Was it a ‘riot,’ a ‘disturbance’ or a ‘rebellion’?


THE TIMES’ word of choice for one of the most destructive weeks in L.A.’s history — from April 29 to May 4, 1992, when more than 50 people died, thousands were injured and hundreds of millions of dollars in property was destroyed — is “riot.”

The Times has used “riot” for the Rodney G. King verdict furor well over 1,000 times since then. Webster’s defines “riot” as “a raucous or violent disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled for a common private purpose.”

By comparison, the politically neutral words “disturbance” and “unrest” have been used as the primary name about 60 times combined.


The terms “rebellion” and “uprising” were favored by those who saw a purposeful political message in the tumult, but The Times has used them rarely (often in direct quotes or letters to the editor). “If you call it a riot,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said at the time, “it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason. I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable. So I call it a rebellion.”

Another characterization of the L.A. turmoil came a year after the disturbances, when writer Ruben Martinez told PBS: “[It] was a riot and a rebellion and an insurrection and an uprising…. It was part bread riot at times. It was at times a Hollywood riot, just staged purely for spectacle … a giant piece of performance art that only L.A. could have created.”

Of all the names floating around for what many simply called “the events,” perhaps the least judgmental is the Korean term of choice: sa-i-gu, or 4-2-9.

— Swati Pandey