Next week marks 25 years since the Los Angeles riots. For six days in 1992, LA exploded with reports of deadly violence, fires and looting following the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.
The not-guilty verdict on April 29, 1992, was a breaking point between communities of color and the Los Angeles Police Department. And for some, those wounds have never completely healed.
Tom Jennings (@tj1895) was a reporter in Los Angeles at the time. He joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to talk about his new documentary tied to the 25th anniversary of the event, “The Lost Tapes: LA Riots,” which premieres Sunday, April 23 on Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
On whether the LAPD was prepared for riots to break out due to the Rodney King verdict
“They were either not prepared, or [Chief of Police Daryl Gates] didn’t want to be prepared. I think he was caught off guard at the intensity of what followed, immediately after the verdicts came down in the Rodney King beating case. I don’t think anyone really expected the LA riots to happen the way that they did.”
On his personal experience covering the riots
“I was a younger reporter then, obviously, and I had those dreams of going around the world and being a war correspondent, when you go through journalism school you kind of have stars in your eyes that way. And I recall being out that night, the first night, where the city went up, and I can’t tell you exactly where I was, it was near where all the problems were, it wasn’t all the way downs to Florence and Normandie. But there were gunshots on the street, where I was, and just prior to going out, one of our photographers — he was an older guy — he had been in war, and he was instructing us on what bullets sounded like if they were coming at you, or if they were going away from you. And that’s when it started to become real. But when I started to hear the gunfire, and there was smoke everywhere, there were no police, there was complete mayhem — people were just throwing things through store windows — I actually wound up ducking into a storefront, kind of crouching down, wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’ And I thought, ‘I’m in Los Angeles, I speak the language, I know all the streets. I should be safe here. I no longer want to be a war correspondent.’ It cured me of that because I felt like, ‘This is as close as I want to come.'”
On how well LA has bounced back from the riots
“Well, I think it depends on who you ask. I think it has bounced back, in that, we’re not experiencing riots, that are happening in other cities throughout the country, based on police relations with minority communities. That’s not to say that people feel like everything is OK here. And there were riots in Los Angeles in 1965 in Watts, and they were terrible. Twenty-seven years later, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 happened. It’s now 25 years after those riots, and in Los Angeles and in California, we talk about earthquakes, and we always say, ‘We’re due,’ because we haven’t had one in a while. And I thought of that time frame, and I thought, ‘I hope I’m wrong, I hope we’re not due again.’ But, where things are going based on the state of the country right now, the divisions that exist, it could happen again.”
On technology’s role in turning the riots into a worldwide event
“People have said that the Rodney King video, shot by a guy named George Holliday, was one of the world’s first viral videos — I think that’s probably true, in the kind of caught-on-tape sense with police brutality. So I think there’s some echoing through the years of, ‘That’s where it started,’ and here we are today with things like Ferguson, Missouri, riots breaking out there. The parallels are unfortunate, but they’re there, and I think a lot of it is because of the technology, because we all have become George Holliday.”