The Los Angeles Riots (Heewon Jeon)

The Los Angeles Riots

Overview: The purpose of the lesson is to help students understand the racial tensions that led to the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Students will analyze the dynamics between the different races and the outcome of the series of events.

Framework: Students will use lecture, a primary source, and video sources to assess the Los Angeles Riots as a movement. Students will partake in discussions with peers to draw from each others’ experiences and analysis of historical and current events. Students will also generate potential positive and negative outcomes of the riots, and evaluate what can be effective in racial reforms.

Essential Understanding: Students will understand that the Los Angeles Riots was a result of racial tensions. Students will begin to understand and think deeply about the racism that is still present today.

Essential questions:

1. Were the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 a movement?

2. Why was there so much animosity between African Americans and Korean Americans?

3. How was Rodney King portrayed in the black community, white community, and Asian community?

4. How did white police brutality incite a multi-ethnic, multi-racial riot?

5. Do you think racism still exists? What are some similarities and differences between the racial atmosphere of 1992 and 2014?


movement– A course or series of actions and endeavours on the part of a group of people working towards a shared goal; an organization, coalition, or alliance of people working to advance a shared political, social, or artistic objective.1


The Los Angeles Riots is a series of riots that occurred in 1992. It was the first major urban uprising after the 1960s, at a time when racial tensions were less conspicuous, at least to the outsiders of this Los Angeles community. A video recording of police brutality of Rodney King, an unarmed African American man, was quickly released. That alongside the acquittal of police officers by a white jury was what started the riots. The events were not only was a reminder of the white-black tension, but it also underscored racial tensions between African Americans and Korean Americans, two minority groups coexisting in the same area. With 53 deaths, $1 billion in damage, and the involvement of the National Guard, this riot brought attention to the struggles, internal and external, of minority communities.

The four police officers involved were indicted with assault with a deadly weapon. Three of four officers were acquitted of all charges. Technology played a large role in the advent of these series of events. It was hard for the public to understand how the jury could have reached their verdict when they saw the clear footage of the violent beating. The blatant evidence and the outright disregard for it highlighted the disenfranchisement of the black community. The verdict was proof enough for the African Americans that the U.S. justice system did not protect them. In a survey, when asked the question if the Rodney King case proved African Americans cannot get justice from the country, majority of whites responded ‘no’ and majority of blacks responded ‘yes.’2

After the verdict, a series of riots broke out. It was violent, with many beatings, deaths, and thefts. It took six days for order to be “restored,” after intervention from the military and police. The peculiar thing that ensued was a conflict between black and Asian, not just black and white. Another name associated with the LA Riots aside from Rodney King is Latasha Harlins. Latasha Harlins was a fifteen-year-old African American teenager, became synonymous with “black-Korean conflict” when she walked into a liquor store, presumably attempted to steal orange juice, attacked the Korean storeowner, and got shot. Soon Ja Du, the storeowner, got away with a light sentence. This happened shortly after the Rodney King incident, adding to the fire. 3 The tensions were already present and ripe for conflict to ensue. According to Cheung, hostility was already present in South Central. African Americans were the long-term residents. In the 1970s and 1980s, Latinos came in to compete for jobs. In this unstable state, Korean immigrants took over the liquor stores and competed for housing and jobs. Owning stores gave the Korean immigrants more authority, and in some cases unwelcome power old residents. Furthermore, the idea of the Asian Americans was unhelpful in creating better relations between minorities.

The LA Riots, as disorganized and violent they were, was a powerful collection of events that brought attention to the racial relations in the United States, after many were convinced that racism was a thing of the past. Incidents of police brutality and also cases of minority brutality were what pushed the events off the edge. Although police brutality has always been present, but Sigelman et al. states that “these incidents were so dramatic and so highly publicized, they also had the potential to affect perceptions of and opinions about not just police-minority relations, but race relations in general.” The aftermath left many in despair. The damage in South Central was tremendous, and it increased animosity between the minorities—blacks, Latinos, and Asians—contrary to the many movements in the 1900s in which minorities worked together. Nevertheless, the problems were no longer hidden and a public display of issues can give rise to ways to mend and improve relations.


CNN Rodney King Beatings and Riots Documentary

Excerpts from the LAPD Officers’ Trial

CNN Zimmerman Interview


Day 1

Start the lesson by showing a clip from Rodney King Beatings and Riots documentary from 9:08 to 16:54. This will give students an idea of what the video footage of the Rodney King beating was like, and the magnitude of the riots.

Give a lecture on the Los Angeles Riots. During lecture, allude to music of the time, such as “Black Korea” by Ice Cube and many songs by Tupac (contains inappropriate words and material for class).

Have students divide into groups of 4-5. Give each group a scenario and have them discuss with each other how the person would have felt and reacted. Encourage students to empathize.

Example scenarios:

1. You are an 25-year-old African American man when the riots break out in your neighborhood. You have seen the video footage of the police brutality many times on television.

2. You are an 18-year-old Latino student when the riots break out in your neighborhood. The next day, one of your classmates does not return to school because his father has been killed in the riot.

3. You are a Korean American storeowner in LA, and your store gets looted and damaged during the riot.

4. You are a middle-aged white woman in West LA, and you hear about the riots through the newspaper.

As a whole class, each group should share the scenario and what was discussed. Point out that the tensions that are present, and remind them these scenarios were realities for many people. The instructor should talk about how this relates to the different racial dynamics and power structures that were present at this time.

On the board, write the definition of a movement. Have a discussion about whether the Los Angeles Riots was a movement. Ask students to think about the Civil Rights Movement and other social movements they have learned about in the past in to contrast it to the LA Riots.

Homework: Give students the link to the Excerpts from the LAPD Officer’s Trial (primary source) and ask students to read it and think about what the verdict would be.

Day 2

Have students divide into groups of three to discuss the excerpts from LAPD Officer’s Trial. Ask questions such as, “Do you think there was a clear verdict? Why do you think the public was so furious?”

As a class, read the excerpt of Rodney King’s speech on the third day of the riots.

“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? … It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything. We’ll, we’ll get our justice … Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.”

Have a discussion. “What do you think was the public perception of this speech? Consider the violence that was occurring and the fury that many were feeling.”

Pass out a worksheet that has two columns, one labeled “Positive Outcomes” and the other labeled “Negative Outcomes.” Have students work individually to write down what they think might be the positive and negative outcome of the riots. Then have a class discussion about what the students wrote on the worksheet. Ask the students, “Do you think the LA Riots were more positive or more negative?”

Ask students if they think racism still exists today. Show the clip of Zimmerman’s interview and mention the current news about the NBA. Then ask students to have a discussion with peers about whether racism still exists. End the class by summarizing what the class learned in the past two days.

Additional Sources:

1 Oxford English Dictionary
2 Cheung, K.-K. “(Mis)interpretations and (In)justice: The 1992 Los Angeles “Riots” and “Black-Korean Conflict”” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 30.3 (2005): 3-40.
Sigelman, L., S. Welch, T. Bledsoe, and M. Combs. “Police Brutality and Public Perceptions of Racial Discrimination: A Tale of Two Beatings.” Political Research Quarterly 50.4 (1997): 777-91.
Park, Kyeyoung. “Use and Abuse of Race and Culture: Black-Korean Tension in America.” American Anthropologist 98.3 (1996): 495.


1. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

2. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

3. Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.

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