Revolutionary Worker #1148, April 28, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
This April marks the tenth anniversary of the great mass uprising in Los Angeles following the court acquittal of the four cops involved in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. The following is the story of the 1992 L.A. Rebellion.
April 29, 1992--People crowded around televisions in living rooms, huddled around radios in street corners, and turned their car radios up at intersections all throughout Los Angeles, the United States, and the world. Everyone was waiting to hear the verdicts on the trial people thought would convict the four cops who mercilessly beat Rodney King.
The police beating of Rodney King happened a year earlier, in March 1991. It was a time when troops were returning home from the mass murder the U.S. carried out in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. There were victory parades and speeches about the mighty USA and its "new world order." But then--the videotape caught the brutality, harassment, and disrespect that rains down on people, especially Black and other oppressed people, right here in the belly of the beast. Millions here and around the world saw the cops repeatedly clubbing Rodney King with batons, kicking him, and beating him within an inch of his life, as other cops watched and did nothing to stop it.
For months after the beating, people were told to wait and put their faith in the courts--because "justice prevails." Then, like a slap on the face, a jury in the nearly all-white town of Simi Valley declared the four LAPD cops who beat Rodney King "not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty." People's gut feelings were confirmed--there is no justice for oppressed people in America.
Time to Fight Back
Minutes after the verdicts were announced, people who burned with rage and hatred for the system crowded the streets all over Los Angeles. It was time for the people to fight back. In the days that followed the people declared their own verdict: "The cops are guilty!" For three days, hundreds of thousands of proletarians of all nationalities--and their allies--took the streets of the second largest city in the country with a message heard all around the world: "It's right to rebel!" In the largest uprising in U.S. history, Black people declared that they would not take racist oppression and brutality any more--and people of all different races and nationalities joined with them.
Hundreds from all over the L.A. area traveled to the Simi Valley courthouse for the trial. After the verdict, 500 people gathered outside the courthouse shouting "pig," "racist," and "guilty, guilty" as the cops left the building. An almost all-white crowd of 100 people tried to get their hands on Stacey Koon, the sergeant who supervised the beating, and Lawrence Powell, the cop who delivered most of the blows.
In the Nickerson Gardens housing projects in Watts, some of the hardest people in the projects stood out on the sports field with tears of rage coming down their faces. A group of youth in a neighborhood north of Watts was moved into action after seeing an old woman walking and screaming with angry pain, "They fucked up!" A woman rushed home from work angrier than she had ever been. She wanted to be out in the streets with her people--it was the first time in her life she was proud to be Black.
In South Central someone placed a cardboard sign in the middle of the street: "Black men and women are fair game for shooting and beating at the hands of [then Chief of Police] Gates' gang, known as LAPD."
A woman, mother of two, stood in shock on the street. She shouted, "It was wrong! Suspended without pay, that's no justice! They beat that Black man! It's time for us Black folks...to reunite. It's our turn now. We're tired of being slaves!"
The words on everyone's lips were "NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!"
On April 29 and the two days that followed, the mounting tension at police brutality and murder, racism, and the desperate conditions of life for the masses of people exploded, throwing sparks across the U.S. From coast to coast, news of the L.A. Rebellion spread like wildfire. Thousands demanded justice in the streets of major cities like San Francisco, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Omaha, Nebraska, as well as many smaller cities.
Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, described the Los Angeles Rebellion as "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."
A City Up in Flames
The people stood up with an unstoppable force. Within hours of the verdict the city was blanketed with smoke and hundreds of fires--it seemed that almost all of Los Angeles went up in flames.
The intensity and the scope of the rebellion stunned the system and put the masses of poor people on center stage.
Police stations and government buildings--like the Immigration and Naturalization Services, city hall, courthouses, and the Los Angeles Times --were targets of the masses' fury.
At Parker Center, the downtown police headquarters, 1,000 people chanted, "Gates must go." But many knew that, as a homeless man put it, "It was time to go beyond that."
People debated what to do as they confronted the police at the front doors of Parker Center. Someone said, "Take the streets," but a youth said, "We're in front of Parker Center! We're gonna take Parker Center right now." Rocks, dirt clods, lighting fixtures that were ripped from the ground, and anything people could find flew against windows and doors. The U.S. flag was taken down, torn to pieces, and burned as people chanted, "The flag, the flag, the flag is on fire. We don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn!"
More people--mainly youth of different nationalities--charged through the downtown area. Traffic control sawhorses flew through the windows of the L.A. Times building. People dealt with city hall, the courthouses, and the INS building in the same way. As people passed the Criminal Courts building, a Black man shouted, "Get this motherfucker! This is where they railroad the brothers." More windows and doors received the fury of the people. More U.S. flags were seized and went up in flames.
One of the most intense standoffs between the people and the police broke out at the Nickerson Gardens housing projects in Watts. Over 30 cops arrived in the Nickersons at about 11 p.m. According to police reports, the cops were immediately met with intense gunfire that completely pinned them down. The police were never really able to go all the way into the Nickersons that night. Youth from the projects were on the frontlines of combat, and they competed with one another over who could do the most daring and heroic things in the battle. The police finally had to be rescued by an armored car.
The police killed three people and wounded many others that night at the Nickersons. There are various stories about how the people were killed--some in battle and others cut down in cold blood, murdered by police snipers after the battle ended. One of those murdered by the police that night was DeAndre Harrison, known throughout the projects as Fang. People who knew him still talk about how bold and defiant he was and how he fought so fiercely against the police. They also speak with a lot of anger about how the police in a car with their headlights turned off rode up on DeAndre and shot him down in cold blood as he stood on a street corner.
A resident of the projects described the new situation between the people and the police, and among the people themselves: "When this riot first started the cops could not come in here. The projects would not let the police come in here. The [people] set up their own perimeter and would not let the cops pass. The cops was even going backwards trying to get out of these projects when they saw how the people were. The people would not let them in, the people were saying let's take our freedom, let's take our justice, let's take our equality. We saw the enemy--we saw that we are not enemies among ourselves. The enemy is the one who is keeping us down. When we saw the cops on that night we were looking at them like they had on KKK helmets and they were the enemy. We would not submit to anything anymore."
Ten years after the rebellion, another resident remembers: "It felt good back then. What went down at that corner felt like freedom--it felt like justice. Right now if I try to go out and go head-to-head with them like we did back then, there would be some heavy consequences because I'm one man. Back then it wasn't like that because we were all out there together. We were [fighting] in unity."
Throughout the city warehouses and stores burned, windows were broken at banks and government offices, police cars were set on fire. Doors at supermarkets and stores were pried open as people did some "unauthorized shopping." People carried armfuls of groceries and baby diapers. Mothers and fathers got shoes and clothing for their kids. Electronics, furniture, and other things that people were otherwise too poor to afford were liberated from the shelves.
The intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central L.A. became famous as one of the places where the rebellion began. Things were very hot on this corner, where the people chased the police out of the neighborhood and then began throwing rocks and bottles at passing cars. But there were more than two dozen flashpoints of rebellion all over Los Angeles and neighboring cities in the hours immediately after the verdicts.
There were cases of people unleashing their anger on wrong targets--like when white truck driver Reginald Denny was beaten at Florence and Normandie. But the random beating of whites occurred only in the first hours of the rebellion. What stood out overall was the multinational character of the rebellion, and the fact that many people clearly focused their anger and actions on the system.
Across town, in the area where Rodney King was beaten, over 200 people gathered, held up signs, and chanted to passing traffic. Stones flew at police cars. A crowd marched to the Foothill Police Station-- the home base of the cops who beat King. The L.A. Times reported that as cops from Foothill celebrated the acquittal, they came under attack by gunfire from groups of youth.
Windows were broken in Westwood, a middle class neighborhood near the UCLA campus. Demonstrators gathered at the Westwood Federal Building and blocked traffic.
In Pico Union--a Latino immigrant neighborhood that has struggled fiercely against the LAPD attempt to wall off the neighborhood with barricades--homeless people pushed their shopping carts into the street, defying the police. At the corner of 11th and Alvarado, the corner closest to the former INS detention center (which the people called a concentration camp), a car was rammed into the police barricade and set on fire.
Festival of the Oppressed
The fires set during the rebellion burned down stores and shopping malls throughout Los Angeles. But the rebellion also ignited a fire within people that makes their eyes dance and makes them laugh and tell stories about what many of the participants of the rebellion described as a sense of "freedom" and "justice."
A Black man in his late 30s wanted people to remember this: "They are 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 need to destroy them. And I'll tell you one thing, something that happened to me after this riot that I didn't ever think was going to happen. For the very first time in all my 38 years of life I went into a store and someone said, `Good morning, sir. Can I help you?'"
April 29 was the birth of a new day. People were emboldened with a sense of their own power and a taste of freedom. The system had lost control of the city--and the people loved it. It was a festival of the oppressed--people spent those days walking with their heads up, laughing and joking. There were block parties and barbeques--people shared the things they brought home with their neighbors, friends, and family. Some commented that it was as if people were no longer at each other's throats or jealous of what some people had and others didn't because there was enough to go around.
The rebellion made it clearer who the enemy is. People wanted to fight the power, and if they were to fight in the way that they needed and wanted to, it meant that they had to get out of the trap of fighting and killing each other. One powerful example of this was the truce between the Bloods and the Crips. The truce began shortly before the rebellion, but it was solidified in the rebellion and still holds true in many parts of Watts. In the days of the rebellion people were able to look beyond their neighborhoods and sets.
Real unity was built among people of different nationalities. In the streets of South Central, people of all nationalities went into action. The whole world watched as youth--Black, Asian, Latino, white, male and female--took on the enemy downtown at Parker Center. This newfound unity and shared hatred for the authorities burst from the tips of spray cans as political graffiti exploded across the walls of the oppressed communities.
Walls wore messages that read "Black Power!" "Black and Brown is One!" "Fuck the Placa!" "Crips, Bloods, and Mexicans, Together Forever, Tonite," "Basta Police Brutality!" "Fuck Pigs, Fuck the Police!" In Pico Union and in sections of Watts and South Central, revolutionary slogans--like "Revolución sí!" "Revolución es la solución!" "Revolution Is the Hope of the Hopeless!"--screamed out in defiance on burned-out buildings. A banner was strung across Sunset Blvd. that demanded "U.S. out of Echo Park."
In unity with the rebellion of Black people, but also as a response to their own oppression as immigrants, Latino immigrants played a major role in the L.A. Rebellion. Their participation in the uprising really made it a multinational festival of the proletariat and oppressed people. Latino neighborhoods were scenes of intense uprisings--at least 45 percent of those arrested in the rebellion were Latinos.
An immigrant from Guatemala said, "We were all united during the rebellion, Black and Latino. There weren't any questions about races then. It was like going up against it. It was like, altogether we can do it. You could see that in the rebellion people do get happy when they see the unity among the people. I could see it when I gave out the leaflet in the park here--the leaflet on the Rodney King verdict and that it is `Right to Rebel.' You could see the joy in people's faces when they would read it. And when the Black people read it you could see the joy in their face, and they would say, `Hey he is one of us.' They were very happy when they would see that the leaflet was in Spanish and English so it could reach all of the people."
When oppressed people break the system's rules and rise up, they have a tremendous effect--not only on other oppressed people but also on people in the more privileged sections of society--especially progressive and revolutionary-minded people who are moved to stand with the oppressed.
At Parker Center, two 14-year-old women from a Catholic school told TV cameras that a lot of white people hate racism. At a militant demonstration on Fairfax Ave., a traditionally Jewish community shopping area, white members of Queer Nation said that police brutality affects everyone, but it's worse for Black people.
A white UCLA student drove with some friends to check out the scene in South Central and talk to people in the community because he wanted to understand what was behind the people's rebellion. Once they were there, their eyes opened to the impoverished conditions they saw around them and the tremendous police and military force that had been mobilized against the people. After talking to people in the community he described the "not guilty" verdict as a match that lit the flame: "If you make people angry enough and if you lock them in a cell long enough they are going to burn down their own cells."
The shockwaves from L.A. traveled around the world. In Berlin, Germany, well known for its revolutionary May Day protests, thousands of people battled 4,000 riot police on May 1, 1992. Protesters carried banners referring to the people's rebellion in Los Angeles--one group carried a banner that read: "Congratulations Los Angeles." A demonstrator told the press, "There is a connection between what is happening in Los Angeles and poor people oppressed by fascism all over the world."
When the system hit back at the rebellion, it hit hard. More than 40 people were killed. Over 12,000 people were arrested in the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. There were massive deportations of Latino immigrants. Thousands of police, tanks, National Guard troops, and the military occupied the city. The system and its media conducted a propaganda offensive, describing the rebellion as a horrible nightmare filled with "senseless violence." They focused on stories like the Korean owners whose stores had been burned and the white truck driver Reginald Denny. They tried to say that people were hurting their own communities, and that anger may be justified but rebellion is not.
But nothing the power structure did could reverse the people's verdict delivered through the L.A. Rebellion. Reginald Denny himself spoke to the righteousness of the L.A. Rebellion when, during the trial of four young men accused of attacking him, he testified about how the rebellion helped him see what life was like for Black and other oppressed people. He walked over and hugged the mother of one of the defendants and said that he harbored no resentment and did not blame the people.
On the tenth anniversary of the L.A. Rebellion, it is important for people to remember and uphold this great uprising of the people. The L.A. Rebellion was righteous and heroic. The people dared to stand up and refused to allow themselves to be beaten down. The rebellion shattered a suffocating silence. A new fearless generation was unleashed to challenge the system and helped give birth to a new nationwide movement against police brutality.
The rebellion raised people's sights. They became aware of their own strength, and it made them think that it was possible to go up against the system--the arrogant and self-proclaimed myth of America's invincibility was punctured. In the future, when the people write the history of the Revolution in this country, the L.A. Rebellion will surely be marked as a great day for the oppressed.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)