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The L.A. Riots as Told Through Rap and Hip-Hop

Image: Frame from Rodney King video taken on March 31, 1991

This March 31, 1991 frame from a video tape shot by George Holliday from his apartment in a suburb of Los Angeles shows what appears to be a group of police officers beating a man with nightsticks and kicking him as other officers look on. George Holliday / Courtesy of KTLA Los Angeles / AP, file

There were flames, mass looting, and obscene acts of violence.

There were casualties like that of trucker Reginald Denny – left beaten nearly to death, and countless others that did not become household names.

April 29,1992, the day of the L.A. Riots, resulted in over 50 recorded deaths, 2,000 and more injuries, and approximately $1 billion in damages. Before the noise of the burning buildings and disgruntled Korean employees, came the screams of a community in deep need of security, employment, and respect.

Integral to the story of the L.A. Riots were the lyricisms of such prominent figures as Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Dr. Dre. Through the music, the needs of the people of South L.A. were finally heard and echoed worldwide.

Looters mill in the parking lot of the ABC Market in South-Central Los Angeles as violence and looting ensued on the first day of riots following the verdicts in the Rodney King assault case, on April 30, 1992. Paul Sakuma / AP, file

“People, people we are the same

No we're not the same

Cause we don't know the game."

“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy. June 1, 1989

Los Angeles police officers, 88 in total according to the LA Times, with helicopters overhead, descended upon the neighborhood of 39th Street and Dalton Avenue on August 1, 1988. This raid came following the shooting of 27-year-old bystander, Karen Toshima, who was caught in the crossfire of South L.A. gangs.

The officers went to 39th Street and Dalton Avenue in search of drugs. “The police smashed furniture, punched holes in walls, destroyed family photos, ripped down cabinet doors, slashed sofas, shattered mirrors, hammered toilets to porcelain shards, doused clothing with bleach and emptied refrigerators.

Related: Oscar-Winning Directors Offer New Take on LA Riots

Some officers left their own graffiti: ‘LAPD Rules.’ ‘Rollin' 30s Die,’” reported the LA Times. The LAPD would later state the excessive force was used to send a message to the gang members in the area.

The damage left was so heinous the Red Cross offered assistance to 10 adults and 12 minors who had become homeless following the raid. In the end, the Los Angeles police found less than six ounces of marijuana and less than one ounce of cocaine. This task initiative titled ‘Operation Hammer,’ began the previous year in 1987 by the LAPD following public outcry about increasingly violent gang activity. This operation, alike to the war on drugs instilled by Nixon, quickly turned into one against a specific group of people in South L.A.

Rodney King
Rodney King asks for peace during a press conference in Los Angeles on Friday, May 1, 1992. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Before Rodney King, a string of many other black men and women who fell victim to police brutality. One such individual was Tyrone Demetri Carey – a suspected auto thief. Carey would be chased by police officers, “sirens blaring” for three miles in 1988, before he pulled over.

This, as reported by the L.A. Times. Though the officers would state that Carey ignored their orders after pulling over, five bystanders said otherwise. According to the L.A. Times, “the policemen beat and kicked an unarmed black man as he lay on the street.”

Unlike King, Carey was not recorded, leading the deputy district attorney at the time to write, “It is the opinion of this office, that the evidence in this case is not of such a convincing nature that it would warrant conviction.”

This is the same district attorney’s office that refused to prosecute approximately “278 police officers and sheriff's deputies accused of assaulting civilians with fists, clubs, flashlights, leather-covered steel saps, pistol barrels, scalding water and an electric stun gun, district attorney records show.” This was part of the results of a 1991 study conducted by The L.A. Times.

The study would go on to say, “At least 41 other officers--13% of the total--have been prosecuted on excessive force charges, according to the district attorney. About half were convicted.”

In L.A., the distaste towards the criminal justice system began before April 29, 1992. Some would say it was imbedded in the imbalance of the system as an institution.

Watchf Associated Press Domestic News  California United States APHS LA RIOTS
A Los Angeles police officer holds a shotgun on two looting suspects as a California State police officer puts handcuffs on them near Martin Luther King Blvd. and Vermont Ave. in South Central Los Angeles, taken May 1, 1992. (AP Photo/John Gaps III) AP

“Damn G, the spot's gettin hot

So how the f**k am I supposed to make a knot?

Police looking at ni***s through a microscope

In L.A. everybody and they momma sell dope

They trying to stop it

So what the f**k can I do to make a profit?

It's the same old story and the same old ni*** stuck

And the public defender ain't givin a f**k

Now this is a young man's summer vacation

No chance for rehabilitation.”

“My Summer Vacation” by Ice Cube, October 29, 1991

In 1991 the United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, released a Statistical Abstract that looked, among others, at the poverty rate of South L.A. the year of the King incident. The abstract mirrored Ice Cube’s song quoted above, telling of tense times between the community and police, coupled with the economic strain placed on these communities.

According to the abstract, between 1989 and 1991, the poverty rate increased in California. In the same 1991 year, The Baltimore Sun released a report showing civilian complaints of “excessive force” from LAPD officers, increased by 33 percent between 1984 and 1989, with over “$3.5 million in tax money…paid last year to settle 16 lawsuits involving bodily injury claims of assaults or shootings by officers.”

Or as Ice Cube put it, a typical summer vacation.

Tensions would continue to rise within South L.A. The match that lit the flame was the vicious beating of King on March 3, 1991. Mass looting, raging acts of violence, and a community in flames was what became of South L.A. in 1992 after it was announced the officers would be set free of charges. Among the animosity between the black community and the LAPD, existed animosity between the black and Korean community.

Watchf Associated Press Domestic News  California United States APHS LA RIOTS
Two Korean men stand on the roof of a grocery store with rifles to prevent looters from entering the store in this file photo taken April 30, 1992, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John Gaps III) ASSOCIATED PRESS

"Oriental one penny countin' motherf***ers

That make a ni*** mad enough to cause a little ruckus

Thinkin' every brother in the world's out to take

So they watch every damn move that I make

Cause you can't turn the ghetto into black Korea."

“Black Korea” by Ice Cube, October 29, 1991

The majority of the buildings engulfed in flames and looted during the L.A. riots were Korean owned, driving the Korean owners to bear arms to protect their community. Prior to this there was tension between the black community and these shop owners. As explained by Ice Cube in his song, such tactics as racially profiling the community - following black customers around in their stores - heightened this racial tension and bitterness.

Related: Ice Cube Reflects on a Triumphant Year

The shooting of 15-year-old, Latasha Harlins, in the head by a Korean store owner, also advanced this animosity between the communities. Civil rights activist, Rev. Jesse Jackson, in the days following the riots, spent time in Koreatown speaking with members of the Korean and African-American community.

Among the series of events that occurred during the L.A. Riots, one community has remained seldom mentioned: the Latino community.

“I'm always gettin caca from the blaca

The b.g. hooter always pull me over

Yo, go ahead and write your ticket

But hey yo, Mr. Officer, you know where you can stick it

I say this to myself, I let him do his thing

Or he might beat me down just like he beat down Rodney King.”

“I Got Pulled Over” by Kid Frost, June 29, 1992

The L.A. Riots were led by the black community as a response to the King beating, the acquittal of the officers, the distrust and abuse experienced by the black community towards the LAPD, and the institution built against their economic prosperity.

Amidst the stories told of April 29, those of the Latino community remain buried for the most part. This despite 51 percent of the arrests made on the day of the L.A. Riots being Latino versus 36 percent being black. This was reported by criminologist Joan Petersilia of RAND Corporation - a nonprofit research facility. Petersilia stated then, “This was clearly not a black riot. It was a minority riot.”

Related: Using Hip Hop as Teaching Tool

Armando Navarro is an author, political scientist, and professor at the University of California, Riverside. In 1993 he published his piece titled, “The South Central Los Angeles Eruption: A Latino Perspective,” in the Amerasia Journal. The data driven piece illuminated the voices of the Latino community.

An unidentified man runs down Vermont Street in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 30, 1992 with electronic appliances taken from a 3rd Street store. Looting and fires continue in the wake of the verdicts from the Rodney King beating trial handed down. ASSOCIATED PRESS

As reported by Navarro, roughly 46 percent of the residents in South L.A. were Latino in 1990. This compared to the 36 percent of Latino residents in 1980. “The demographic statistics of SCLA suggest that what was once perceived as primarily an African American area is becoming an ocean of Latino humanity,” stated Navarro.

The increase in population being due to what Navarro examined as an “influx of hundreds of thousands of economic and political refugees from both Central America and Mexico.” The Latino community moving into South L.A. adapted to the socioeconomic struggles of the area.

“The pervasiveness of poverty…was a precondition to the eruption,” wrote Navarro. In their move to South L.A., “their value expectations exceeded their value capabilities,” said Navarro.

The belief of what they should attain in comparison to the reality of what they can attain, added the distress of April 29. In the midst of the news around the black community, Kid Frost raised awareness to the struggles of the Latino community.

"Lookin' at the aftermath of the riot

I can still smell the ashes

From all the clashes

But quiet is kept, it wasn't just the blacks

Everybody was lootin', and had each other's backs

Black people have to stick together

But yo, let's hear it for the Bloods and the Crips

I gots to admit it, y'all brothers did it

I just hope it don't cease

For the sake of all the homies that's restin' in peace."

“Peace Treaty” by Kam, February 16, 1993

Kam raps of the April 26, 1992 peace treaty that graciously occurred due to the efforts of approximately 300 gang members in Watts, L.A.

Led by former Grape Street Crip, Daude Sherrills, the LA Times reports a dozen members of the GSCs driving to the home of their rival, PJ Crips, putting on music and eventually shaking hands with other rivals.

Sherrills was motivated to stop gang banging by the birth of his son. Though the path to April 26 was a long one, due to what the LA Times reported as “memories of too many funerals, too much anger and too many tears,” Sherrills finally succeeded in his mission.

During the riots on the 29, the Watts truce held true. The truce was so powerful it led to the 10 page Bloods and Crips $3.7 million proposal for the restructuring of L.A. This unity was used as a way to look to the future. A sign of hope.

It had been months following the L.A. Riots with rappers, artists, and activists alike, reflecting on the year behind them, looking at what could be in their present and future. Ice Cube being the most consistent and resilient rapper during the L.A. Riots, penned a song months later to summarize whether that hope of the peace treaty, would be upheld.

"Called up the homies and I'm askin' y'all

'Which park are y'all playing basketball?'

Get me on the court and I'm trouble

Last week, f***ed around and got a triple double

Freaking ni***s every way, like MJ

I can't believe today was a good day

Hey, wait, wait a minute!

Pooh, stop this s**t!

What the f*** am I thinking about?"

“It Was A Good Day” by Ice Cube, February 23, 1993

Ice Cube rapped of an ideal day with no interference from police, driving around his neighborhood, being drunk but handling his drink well, and even playing basketball with his friends.

An everyday description for some but not for those in the socioeconomic strata that Ice Cube represents, as the voice of those in South L.A. As “It Was A Good Day” continued on, the listener learns it was a dream as Cube snapped back into reality.

Though the Los Angeles County saw a record 2,589 homicides in 1992, that number dropped to 649 in 2015. The day Ice Cube envisioned, is slowly taking shape.

Image: To match Feature USA-LOSANGELES/RIOTS
The infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie, flashpoint of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is shown in Los Angeles April 5, 2012. (REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn). JONATHAN ALCORN / Reuters

The events of the 1992 L.A. Riots left an entire community shaken. Buildings once burned have risen up in new form with faces once familiar having changed, as Latino communities dominate once populated black neighborhoods.

The stories of the L.A. Riots do not begin on April 29, 1992, just as they did not end in 1993.

The L.A. Riots are a reminder of the instability and chaos that arises from the repetitive and violent marginalization of a community and group of people. Thanks to the rhythmic words of South L.A.’s most prized rappers and artists, a sense of healing is offered, along with the voices of these communities living on.

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