It’s been 25 years since the 1992 Los Angeles riots and it seems like since then things have yet to change. Since that occurrence, violence and injustice have spread like a deadly virus to other regions of the U.S. and they’ve all been a prognosis of police brutality toward people of color—particularly black men.
Rodney King was 25-years-old when four cops brutally assaulted him on an L.A. street. In 1991, King was caught in a chase by authorities as he was speeding. Eventually, the police surrounded him alongside a patrol helicopter that captured the scene. He was tasered and beaten reportedly up to 50 times. This was all captured on video by a bystander on the scene, which garnered national attention. The cops were acquitted of all charges on April 29, 1992, and later that day the riots began over a course of five days. Reportedly, 63 people died, 12,000 people were arrested and about 2,000 were injured, the Daily Beast reports.
Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, LA 92 recounts the startling moments that took place in the City of Angels through a collection of raw news reports during that time period. There are no interviews here, or some professor with a Ph.D offering their two cents on what happened. In the new documentary, you’re getting everything from a primary source, which was intentional.
“We decided maybe if we remove the interviews, and not have an expert deconstruct and give an analysis, we can recreate the events in space where we’re creating an experience for the audience,” explains Martin in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “And hopefully by taking a unique approach you allow the audience to have a greater understanding and elicit a greater conversation about race, class and injustice.”
Beneath King’s story, there were also other elements that added to the tension against the police. Ultimately, this would spark racial tension between the African American and Korean communities. At the time, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean woman who owned a south Los Angeles store. Du accused the young woman of trying to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Harlins placed the beverage in her book-bag with $2 in her hand to pay for it.
Du reportedly yanked on her sweater and Harlins allegedly punched her in the face, knocking Du to the ground. The teen then sped off and left the juice on the store’s counter. Then Du picked up a .38 handgun and fatally shot her in the head.
Subsequently Du was acquitted of all charges and summoned with community service and a small fine. This, of course, spurred anger. “For blacks, the killing became a symbol of the dangers and indifference faced by African American youths. Those feelings turned to rage when the woman who shot Harlins, Soon Ja Du, avoided jail time. That — along with the not-guilty verdicts in the King case — became a rallying cry during the 1992 Los Angeles riots,” wrote Angel Jennings for the Los Angeles Times.
The documentary excels at showcasing everything that took place through images of old news reports, and footage of Harlins’ family speaking out on the injustice. There’s scenes in court houses, Koreans crying out as their stores burned—pleading for the violence to stop — and Rodney King’s partner at the time saying he did not deserve what happened. The tension is palpable through the screen and unfortunately feels all too familiar to Ferguson and Baltimore. Like King and Harlins, there’s Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so on.
Still, there was one piece of pivotal footage the filmmakers wish they would have shown, but because of licensing issues they couldn’t. “There was an interview that the local ABC affiliate did with one of the jury members on the 30th of April, so the day after the verdict,” Daniel recalls. “And it was a really compelling moment because you can hear the jury member doesn’t want to say he would have voted a different way. But he is clearly wrestling with the guilt of what he is watching unfold in the city.”
Another pivotal piece of evidence that luckily made it into the film was footage of Maxine Waters. The Congresswoman (D-Calif.) was at the forefront for her community when King’s verdict was announced. She was (and still is) a driving force in representing the black community, and all of those who are marginalized. It was refreshing and inspirational to see her fighting for injustice back then, as she does today.
“I said in a 101 different ways that violence is not right, that I do not condone violence, that people cannot endanger their own or others’ lives,” Waters said in an interview used by The New York Times in 1992. “What I didn’t do is to use the airwaves to call people hoodlums and thugs for burning down their own communities. It only makes them madder when you call them hoodlums and thugs, as the president did,” she added referring to former President George H.W. Bush.
Ultimately, Bush pushed King’s case to federal court, and in 1993 two out of the four cops responsible were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. This changed how police brutality was seen. For once, it felt like the black community mattered. Sadly, the vindication wouldn’t last long. King died in 2012, but his legacy still lives on and represents the face of adversity within all black and brown communities against dishonorable law enforcement.
LA 92 premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, and debuted on the National Geographic Channel on April 30.