‘91-92 The Year In Review. Los Angeles County: A Look Back : Trying Times : Beating of Rodney King Set the Course for a Tumultuous, Often Angry Year


The year 1991 opened in Los Angeles with riveting midnight television images of tracer missiles illuminating the Baghdad skies. Swathed in yellow ribbons, the city was obsessed, like the rest of the nation, with war.

One week after the war victory, awash in feelings of patriotism, Los Angeles was abruptly jolted by another midnight image--four police officers brutally clubbing motorist Rodney G. King.

That shocking scene, captured by chance on videotape by an amateur photographer and widely shown throughout the nation, foretold a year of tumult and wrenching change in Los Angeles. Law enforcement came under angry public scrutiny. Race relations eroded, the economy went bust, the Earth shook. And in the end, a beloved icon announced the unimaginable.

The year was not without celebration and selflessness. Archbishop Roger M. Mahony was named cardinal of Los Angeles, becoming one of the youngest cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church. A baby girl underwent surgery to give new life to her older sister. And one man gave his life for others, braving flames from a burning jetliner to help fellow passengers escape.


But it was the King beating that became the year’s paramount issue, igniting public furor and triggering the beginning of fundamental changes in the Los Angeles Police Department.

In City Hall and Parker Center, the King episode touched off a contentious battle of wills between Mayor Tom Bradley and Police Chief Daryl F. Gates over whether the city’s top cop should resign.

After voluminous research and raucous public hearings, an unprecedented probe of the LAPD by the Christopher Commission blamed department leadership for failing to stop police brutality and often tolerating racist-tinged behavior. Gates, after four months of unrelenting criticism, agreed to retire in April, 1992.

In the months after the King beating, public scrutiny of law enforcement became a relentless lens panning the city. It focused on trouble spots and then freeze-framed an issue until leaders somehow moved to correct the picture.


The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department came under fire in August after the fatal shooting of a gang member at the Ramona Gardens housing project. Latino tenants, who said the shooting was unprovoked, decried the death as a tragic example of their longtime encounters with police brutality.

Sheriff Sherman Block, confronted with protests after several controversial shooting deaths by deputies, conceded that his agency has its share of racist and rogue officers. Block appointed a citizens panel to recommend department reforms.

But buffeted by reports that the county had paid almost $34 million in four years in Sheriff’s Department litigation costs, the Board of Supervisors recently appointed a retired judge to investigate use of excessive force by deputies.

Attention also focused on turbulent race relations throughout the city.


The fatal shooting of a black teen-ager by a Korean-born grocer heated long-simmering tensions between Korean merchants and their black customers in South-Central Los Angeles. Bradley stepped in to forge a delicate truce between the communities with the announcement of a jobs program.

But when Judge Joyce A. Karlin sentenced Soon Ja Du to five years’ probation for killing 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice, the case became an overnight symbol for the miscarriage of justice against blacks. Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade, denounced Karlin as a racist and led courthouse protests.

When five Latinos were killed at a Watts housing project in an arson fire believed set by blacks, Bradley again stepped in to try to quell the anger.

Census figures were tallied and interpreted in 1991, revealing dramatic demographic changes among more than 8 million Los Angeles County residents. The black population grew by only 1% and the Anglo population dropped 8%. The number of Asians surged 119% and Latinos increased 62%.


Latino empowerment was played out in the County Hall of Administration throughout 1991. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a historic county redistricting plan that paved the way for election of the first Latino supervisor in this century, Gloria Molina.

Her election culminated a long struggle for Latino representation on the board, and shook the conservative board when Molina quickly became an outspoken member of a new liberal majority.

The board was rocked again in 1991 when Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, an institution in Los Angeles politics for nearly four decades, announced his retirement. A showdown between Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and state Sen. Diane Watson is shaping up for the 1992 election to succeed him.

The political career of another veteran lawmaker, state Sen. Alan Robbins, ended in scandal when he resigned from office and agreed to plead guilty to federal political corruption charges.


In City Hall, 1991 heralded a new generation of black leaders. Rita Walters, a Los Angeles school board member, and Mark Ridley-Thomas of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took seats around the horseshoe-shaped City Council table and vowed to concentrate on the needs of the poor in their districts.

But tending to the needs of constituents became a wrenching challenge for city and county lawmakers as the impact of the nation’s lingering recession walloped government and household budgets alike, leading to painful cuts in health services, new taxes and hiring freezes.

The Los Angeles school board eliminated more than 1,000 positions and severely cut back non-academic activities such as music and drama programs.

The economic bust hit home in 1991 with widespread layoffs. Month after month, workers received grim news of job losses. The region’s aerospace industry was battered--McDonnell Douglas cut back by more than 7,000 employees. Lockheed continued to phase out its massive Burbank operations and will eventually cut 4,500 jobs in Souther California.


General Motors Corp. decided to shut down its Van Nuys assembly plant, doing away with the last major car factory in Southern California and about 2,600 jobs. BankAmerica Corp. and Security Pacific Corp. shook the financial community by agreeing to merge to form the nation’s second-largest bank. Industry observers have speculated that as many as 20,000 of the banks’ employees will be laid off state-wide and hundreds of branches closed.

One of the most revered Los Angeles industries, real estate, took a major hit as home sales slowed to a near standstill. The dreaded D-word, depreciation, prevailed.

Both man-made and natural disasters struck the region in winter, spring and fall.

In February, a Boeing 737 jetliner landing at Los Angeles International Airport struck a small commuter plane on the ground in a fiery collision that killed 22 on the jet and all 12 aboard the smaller plane. In what emergency crews described as amazing escapes, 67 passengers fled from the burning USAir jet, sliding down a chute or jumping from the plane to the ground.


The government’s report on the cause of the runway collision pointed the finger at the Federal Aviation Administration for failing to run the airfield control tower properly.

Phillip Flemming Jr., 44, the only Los Angeles victim aboard the USAir jet, died after heroically remaining inside the burning plane to help others flee. He was eulogized as a quiet achiever and devoted family man who used his business skills to promote economic opportunity in the black community.

In another life-saving decision, Abe and Mary Ayala of Walnut captured worldwide attention when they conceived a child, born in 1990, in the hopes that it would provide bone marrow to save the life of their leukemia-stricken teen-age daughter.

In June, 18-month-old Marissa, a perfect donor match, and her sister Anissa, 19, underwent transplant surgery. Anissa was doing well late this year and had not experienced any major complications.


Also in June, the region quaked with a magnitude 5.8 temblor centered along the northern edge of the San Gabriel Valley. One person was killed, hundreds of houses were damaged and historic buildings were cracked.

Again, as residents swept up broken glass and hauled away fallen bricks, scientists reminded the quake weary that the Sierra Madre temblor was not even close to being the Big One. Recently, scientists warned that another significant quake could shake the San Gabriel Valley along the same fault lines.

Although Los Angeles was largely spared this fall from Santa Ana wind-blasted fires, the disastrous Berkeley Hills blaze in Oakland that destroyed 3,000 houses and other structures provided a somber reminder of the city’s own fire-prone hillsides.

Another kind of fire--gunfire--continued to echo through the streets as gang-related killings in communities patrolled by the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department surpassed a record 700. Gunfire took the life of Los Angeles Police Officer Tina Kerbrat, the first woman officer killed in the line of duty.


For Los Angeles gays, 1991 will be remembered as a landmark year of rage and political mobilization as diverse segments of their community joined forces to loudly protest Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of gay-rights legislation. The veto was viewed as a startling setback and prompted a groundswell of mainstream support.

Although immediate street protests rose in San Francisco, it was Los Angeles gays who sustained vehement demonstrations for weeks. From Hollywood to Beverly Hills and the San Fernando Valley, the collective anger was sounded night after night. Activists vowed to take the issue directly to California voters.

In another historic breakthrough in the gay-rights movement, a number of Los Angeles police officers publicly acknowledged their homosexual lifestyle and for the first time were allowed to wear LAPD uniforms while staffing a recruitment booth at a gay pride festival.

Near the end of this tumultuous year, one more major shock awaited. Earvin (Magic) Johnson, the brilliant Lakers guard, announced that he was retiring from the team because he was HIV-positive.


Throughout Los Angeles, his admirers gasped as if they had been punched in the stomach. Johnson’s frank discussion immediately raised consciousness about AIDS and testing centers throughout the region were deluged with inquiries. Instantly, the campaign to increase AIDS prevention, a drive waged largely by gays, gained a national spokesman.

And flashing his trademark smile, Johnson sought to reassure a despairing public:

“It has happened but I’m going to deal with it. My life will go on. Life is going to go on and I’ll be a happy man.”

Researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this story.