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The Los Angeles Riots still resonate after 30 years

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Today marks 30 years since the start of the LA riots. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports on how the 1992 uprising still resonates.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Eighty-one seconds. That's how long the video was of Rodney King being beaten by four police officers.

LORA KING: I found out like everyone else, watching the TV. And then I noticed that, you know, the person's name was the same as my dad's.

DIRKS: Lora King was 7 years old in 1991 when she saw what was basically the first viral video of police violence.

KING: I knew for sure that he was not alive.

DIRKS: Rodney King survived, but his daughter says the trauma, the broken bones, the brain damage, all of it he carried with him until his death in 2012. Thirteen days after the beating, there was another grainy video, this time from inside Empire Liquors, capturing a Korean grocer, Soon Ja Du, shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head, killing her. Her cousin Shinese Harlins remembers that day.

SHINESE HARLINS: When the detectives knocked on the door and told my grandmother, it was just like your heart trying to grab a beat back.

DIRKS: Over the course of the next year, both cases would play out in parallel, connected in the community by timing and the understanding that this happened to them because they were Black. Soon Ja Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but the judge gave her no jail time. Then came the verdict for the officers who beat King - not guilty. Here's Lora King again.

KING: My sister and myself was going to the liquor store. And before we got there, we noticed that it was on fire, so we ran back home. That's when I realized, like, it was bigger than what I can imagine.

DIRKS: In the following five days, there would be fires, looting, thousands of arrests, over 50 people dead, most brown or Black, 10 at the hands of law enforcement. Because of the tension around the killing of Latasha Harlins and so much damage in Koreatown, a narrative emerged in the media about the LA riots - that it was about interethnic tension. But that's only part of the story, says UCLA anthropology professor Kyeyoung Park.

KYEYOUNG PARK: It's not just only African Americans and Korean Americans because, for instance, Korean Americans, they are not the richest people. It isn't like they have all the resources and power or, you know, privilege.

DIRKS: Park points out it wasn't a Korean judge who passed down a lenient sentence for Latasha Harlins' killing, and it wasn't Korean banks who denied loans to Black businesses so most stores in Black communities were owned by outsiders. UCLA historian Robin D. G. Kelley says defining 1992 as about interethnic tensions is a distraction.

ROBIN D G KELLEY: And when that happens, the question of white supremacy goes out the window.

DIRKS: Kelley says it's important to understand how other uprisings against police violence, like the 1965 Watts riots and the explosion of police powers that followed, lead us directly to the spring of 1992.

KELLEY: On the eve of the rebellion, you have, on the one hand, concentrated poverty, the lack of opportunities, plus the expansion of policing.

DIRKS: And after the riots rocked the city to its core, there were some cosmetic changes at LAPD, talk of police reform. But Kelley says a backlash continued, bringing more police and, in 1994, a crime bill which helped pave the path to mass incarceration.

KELLEY: Every single period of mass rebellion has always produced a moral panic and been the wind in the sails of a political agenda that uses law and order to discipline the working class.

DIRKS: There's been a concerted effort to heal the wounds between the Black and Korean American community. That's work the Harlins family have been deeply involved in. And there's a movie coming out about Latasha Harlins. In it, Lora King plays a guidance counselor because the families are connected.

KING: I have a few of those bonds. I have a bond with Eric Garner's daughter. I have a bond with Sandra Bland's sister, with George Floyd's sister, and I can go on and on.

DIRKS: A lot has changed in 30 years, but a video of police violence, an uprising and then a backlash that increases policing - a lot is still very much the same. Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.