The 1992 LA Riots and the rise of citizen journalism

On March 3, 1991, George Holliday videotaped from his apartment in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles the scene which will be at the origin of four days of violent, racial riots in LA. After a high speed chase,  a (black) motorist named Rodney King and two passengers were stopped and arrested by five (white) Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers. The video showed how Rodney King, who had resisted arrest, was first “tasered” and then kicked in the head and savagely beaten with wood batons for over one minute. He was shown while crawling on the ground during the beating The police made no apparent attempt to cuff him. The footage was played by the media all around the world and became a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States.

On April 29, 1992, the officers, who were put on trial for use of excessive force, were acquitted by a predominantely white jury. The verdict was the spark starting a massive, 4 days long fire. During the riots 55 people died, including 10 shot dead by the LAPD and the National Guard. 3.000 people got injured, more than 5.000 fires were set, destroying 1.100 buildings and businesses.

Most of the disturbances were concentrated in South Cental LA, which was primarily composed of African American and Hispanic residents and had very high rate of poverty and unemployment. The declining living conditions in the area were the fuel for the riots fire.

After the riots, George Bush (the first) who was President at that time said that the unrest was “purely criminal”. He acknowledged that the  verdicts were unjust but he maintained that “…what we saw in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It’s not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple”. On a very different tone, African-American Congressional representative of South Central Los Angeles, Democrat Maxine Waters , said that the riots in LA had to be called a “rebellion” or “insurrection” and had been caused primarily by the underlying reality of poverty and despair.

The scene  of the Rodney King beating videotaped by George Holliday not only was one of the most important episodes ever of citizen journalism but was also used by Spike Lee for the beginning of his film, Malcom X.

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