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In this episode of Black American History, Clint Smith teaches you about the complicated history of racial tension in South Central Los Angeles. You'll learn about the Watts Rebellion of 1965, a 6-day uprising in response to police brutality that shaped the landscape of racial tension in southern California for years to come. This tension culminated in two major events -- the murder of Latasha Harlins and the beating of Rodney King in 1991 -- which incited the L.A. Uprisings of 1992.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Oxford Language Dictionary
Lynn M. Itagaki, Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
Robert Gooding-Williams, ed., Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising (New York & London: Routledge, 1993).
Brenda Stevenson, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

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CC Kids:
Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History!

As we film this in 2022, the Movement for Black Lives and other protests against police brutality and racial violence in the United States are ongoing, often led by local activists, who fight to make their communities safer and more equitable. Sometimes the manifestations of that activism and movement work are quiet and more subtle, and sometimes they are louder and more direct.

Over the course of the Black Lives Matter movement— in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Minneapolis, in New York City just to name a few— we have seen people rise up against not only police violence, but also the long history of violent public policy that has stripped their communities of the resources, investments, and opportunities the need to improve their social and economic circumstances. These uprisings are often the manifestation of years, decades, generations of anger and disillusionment with the way that the system has operated in ways that are deeply unfair. And while oftentimes police violence is the thing that lights the fuse, the dynamite had been building up for a while.

Some of this comes from the pressure that white supremacy has placed upon multiple historically marginalized communities, who are already struggling, and who are made to fight against one another for the resources they need to thrive. Perhaps no moment represents this better than the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, a moment that serves as a reminder of what happens when people feel like society is treating them with a lack of respect, and undermining their opportunities for a better life. Let’s start the show.

INTRO One note on language, you might notice in this episode that instead of calling it the “Los Angeles Riots” or the “Watts Riots”, as many people have since these events happened, we’ve referred to them as “uprisings” and “rebellions.” As you’ve no doubt noticed in this series, the language that we use really matters. The word “riot” has often been used by many people to describe moments when Black people push back against the violence being enacted on them, and it has often been done to imply a certain level of chaos and mayhem and incoherence to what was transpiring. “The rioters were burning their city now, as the insane sometimes mutilate themselves,” wrote a Los Angeles Times reporter on August 15, 1965 when talking about Watts. Part of what such language is meant to do, is undermine the very real political dimension of the protests, which emerges from genuine grievance with the circumstances around them.

So in an effort to acknowledge the social and political forces shaping these events, and the larger tradition of Black protests they are a part of, describing these events as “rebellions” and “uprisings” rather than “riots” feels more accurate, more nuanced, and more responsible. Now, as we start this complicated episode I want to emphasize a few things. First, history isn’t just a straight line, but there are often loops, and turns, and echoes.

So this may not be the most chronological story, but trust me when I say you’ll understand it by the time we get to the end. By 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act relaxed previous immigration laws and led to an influx of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. And this is great right?

Absolutely - immigration policies bring innovation and other societal, cultural, and economic benefits. Plus, it’s just aligned with the values that the United States has often espoused as being important. But the implications of this act also created a few challenges because of the racism that was present in America.

Black Americans were already strapped for resources and opportunities. Many of these communities were facing poverty, housing shortages, underfunded public school systems, poor public health infrastructure, deindustrialization, and white flight. Then, immigrants from the regions I just mentioned, started moving into urban neighborhoods where many Black Americans already lived and worked, creating an increased sense of competition for resources that already felt so scarce.

California specifically had large influxes of Asian immigrants during the 1960s. And Korean immigrants were starting to thrive in what had traditionally been Black communities. Another large part of what shaped the landscape of racial tension in southern California was the Watts Rebellion of 1965.

The Watts Rebellion started after a Los Angeles police officer pulled over a young man named Marquette Frye. It began as a “traffic stop,” but escalated very quickly. An eyewitness told The Los Angeles Times, “I remember that they took him and threw him in the car like a bag of laundry and kicked his feet in and slammed the door.” Many community members looked on and started to become more concerned as the police became more belligerent.

This culminated in the police officers arresting and beating not only Marquette Frye, but multiple members of the Frye family who had tried to step in and help Marquette. The crowd grew and became angrier at the police brutality they were witnessing. After the police left, the tension escalated and led to 6 days of uprisings that ended in 34 deaths, over a thousand injuries, and four thousand arrests, and 40 million dollars in damages.

As a result of the Watts Rebellion, real estate prices plummeted. Many businesses were destroyed, which created opportunities for Koreans arriving in the country, many of whom would pool money together through a system known as kye, to buy businesses cheaply and with little competition. Though many Black Americans welcomed Korean immigrants with open arms, there was also tension because of the way that Black Americans felt like they were being treated in Korean businesses.

Many Black Americans felt like Korean immigrant store owners did not respect them or treat them with dignity. Black Americans also felt that the Korean immigrants wanted their business, but they were unwilling to hire Black employees. Which was especially frustrating given that those businesses were in Black communities.

Meanwhile Korean business owners felt like they were being subjected to violence and felt like they needed to respond to it. Korean immigrants stated that the high crime rate and history of violence warranted their discriminatory behavior. And from a hiring perspective, in their view, these were family businesses and they couldn’t afford to hire many other employees in the first place.

People on both sides were scared, angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed. Over the course of many years, the tension added to the dynamite that was just waiting to be lit. The reality is that when there is not enough to go around, and people are struggling day-to-day, the sense of despair born from scarcity—which I remind you is manufactured scarcity that stems from public policy decisions—often can lead people to behave in ways that…well reflect a sense of anger and desperation.

And it usually doesn’t bring out the best in people. These issues only increased as the decades went on. The 1980s and 1990s were a time of widespread, global conservatism.

Black activists pushed against this conservatism through an artistic renaissance that included hip hop and rap music, the Anti-Apartheid movement in solidarity with South Africa, and the presidential runs of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. Meanwhile, animosity between Black Americans and Korean immigrants in California continued to escalate. In 1990, an estimated 65 to 80% of businesses in South Central LA were Korean owned.

A 1992 survey of these communities showed that there was considerable racial prejudice against Black American customers by these businesses. The survey found that many Black Americans believed that Korean business owners charged them high prices for low quality goods and only cared about profits and not the communities themselves. These tensions culminated in two major events.

First, was the murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991. Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old Black girl who was shot by Korean business owner Soon Ja Du. What happened is on March 16, Latasha went to Empire Liquor store in Los Angeles to purchase some orange juice.

She was in a rush and threw the $1.79 bottle of juice in her bag. Despite Harlins having the money in her hand, Du accused Harlins of stealing and grabbed her bag. After the scuffle, Harlins threw the juice bottle back on the counter, but Du shot the 15-year-old in the head.

Du was arrested and put on trial. She was convicted in October 1991 by the jury based on security footage and they recommended the maximum 16 year jail sentence for involuntary manslaughter. But the Judge rejected the jury's recommendation and decided to keep Du out of prison, instead giving her five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.

The second event was the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police on March 3, 1991. King was arrested for what was known as “felony evading.” When California Highway Patrol tried to pull him over, King kept going, and it turned into a high-speed chase involving multiple officers. The officers claimed that King was high and tried to attack them, prompting them to beat him out of self defense.

But video footage of the brutal attack showed King crawling on the ground unable to get up. The attack left him with a fractured skull and cheekbone. The video showed that nothing about this was self defense.

The man who filmed it from his window, George Holliday, sent the footage to a local television station. Remember, this was before widespread use of the internet or camera phones. Within days, the video was on every major television network.

And it sparked outrage. On March 15, LAPD Sergeant Stacey Koon, Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseño were indicted for assault. The jury was majority white.

But the officers were ultimately acquitted on April 29, 1992 around pm. By pm the uprising had started. And by pm the first fatality was reported on the news.

On April 30th, the uprisings moved into Koreatown, a mostly Asian American neighborhood which ended up sustaining significant damages. The uprisings were mostly stopped on May 2, 1992 after the national guard, members of the military, and the entire LAPD were deployed in South Central, LA. By that time, 63 people had been killed, over 2,000 were injured, and 8,000 were arrested.

Two of the officers were eventually sentenced to 30 months in prison for violating Rodney King's civil rights, King received $3.8 million in civil damages from the city of Los Angeles, and Latasha Harlins's family received a $300,000 insurance settlement. But the damage had already been done to the community. Many felt like it was too little, too late.

The Los Angeles uprisings were one of the most consequential, complicated conflicts in modern US history. The beating of Rodney King, the violent murder of Latasha Harlins, combined with the economic and social strain on communities who had historically been denied access to the same levers of upward mobility as their white counterparts—culminated in a devastating outcome. It was an outburst of frustration and strain that reflected a larger tension that existed in various cities across the United States.

But this is part of the insidiousness of racism in this country. It’s not just about Black Americans being disenfranchised and oppressed. It's about creating the conditions that facilitate violence and division in the first place.

Pressure doesn’t always create diamonds. Sometimes, pressure creates explosions. Thanks for watching.

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