to defend the LA 4. “Free the LA4+! Defend the Los Angeles Rebellion!” and “No More Racist Pig Brutality!” were two of the slogans.

Yes, people made mistakes during the outbreak and some went after the wrong targets in the course of the rebellion. These kinds of errors are bound to happen whenever there is a major social upheaval. But the overwhelming aspect was that people saw the system let the cops off scot-free and they rebelled!

As Bob Avakian said in a statement on the LA Rebellion shortly after it broke out: “This Rebellion was the most beautiful, the most heroic, and the most powerful action by the masses of people in the U.S. for years and years. It sent shockwaves throughout the U.S. and around the world, striking fear and panic into the oppressors and causing the hearts of oppressed people everywhere to beat faster with joy and hope.” (Excerpt from a statement by Bob Avakian “Revolutionary Greetings to All the Sisters and Brothers Who Have Risen Up in Righteous Rebellion in L.A.!”)

What Created the Conditions for the Uprising?

The authorities say that “the people only hurt themselves by destroying their own communities.” One Black man at the time spoke to this directly, “They all talking about how could we just go and destroy the communities we live in. Well, to me it’s more like these are the communities we are dying in and that’s why we have to destroy them.”

The rebellion came after decades of suffering and impoverishment. Dozens of factories had closed down and moved overseas, leaving tens of thousands unemployed. And it went far beyond economic devastation.

In 1987, the LAPD announced “Operation Hammer,” an all-out assault on Black and Latino youth in the name of a “war on gangs and drugs.” There were more than 50,000 arrests in three years. On a single weekend in 1988, the cops arrested 1,453 people. Only 60 of those were for felonies; charges were filed in only 32 cases. One notorious incident was when 88 cops ransacked two apartment buildings in South Central, taking sledge hammers to TVs and toilets, destroying clothing and furniture, spray painting the walls with “LAPD Rules” and leaving the apartments uninhabitable.

The acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King was the match, but decades of oppression and suffering was the tinder that fueled the explosion.

It’s Right to Rebel Against Injustice

Benefit Concert On the Occasion of the
20th Anniversary of the L.A. Rebellion

It's Right to Rebel Against Injustice!
Sunday, April 29, 7 pm, $15
Fais Do-Do, 5253 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles

• Outernational • Funeral Party • Others TBA

Sponsored by Revolution Books/Libros Revolución
Discount tickets available.
323-463-3500 •

Benefit for BA Everywhere! Imagine the Difference It Could Make, a campaign projecting Bob Avakian's works and vision of revolution and human emancipation into every corner of society and radically changing the atmosphere.
On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the L.A. Rebellion
It's Right to Rebel Against Injustice!

SUNDAY, April 29, 2 pm
At Revolution Books/Libros Revolucíon, $10
5726 Hollywood Blvd. @ Wilton, Los Angeles

A Panel Discussion with:
*ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN, author of Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line. She has covered Black issues as a journalist for 20 years, including nine years as a staff writer for the LA Weekly, and two years as a weekly op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

*MICHAEL SLATE, author of "Shockwaves" and "Aftershocks"—an unparalleled coverage of the 1992 L.A. Rebellion. He is a regular contributor to Revolution newspaper, and the host of The Michael Slate Show on KPFK.

*FRANK STOLTZE, an award-winning radio journalist who covered the L.A. rebellion from the streets, former news director at KPFK, and currently news reporter at KPCC.

*Possible additional panelists TBA.

Sponsored by Revolution Books/Libros Revolución. For more info: 323.463.3500.
RevolutionBooksLa@gmail •

Twenty years after the LA Rebellion, the system's “official verdict” is that this was at best a tragic and costly mistake and at worst an orgy of violence pitting one nationality against another, fueled by people who just saw this as their chance to “get some” for themselves. We’re told that the “national dialogue” should be centered on how we can prevent another “LA Riot” from happening.

But rebellion was an entirely appropriate response! That’s just a fact. It punched a hole in the mythology that this is “the greatest country in the world” and let light shine in on the reality. If people don’t fight back against the brutality and degradation they are continually subjected to and the system that spawns them, nothing will ever change. And because they rose in rebellion, the have-nots on the bottom of society put their message out in a way no one could ignore.

The rebellion showed the tremendous strength of the oppressed when they rise up against their oppression. It forged real multinational unity—as well as unity across class lines—as Blacks, Latinos, Asians and white people came together to fight injustice. And as people fought, big questions about the cause of all the suffering, how to end it and what kind of world do people need were discussed and debated in ways that hadn’t happened in decades.

And just think what it would be like if the LA Rebellion had not happened—if people had quietly accepted the verdicts or just had some safe, business-as-usual protest. The repercussions of that would have been terrible—crushing the spirit of the people and strengthening the system. Instead, it established a new pride and dignity among the people.

Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution

The anniversary of the1992 LA Rebellion is something that oppressed people everywhere, and all those who stand against injustice, should celebrate. It was a righteous uprising against a terrible, degrading and dehumanizing situation. This kind of spirit and refusal to go along with the continuing crimes of the system is exactly what is needed today.

This world is a horror, but it does not have to be this way. Another world is possible. If you really want to change things—if you want to finally do away once and for all with the outrages like the murder of Trayvon Martin, or the systematic incarceration of millions or any of a thousand other outrages that go on each and every day under this system—you have to get rid of the system itself, through revolution, here and wherever this system stretches its tentacles and is in force all over the world.

And revolution is possible... and, as the Message and Call from the RCP “The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have” says: “ IS the time to be WORKING FOR REVOLUTION—to be stepping up resistance while building a movement for revolution—to prepare for the time when it WILL be possible to go all out to seize the power.” (Revolution #170, July 19, 2009)

Times of unrest and rebellion among the people who most of the time feel powerless to struggle against the thousands of ways this system oppresses people are times when people can see things in another way. The nature of this system is more clearly revealed, its legitimacy can get called even more sharply into question—and the possibility of a whole different and better way becomes real in new ways. These are times when leaps can be made in building up the movement and organized forces for revolution.  

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond