Los Angeles burned 25 years ago, changing the city and the nation

Twenty-five years ago Los Angeles, 135 miles north of me, was smoldering from fires set the night before by criminals.

The fires would last for days.

Welcome to May Day, 1992. Normally May Day was an international “Workers Day,” celebrated by communists, socialist and organized labor alike. 

Observers would later call the three-day Los Angeles riot something more than a riot, they would follow the lead of Rep. Maxine Walters (D-CA) and call it an “uprising” with the billion dollars-plus of damage and 50 murders blamed on poverty.

The spark of the riot occurred on a quiet afternoon when an all-non-Black jury in suburban Simi Valley stunned the world when they found four Los Angeles police officers not guilty of brutally attacking a black motorist, Rodney King, whom they had stopped for traffic violations.


A video of King’s beating clearly showed police brutality by the four officers watched by 15 more officers including school police. The video made its way to network television news. The entire country witnessed the most public display of police brutality seen since Southern white sheriffs had beaten and attacked black civil rights marchers 30 years before.


A federal jury would convict them later but on this sunny spring day of April 30, 1992, a Simi Valley (Ventura County just north of Los Angeles) jury flabbergasted every intelligent person in the world with the not guilty verdict.

Within hours, white and Latino drivers were pulled from trucks and cars in black neighborhoods and attacked.

Blood flowed.

Unlike the 1965 Watts Riot, the arsonist-set fires, the looting, the combat between criminals and civilians protecting their property and the police wasn’t limited to the traditionally black neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, but spread to Koreatown — by then 68 percent Latino — glitzy Wiltshire Boulevard and white neighborhoods in Greater Los Angeles. 

And while the rage started with black residents frustrated by the verdict, the looters came from more than just the black community. Hispanics, including the half-a-million Guatemalans and 700,000 Salvadorans new to Los Angeles, looted the stores. Both groups fled violence and revolutionary butchery North America had not experienced since the Mexican Civil War of 1910-1920.

These were leftists from wretchedly poor nations wracked by war between oligarchic establishments run by, their death squads and the poor. These people had little respect for authority and for private property.

Bewildering to some observers was how Mexican-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles often escaped the wrath of looters. Just before the uprising began, Mexican gangs with well over 50,000 armed men in L.A. County, put out the word through a Roman Catholic priest in East Los Angeles:Not Here.

Well-armed Mexican gangsters told the sheriff, go, go to where you are needed, we will keep it quiet here. There were no arson fires in East Los Angeles or any more looting. Looking west across highways I-5 and 101, however, Los Angeles was burning.

The first targets to loot were any retail stores that had survived the 1965 Los Angeles riot, the Watts Riot, or had been built since then by people or companies with more guts than brains. South Central’s Central Avenue had been the center of the Watts Riot; it was still lined by empty lots where buildings and stores had stood that were burned to the ground in 1965.

Then the looters and arsonists moved north to Koreatown full of electronics stores and businesses and towards Wilshire Boulevard, the border with upper-crust Los Angeles where the very rich lived and shopped. The invaders of Koreatown were in for a surprise. South Koreans have compulsory military service; every healthy Korean man served in the South Korean Army, Navy or Marine Corps. 

They also are very protective of their property. They armed themselves, hired Mexican men and fought back. The looters were surprised. No one else fought back. Perhaps the most famous photo of the Los Angeles Riot was of a Korean man standing, cigarette dangling from his lips with a semi-automatic pistol calmly shooting at attackers.

In the initial hours of the riot, the Los Angeles police stood by; looters walked right by police carrying as much loot as they could unbothered by the men in blue. 

No wonder, Chief of Police Darrell Gates had not spoken with Mayor Tom Bradley in months.

The riot went on for three days and nights. More than a billion dollars of property burned, 53 people were murdered, mostly Black men, some Hispanics, Asians and a handful of Whites.

The National Guard hit the streets without ammunition because of supply breakdowns forcing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to ask Republican President George H.W. Bush for help. United States Marines from 60-miles away Camp Pendleton rolled into Los Angeles with ammunition.

The largest destructive race riot since the 1965 Watts Riot and maybe since the 1863 riot in New York City ended when Armored Personnel Carriers full of  U.S. Marines entered Los Angeles on May 2, 1992. 

Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and A Trillion Dollars in Trade and Murder in the Mountains: War Crime at Khojaly, both published by Floricanto Press and his work was formerly distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.

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