30 years after the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, not enough has changed
South Los Angeles residents reflect on the impact April 29, 1992, had on their lives and the city they love
On April 29, 1992, the city of Los Angeles erupted into a state of civil unrest following the not guilty verdict in the trial of the Los Angeles police officers charged with the brutal beating of Rodney King. For six days, people angry about the trial’s outcome took to the streets, businesses were looted and the city burned. While the verdict was the final straw for many, the fuse for their anger was lit years before.
When it was all over, 63 people were killed, 2,383 were injured and more than 12,000 had been arrested. The total property damage was estimated to be $1 billion.
It took less than a week to burn the city down. Thirty years later, there are areas that still have not recovered.
To mark the anniversary, Andscape spoke to four people whose lives were changed by the uprising.
Shinese Harlins-Kilgore and Vester “Trell” Acoff Jr.
Shinese Harlins-Kilgore remembers the day her cousin Latasha Harlins was killed. She tells Andscape that her grandmother originally asked Latasha to go to the store for a bottle of orange juice, where she was fatally shot by store owner Soon Ja Du on March 16, 1991.
“I didn’t feel like going ’cause it was like 9 o’clock in the morning,” she said. Latasha went instead.
Latasha was just 15 years old when she encountered Du inside Empire Liquor Market and Deli that morning. After grabbing the juice, she put it in her backpack and headed to the counter to pay. Despite having the money in hand, Du accused Latasha of stealing, grabbed the teen by her sweater, and a scuffle ensued. As Latasha turned to leave, Du shot her in the back of her head. The incident was caught on camera and further inflamed tensions between the Black community in South Central and Korean American store owners.
Latasha’s killing took place two weeks after King was beaten, adding even more fuel to a community that was ready to explode.
Latasha’s younger brother, Vester Acoff Jr. — who goes by Trell — was playing in a basketball tournament at a neighborhood park that day. He wasn’t at the home they all shared with their grandmother Ruby when police showed up to inform her that her granddaughter had been killed.
Harlins-Kilgore was there.
“I remember running to the park to get Trell, and when I get there, he’s confused because he didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “We ran across a football field to get back to the house, and everyone started coming — the press, the media, everybody. We didn’t know how to take it all in. We were young. At the time I was 15 years old.”
“I was 10 going on 11,” Acoff said. “When we hit the corner from the park, my heart dropped because we saw all the police cars in the front, and that’s when it hit me that it was true.”
Harlins-Kilgore has a vivid memory of the trial of her cousin’s killer, including the day the jury delivered its verdict and the day the judge handed out her sentence.
“We went to trial and were in court every single day,” she said. “It took a toll on us. When the verdict came down, it was in November. The jury found her guilty. It was the judge who didn’t see a murderer and let her go.”
Instead of being sentenced to up to 16 years in prison, Judge Joyce A. Karlin sentenced Du to probation and 400 hours of community service. The disappointment still lingers in Harlins-Kilgore’s voice.
Both Harlins-Kilgore and Acoff remember the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in 1992 and the King verdict coming down a week later. Harlins-Kilgore said the officers being acquitted “just added to the flame that was already burning.”
Acoff remembers going outside the first night of the riots and just feeling angry and helpless. He was still young, and couldn’t fully grasp everything that was going on, but he knew it was wrong.
“I was out there in the streets during the riots out of anger,” Acoff said, “not knowing how much this was going to go down in history. Not knowing how impactful it was.”
Both Harlins-Kilgore and Acoff believe that 30 years later, nothing has changed. The relationship between Korean Americans and Black people who shop in their stores is wholly transactional, they said.
“I was at an event at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire last night. There was an art exhibit, and one of the artists invited me to come see the art she had made honoring my cousin,” Harlins-Kilgore said. “One Korean person made a statement as they were reminiscing about the 1992 uprising and she referenced ‘our community.’”
Harlins-Kilgore said she immediately wondered what “community” the woman was referring to.
“Ninety percent of the small businesses in South Central are owned by Koreans,” Harlins-Kilgore claimed. “You don’t see Koreans buying gas in that community, and they may even own the gas station. You don’t see Koreans come into a Black beauty supply store supporting a Black-owned business, so what community is she talking about? I don’t see what she sees as ‘community.’ If she is talking about the community of South Central, she is not a part of the community because they don’t help us within the community.”
Harlins-Kilgore said that while her family could serve as a bridge to help mend the relationship between Korean Americans and Black people in LA, she believes that many aren’t receptive to that.
“The Koreans think that it was Latasha’s fault, until you explain to them that Soon Ja Du hit Tasha first,” Harlins-Kilgore said.
“Tasha put the orange juice on the counter and turned to walk out of the store, and she shot her,” she added.
In addition to the continuing strife, a lot of businesses never returned after the uprising, and some that were spared eventually left the neighborhood. Important services like grocery stores have all but disappeared in the area, creating food deserts.
“More than 1,000 businesses burned down,” Harlins-Kilgore asserted. “More than half of them never came back.”
Acoff pointed out that when developers do come into the area, they push out older residents and build housing that prices out most others in the area.
When asked if relationships between the citizens of South Central and police have changed in the last 30 years, Harlins-Kilgore was firm in her answer.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s gotten worse because we don’t trust them. We don’t know if we should put our hand on the steering wheel, to reach for our registration or move when they say move. Now we have to literally record them as they record us, but you already know if they shoot one of us, suddenly his camera doesn’t work anymore. They are supposed to ‘protect and serve,’ but they judge first and ask questions later.”
Acoff said in the aftermath of his sister’s killing, he “strayed” and got involved in gang activity, making “the wrong decisions.”
“When I was 14, I was facing juvenile life, and the reason it didn’t get put on me, is because the judge in my case was a judge who disagreed with Judge Karlin’s ruling,” he said. “She took us in her chambers and told my grandmother that she didn’t want her to lose another grandchild.”
Acoff said he has had friends killed by police, and he has been the victim of a police terror tactic where they’ve picked him up and dropped him off in a rival gang territory.
“They’ll pull you over, plant drugs on you, plant weapons on you,” he said.
Acoff said 30 years later, he believes there is no relationship between Black people and the police.
“Everything that went on in ‘92 is still going on now,” he said.
Harlins-Kilgore said she, Acoff and other family members now have a mission to continue the activism that her late mother, Denise Harlins, started in the aftermath of Latasha’s killing. The family runs the Latasha Harlins Foundation, which was originally started by Denise Harlins in 1992 and later reorganized in 2020.
“We want to be able to break down some of the barriers in the neighborhood between Blacks and Korean Americans. We want to help Black children get an education. We want to help Black people get ahead,” Harlins-Kilgore said.
“We come from a space of love,” he said. “We want to open up opportunities. We want to educate, stimulate and save every family. That’s the journey we are on.”
Larry Williams moved to Los Angeles from Helena, Arkansas, when he was a senior in high school in 1960. He originally moved to get medical treatment for a spinal issue and ended up staying with his father in Pacoima, an LA neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. After graduating from San Fernando High School, he went to Los Angeles Valley College and Los Angeles City College before transferring to UCLA. After graduation, he moved on to Columbia Law School and returned to LA after receiving his degree.
Williams remembered the Watts rebellion of 1965, which took place while he was still a student at UCLA. He also remembered the King beating and said the video finally showed how police treated some of the city’s Black residents.
“It put a light on it and highlighted what everyone in the community, especially those of us who worked in grassroots organizations, knew already. The fact that it was on film changed so many things. It showed graphically what we all had seen and knew and experienced,” he said.
“It was a vicious beating, and seeing it on film gutted me. I felt terrible,” he added.
Williams also noted that the beating took place in Lake View Terrace, which is adjacent to Pacoima, where he went to high school.
“That made it even more graphic for me because that was the area I lived in when I moved from Arkansas,” he said.
Williams said he knew when they moved the trial to “police friendly” Simi Valley that the outcome would not be good.
He described the LAPD as “an occupying force,” because they don’t live in the neighborhoods they police.
“They come over here and this is foreign land to them, and they go back home after the shift is over. That’s what it is,” he said.
Williams doesn’t remember where he was when he heard the verdict in the trial of the officers accused of beating King. Those memories turned into a blur as he stood across the street from his law office in Crenshaw Square in South Central and watched it go up in flames.
Williams felt helpless and sad as he lost the office and saw the neighborhood around him burn.
“It was a few days of real chaos,” he recalled, adding he lost everything in the fire.
“I was so proud of the way I had set up my office. Back in those days, we didn’t have computers, and the library wasn’t in your hand as it is today,” he said. “I had invested thousands of dollars in law books, and I had active cases with big files of discovery and papers and notes and research and everything. I had all my furniture and photos and pictures. I had it all set up, and all that stuff just went straight down the drain, and that was horrible just from a personal level.
“And, of course, there was all the other stuff happening, including lives being lost, which far exceeded my personal property.”
Williams lives in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles, a few miles from his law office. After watching his office burn, he went back to his house, which sits on top of a hill, and watched fires break out all across the city.
Losing his office halted Williams’ law practice while he attempted to rebuild in the aftermath of the civil unrest. He was eventually able to secure a new spot by sharing space with another attorney.
“My friends and family were very helpful,” he said. “People gave me stuff to help me rebuild.”
Williams said all the grassroots efforts that he had been a part of in the community were disrupted by the rebellion.
“This part of the city was semi-thriving. The Crenshaw district was live. We had clubs and bars and restaurants and a lot of services, and all those things went up in flames,” he recalled.
Williams said the area where he lives languished for decades, and there are still things that have not fully recovered.
“It took a long time for the neighborhood to start moving up again,” he said.
Williams has lived in his current home for 35 years, and has no plans to move, despite the challenges he’s faced.
“I love this area. It’s one of the best areas in Los Angeles for so many reasons. We are 8-9 miles from all the stuff LA is famous for and known for, and we can get to it without getting on the freeway,” he said with pride.
“It’s the perfect microclimate, the perfect physical location, and for LA it has one of the best public transportations available,” he continued. “We have a subway that is about to open up right down the street. We have a good variety of housing stock in this neighborhood.”
Baldwin Hills, where Williams lives, has historically been an upper-middle-class Black enclave. It’s been a mecca for Black Los Angelenos — and celebrities such as Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Redd Foxx and others — but there was a time when the area was mostly white. Black families were not able to move into the neighborhood until the 1960s because of restrictions and segregation.
“After the Watts rebellion, white flight happened, and that’s when Black folks were able to move into the area,” he said. “This area emptied out of white people. Baldwin Hills, View Park and Leimert Park all changed almost overnight.”
“Ironically,” he added, “the area is now flipping again with gentrification. The prices are right, so white people are moving back in, buying up the property and starting to take over again.”
He said that with property values increasing, it makes it easier for older people to get lured into selling their property to gentrifiers when they know they can take the money elsewhere and get more bang for their buck.
“That has encouraged such an exodus of Black people,” he said.
Despite the rapid change occurring in his neighborhood, the scars of the 1992 uprising remain. Williams said he can sit on his balcony and still see businesses that never recovered.
“In many cases, it’s one step forward and two steps back,” he said.
Asked if he thinks the LAPD has changed in the 30 years since the rebellion, he said the difference is mostly “cosmetic.”
“There are more Latino and Black officers than say in the ’60s, so that’s an improvement, but fundamental issues still exist,” he said. “The primary purpose of police departments hasn’t changed. The economic conditions and the social conditions of so many Blacks and Latinos who are working-class people have not changed. It’s hard to get optimistic about any little changes that take place.
“It’s kind of demoralizing to see things that way.”
Despite it all, Williams said that he still loves Los Angeles and has hope for the city.
“Clearly all the social and economic issues are a problem, but everything about California and Los Angeles is paramount to me. This is the best spot that I can think of to live.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Earl Ofari Hutchinson remembers exactly what he was doing when he heard about the verdict in the King case.
“At that particular moment, I was walking to the corner of Manchester and Crenshaw to get something from the convenience store,” he said. “The first inkling I had that something wasn’t right was that many people were gathering on the corners yelling.”
Hutchinson, a longtime community activist, said he tried to warn people in the weeks before about the trial and impending verdict.
“This should have been a slam dunk,” he said. “You had the video. The whole world saw it. It was clear-cut, and it could be nothing but guilty.
“I warned people repeatedly. I said, ‘Be careful with that,’” he said. “No. 1, you’ve got cops. No. 2, you’ve got a district attorney, and they don’t prosecute police officers because they are all one and the same, and in the rare times they do, it’s a half-hearted prosecution. The third thing I warned them about is Simi Valley.
“I knew the area. I knew who lived there. Back then it was basically lily-white and most of the cops lived in Simi Valley. It was ultraconservative. When I saw the jury, I just knew there was going to be an acquittal.”
Hutchinson believes what really ignited things is the fact that people had high expectations for the verdict. He also described the LAPD as “an occupying army,” and felt the climate was combustible.
“Before the King beating, we had Latasha Harlins,” Hutchinson said. “There was a lot of community anger about that, so just like with anything else, when things are in a pressure cooker, it builds and builds and builds until it explodes.”
Hutchinson was a teenager during the Watts rebellion in 1965 and said 1992 was really a “perfect storm” of things that came together and led to the uprising.
After hearing news of the verdict, Hutchinson said he went home and turned on the television. Most of the news reports were focused on the intersection of Florence and Normandie.
“TV news helicopters were overhead doing this live thing even before reality TV became reality TV, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They were basically showing people where to go if they wanted to participate in the madness. The mass media was complicit. It was sensationalism. It wasn’t news. It was sensationalism, and that is what the media feeds on.”
Hutchinson said he went to work the next day after the uprising began and many of his white co-workers who had never spoken to him before were coming up to him and asking what was happening.
“I could see the fear in their faces,” he recalled.
Other co-workers who knew he lived near Manchester and Crenshaw offered to let him and his wife stay at their homes if they feared for their safety.
When the National Guard and 50 other police agencies came in to try to restore order, Hutchinson said he went to record a radio show in North Hollywood.
“I drove to the station, and it looked like Dante’s Inferno. The smoke was so great all around. It was a lonely drive. The freeways were empty and everything had shut down at that point. That afternoon after leaving the station I drove around the area and spoke to people.”
It was then he noticed that LAPD officers were not attempting to stop anyone from looting. As he was driving, he noticed Korean business owners standing outside their businesses with guns.
“Something as cataclysmic as that stays with you until the end of time. The images are burned in your head, and you never forget that. I still remember where I was. I still remember what the streets looked like. I still remember the justifiable rage people were feeling,” he said.
Asked if he believes anything has changed in the 30 years since the rebellion, he answered “yes and no.”
“It’s like anything else. When you are talking about change over time, is the glass half full or half empty? Actually, it’s both. I’m old enough to remember the LAPD going back to the ’60s, and in every sense it was a brutal, vicious occupying army, and they hated African Americans, and it showed. I have those personal memories. If you are a young African American male, boom, it’s open season with the LAPD.
“Now as we fast forward to 1992, we still saw that mentality. We had [Chief] Daryl Gates, a take-no-prisoners old style cop, and still an occupying army. It’s still the old brutal LAPD, and nothing has changed,” he said.
Hutchinson cites the police commission, civilian oversight board and the city council oversight of the police as positive improvements in the years since 1992. The Christopher Commission’s findings and recommendations on racial profiling, the use of deadly force and police accountability have also helped in some ways.
Hutchinson is the president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, and police reached out to his group in 2002 and 2003 to try to establish community policing. There are also more Black, Latino and LGBTQ officers on the force since 1992, and he considers that to be a positive step.
While police violence still persists, Hutchinson said the ubiquitousness of camera phones has created more visibility when police use deadly force against civilians.
“Now, cops also have their own cameras that are supposed to record what they are doing. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. There’s issues with that, too,” he said. “Who looks at it? How is it used? Is it made public?”
Hutchinson believes that with the proliferation of videos of abusive policing, people are becoming desensitized to it.
“Have you noticed that when someone is killed by police, we are told everything about the victim’s history, but why don’t we hear about the police?”
At 76, Hutchinson said he believed things in the city would be better by now. Unfortunately, there’s still more work to be done.
“I never thought at my age I would still be fighting the same battles over housing, jobs, education, the police — I didn’t think 30 years later the same things would be going on. We’re still talking about police misconduct. We’re still talking about our people being in the streets homeless. We’re still talking about lousy, failing schools. We’re still talking about the lack of access to quality health care. The only thing that has changed is I’m 30 years older.”
Hutchinson said he’s not that confident that things will change with future generations either.
“I hate to end it on a negative note, but I’m not confident. I hope I’m wrong.”
Black people all over Los Angeles hope he’s wrong too.