The L.A. Riots, 20 years later

April 27, 2012

Twenty years ago this Sunday, violence erupted on the streets of Los Angeles. Tensions had been building for years between communities of color and the police. And that tension was especially great between the African American community and the Los Angeles Police Department.

In early 1991, Rodney King was pulled over for drunk driving, and beaten bloody by a group of police officers from the LAPD.  The incident was videotaped by someone in a nearby apartment building. More than a year later, several of the officers were brought to trial for their part in the beating. But on April 29th, 1992 the officers were acquitted, setting off three days of rioting in Los Angeles.

And while the eruption of violence took many in the white community by surprise, signs of trouble – particularly with the police – were all over L.A.’s black community. Some signs were subtle. But others, particularly in the music of many in the L.A. hip-hop scene, were as transparent and in your face as it gets. Hip-hop played a prominent role at this time – both as an oral history of a community that felt oppressed by the authorities, and as the soundtrack to its battles with the police prior to, during and following the L.A. Riots of 1992.

Filmmaker Mark Ford chronicles this time in his new documentary Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots.  He talks to both the artists of that time, as well as some of the key figures in the three days of rioting.

We speak with Ford from NPR studios in Los Angeles on Friday's Afternoon Shift. He is joined by one of the community members who participated in the violence during those days, Henry Watson. Watson and three others were arrested for the beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was brutally beaten after being pulled from his truck during the first day of rioting.

We talk about the history of racial tension, and the climate between communities of color and the LAPD that led up to the riots. We also talk about the three days of fire, death and destruction that ensued, and about where we’ve come since.