Los Angeles 1992 Riots

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Los Angeles 1992 Riots

Book excerpt

By: Alistair Cooke

Date: 2004

Source: Alistair Cooke. Letters From America: 1946–2004. New York: Penguin, 2004.

About the Author: Alistair Cooke (1908–2004), a British journalist and broadcaster, started his career as a film critic with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1934. The following year, he was appointed London correspondent for the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) In 1937, he moved to the United States as a commentator on American affairs, for BBC.

Cooke's most notable contribution to the media came as a commentator for American Letter (later renamed to Letter from America), a fifteen-minute weekly radio broadcast that discussed news and issues in the United States from a British perspective. The series began in 1946 and continued uninterrupted every week until Cooke's death in 2004. In June 2005, Penguin Books published Letter from America: 1946–2004—a selection of transcripts of the radio program.


Historically, police brutality and discrimination against minorities has often caused riots in the United States. In 1919, law enforcement authorities in Chicago failed to apprehend a few white youths on charges of beating up a black male. Subsequently, the city witnessed wide-spread rioting by many men from the African American community.

In the United States, most incidents of rioting have occurred in communally sensitive neighborhoods. For instance, in 1935, a minor shoplifting episode triggered large-scale violence in Harlem,New York. The cause of the violence was a rumor that a black woman was manhandled by the Harlem Police—an entity known for discrimination against blacks. Rumors of the arrest and subsequent shooting of a black youth caused severe rioting in Watts, California, in 1965. There have been many other similar instances of unrest in the past few decades.

In most cases, the U.S. Government has formed official commissions to determine the causes of riots. According to these commissions, the main reasons, apart from police discrimination, are low level of education and few job opportunities for minorities. While investigating the Watt riots of 1965, the McCone Commission concluded that poverty, inequality, and racial discrimination were the root causes. In this case, the successful implementation of Proposition 14, in November 1964, also acted as a catalyst in provoking the black community. Proposition 14 had invalidated the Rumford Fair Housing Act—an initiative establishing equal opportunity for African American home buyers by prohibiting racial discrimination by sellers and landlords.

In the past, vindication of those accused of brutality against minorities has also incited rioting. In March 1991, an eighty-one second video tape caught four police officers beating up a black motorist relentlessly. Followed by months of investigation, this incident, which took place in Los Angeles, received extensive media coverage. More than ten years later, in April 1992, a twelve-member jury consisting mainly of white jurors absolved the police officers of any wrong doing—a verdict that was strongly condemned by most. Subsequently, the city witnessed one of its worst cases of communal violence that included looting, arson, and widespread rioting. The primary source is a transcript of popular BBC commentator Alistair Cooke's account of this incident on his radio broadcast, Letter from America.

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Set up soon after the Los Angeles riots in 1991, the Christopher Commission headed by attorney Warren Christopher, investigated the operations and structure of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The commission's report concluded that many officers in the LAPD ignored written guidelines of the department by frequently using excessive force against the public. The use of excessive force is also a direct violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The Los Angeles riots, and other similar incidents, have assumed significance as they highlight the issue of racial discrimination in the United States. It also fueled increasing public concern with racial profiling in the United States. Racial profiling is the practice of targeting racial minorities for special scrutiny under the assumption that they are more likely to be criminals. A July 2001 Gallup poll reported that out of those surveyed, fifty-five percent of whites and eighty-three percent of blacks felt that racial profiling, especially by law enforcement officials, was widespread in the United States.

Critics of racial profiling argue that racial profiling does not serve any purpose. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in addition to being discriminatory, such practices are mostly ineffective and biased. Moreover, the ACLU states that racial profiling can cause resentment amongst minorities, which in turn incites hostile behavior and non-cooperation.

Widespread opinion that the majority of crimes are committed by African Americans augments racial discrimination and profiling. Police drug interdiction programs conclude that a majority of drug sellers and users are people of color—a claim refuted by government agencies. Some government studies state that the number of people using and selling drugs from each race is actually in proportion to their population. Human rights activists state that race-based assumptions of law enforcement officials perpetuate negative racial stereotypes and lead to violent incidents such as the Los Angeles riots.

In the past few decades, there has been a growing concern in the international community about discriminatory practices prevalent in law enforcement agencies in United States. International human-rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have authored studies that severely condemn some police actions against minorities. Entities such as the European Union have become increasingly vocal in their condemnation of racial bias in the United States, especially after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001.

The U.S. Government is also known to be a critic of racial discrimination and profiling. While addressing a Joint Session of Congress on February 27, 2001, President George W. Bush declared that racial profiling was wrong and his government intended to put an end to it. At a news conference in March 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft mentioned that racial profiling creates a "lose-lose" situation because it destroys the potential for underlying trust that "should support the administration of justice as a societal objective, not just as a law enforcement objective."

Various initiatives have been undertaken by the government to prevent unfair racial profiling. In June 2003, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice issued several guidelines to law enforcement agencies on racial profiling. These guidelines explicitly prohibit profiling in routine or spontaneous activities. They further emphasize that stereotyping specific races as having a greater propensity to commit crimes is completely prohibited. Although the Civil Rights Division recognizes the need for racial profiling in cases of terrorism, it maintains that such practices should be in accordance to the nation's constitution. Consequently, even in the context of national security, law enforcement authorities have to maintain constitutional restriction on the use of generalized stereotypes.

Independent commissions claim that despite preventive measures taken by the government, racial discrimination and police brutality is on the rise. These commissions advocate frequent psychological testing of officers and a system of tracking citizen complaints to ensure fair and unbiased policies. Reports suggest that most cities in the United States have a high likelihood of racial violence. According to a 2001 study published by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, a stray racially motivated incident could again instigate large-scale riots.



Nelson, Jill. Police Brutality: An Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Web sites

American Civil Liberties Union. "Racial Profiling: Old and New." <http://www.aclu.org/racialjustice/racialprofiling/index.html> (accessed May 10, 2006).

Chicago Tribune. "The Global Costs of Police Brutality in the US." May 28, 2001. <http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0528-06.htm> (accessed May 10, 2006).

CNN.com. "Rodney King reluctant symbol of police brutality." March 3, 2001. <http://archives.cnn.com/2001/LAW/03/02/beating.anniversity.king.02> (accessed May 10, 2006).

Human Rights Watch. "The Christopher Commission Report." <http://www.hrw.org/reports98/police/uspo73.htm> (accessed May 10, 2006).

Slate Magazine. "Riot Act." April 20, 2001. <http://www.slate.com/id/104699> (accessed May 10, 2006).

U.S. Department of Justice. "GUIDANCE REGARDING THE USE OF RACE BY FEDERAL LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES." June 2003. <http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/split/documents/guidance_on_race.htm> (accessed May 10, 2006).

U.S. Legal Forms, Inc. "Police Brutality Law and Legal Definition." <http://www.uslegalforms.com/legaldefinitions/police-brutality> (accessed May 10, 2006).

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Los Angeles 1992 Riots