Newsletter: Essential California: In 1992, was it a ‘riot,’ ‘uprising’ or ‘civil unrest’?

The intersection of Florence and Normandie on April 29, 1992.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, May 1, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Twenty-seven years ago this week, a city made combustible by decades of racial and economic inequality exploded in the wake of a jury verdict that acquitted four police officers in the savage beating of Rodney King.

More than a quarter-century later, the events of April and May 1992 still loom large in the Los Angeles psyche. But were they a “riot,” an “uprising” or “civil unrest”? The answer depends upon whom you ask.

Language is a Rorschach test, and “riot,” “uprising” and “civil unrest” all occupy unique spaces in our collective lexicon. The choice to use any one of those words will convey something about your worldview, and the prism through which you view the five days that ravaged the city, leaving more than 60 people dead and thousands injured.

“Riot” remains by far the most frequently referenced name, and many use it reflexively, without a thought toward potential connotations. But just because it’s ubiquitous doesn’t mean that it isn’t a loaded term.

According to Brenda Stevenson, a professor in UCLA’s Department of African American Studies and author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots,” the word can be a political choice, because it puts the focus of what happened on the “criminal element of the event,” rather than the perceived failure of the criminal justice system to fairly serve all people.

“Remember the coverage of the Rodney King beating,” urged USC law professor Jody David Armour, a legal scholar who specializes in the relationship between racial justice, criminal justice and the rule of law. Twenty-four-hour cable news coverage was still a relatively new phenomenon at the time, and millions watched the brutal, grainy video in 1991.

This March 31, 1991, image made from video shot by George Holliday shows police officers beating a man, later identified as Rodney King. The grainy video of him curled up on the ground became a national symbol of police brutality.
(George Holliday / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“You turn on the TV any time of day or night and you would see Rodney King getting beaten down,” Armour said. In the professor’s view, that image saturating the airwaves should have been enough to make mere hooligans act out. But instead people waited for justice.

The black and brown community in L.A. waited for the verdict and didn’t take to the streets until the promise of justice seemed so flagrantly flouted by that Simi Valley verdict contradicting what their own eyes had seen,” Armour said. To call the explosion of anger and frustration that followed a riot would, in Armour’s view, undermine the very real justification for that anger, and all the deep, simmering injustice at play.


On the other hand, Stevenson explained, “those who term the events ‘civil unrest,’ ‘uprising,’ ‘rebellion’ and ‘sa-i-gu’ speak from the position that there was a breakdown in protection under the law that had to be, was attempted to be addressed, or that was not addressed.” Sa-i-gu, which quite literally translates to 4-29 (or April 29) in Korean, is commonly used to refer to the events in L.A.’s Korean community.

“Uprising” — and, to a lesser degree, “rebellion” — has long been used to describe the events (particularly in less-white corners of the city), but the term pervaded the establishment in recent years.

In 2017, when numerous institutions staged exhibits and symposia to grapple with the 25th anniversary of the events, “L.A. Uprising” was used as a title for multiple events, and in the written materials for others. Although “riot” remains the official style for many major newspapers (including this one), online and alternative outlets are increasingly opting for “uprising” in some headlines.

And somewhere between “riot” and “uprising,” “civil unrest” has emerged as a more neutral, politically correct option. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti almost always refers to the “civil unrest of 1992” when speaking publicly, and even the Los Angeles Police Department calls the events the “1992 Civil Unrest” on its website. (The LAPD’s Civil Unrest page is categorized under “interesting facts” in the website’s history section, alongside Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit and the 1994 Northridge earthquake).

Armour was surprised when I told him that the nation’s third-largest police department had begun opting for “civil unrest” on its website. “That may be a reason to be a little suspicious of it too, when that kind of thing starts to happen,” he said, expressing concern that the tepidness of the term might “defang” the events they sought to categorize.

It seems there may be no neutral way to refer to what transpired in Los Angeles 27 years ago. But then again, little was neutral about the events of April 1992.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


The estimated cost of the 2028 Olympics has ballooned to $6.9 billion — a $700-million increase from previous estimates. Organizers attributed the increase to an adjustment for inflation after L.A., which originally bid for the 2024 Games, agreed to wait four more years. They also projected a corresponding bump in revenue due to those same economic forces. Los Angeles Times

Twenty-nine months after the deadly Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, the trial of two men each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter began Tuesday in an Alameda County courtroom. Some in the room sobbed during the emotionally charged proceedings. During his opening statements, a prosecutor spoke about how the three dozen people who died couldn’t escape the converted warehouse “because there was no notice, no time and no exits.” KQED

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L.A.’s first two-way bike lane has officially opened downtown, offering cyclists a protected ride in both directions along Spring Street. Curbed LA

Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. was behind the wheel of vehicle involved in a collision that sent his SUV into an L.A. police sergeant and his motorcycle on Tuesday morning, law enforcement sources told The Times. The sergeant was hospitalized. Los Angeles Times

The Obamas’ new production company has unveiled its slate of upcoming projects at Netflix, and, honestly, the descriptions sound pretty good. And in what can only be perceived as a direct contradiction to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there can be no second acts in American life, the former POTUS-turned-post-Peak-TV-content-creator released a statement saying that the forthcoming productions “won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect, and inspire us all.” BuzzFeed


Confused by Senate Bill 50, that oft-mentioned piece of legislation that aims to ease the state’s housing crisis by increasing density around transit hubs? Check out this handy, illustrated flowchart, which might just help you make sense of it. Curbed SF


The Terranea Resort on the Palos Verdes Peninsula has settled a class-action lawsuit filed by workers over unpaid work time. Los Angeles Times


The Don Pedro Reservoir in California's Central Valley. The hydroelectric power plant at the dam that impounds the lake generates carbon-free electricity for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.
(Phil Schermeister / Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

California’s push for 100% climate-friendly electricity has revived an old fight over dams and hydropower. Los Angeles Times

Santa Monica Mountains mountain lion P-47 has died after ingesting rat poison. He was 3 years old. P-47 was one of two big cats sired by P-45, a legendary Los Angeles mountain lion who once killed 10 alpacas in a single crazy Malibu weekend. Unfortunately, P-45 is also believed to be dead. Amid all this loss, we recommend revisiting better times with this adorable 2016 video of a then-baby P-47 and his kitten sister P-46. Los Angeles Times


The median home price in the Bay Area has dropped for the first time in seven years. San Francisco Chronicle

The backstory on UCLA’s long, strange search for a basketball coach is a must read. Los Angeles Times

A pioneering female mariachi from East L.A. talks about her career path and life’s work, documenting female mariachi musicians, and her early start in one of California’s first school-based mariachi programs. BorderLore


Los Angeles: partly cloudy, 68. San Diego: partly cloudy, 68. San Francisco: sunny, 66. San Jose: sunny, 75. Sacramento: sunny, 81. More weather is here.


When I am in California, I am not in the West, I am west of the West.

— Theodore Roosevelt

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.