Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Protesters’ Demands in Response to Police Brutality Have Come a Long Way Since the 1992 LA Rebellion

While it’s far too soon to declare victory, let’s take stock of how far political demands have come since the 1992 LA Rebellion.

Demonstrators denouncing systemic racism and the police killings of black Americans take to the streets in the borough of Brooklyn on June 6, 2020 in New York City. Scott Heins / Getty

Mass protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade have raised comparisons to the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion.

On April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers of assault against Rodney King, a black man whose 1991 brutalization by the police — which lasted for at least fifteen minutes — had been recorded from an observer’s apartment balcony. 

The video circulated nationwide. Protests began a few hours after the verdict was announced, with significant momentum building in South Central Los Angeles and Koreatown. Along with the acquittals, a key spark of the rebellion, as Brenda Stevenson documents, was the sentencing by a white judge in the case of Korean storeowner Soon Ja Du. A few weeks before Rodney King’s assault, Du shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old black girl, during a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. Convicted of voluntary manslaughter in October 1991, Du was sentenced by Joyce Karlin to probation, community service, and a fine. 

By the time the LA Rebellion ended in early May, over five thousand people had been arrested, many for violating curfews. Numerous immigrants from Mexico and Latin America were deported. Over a thousand buildings, mostly commercial property, would be damaged, looted, or destroyed. Los Angeles in 1992 was the last time the Insurrection Act, which President Trump threatened to use against today’s protestors, was deployed. William Barr, like now, was attorney general. 

History, it seems, is repeating itself all over again. But if we look at the political demands expressed in response to state repression being unleashed on protesters, we’ve come a long way. Today, more of us are rejecting the types of reforms that were promised in response to the LA Rebellion. 

The 1992 uprising stemmed from not only police brutality and racism but also the poverty and economic conditions people were forced to survive. The solution proposed by many political leaders and pundits at the time was more corporate investment, lending, and minority business development. Capital investment and public-private partnerships would address what they saw as the failures of the social welfare state. This approach saw neighborhoods as economically neglected rather than targets of economic and racial violence.

The economically neglected explanation worked in tandem with defenses of Korean immigrant storeowners, who incurred almost half of the city’s billion dollars in property loss. Long-standing critiques of the concentration of Korean-owned stores in black neighborhoods were often answered with the claim that they filled the void created by corporations who refused to do business there, which depicted Korean storeowners as haplessly in the rebellion’s path but not implicated in neighborhood conditions. Nonwhite scholars pushed “going beyond black and white” to analyze what’s been described as a multiracial riot and to decry what they saw as misguided targeting of Asians. 

Calls for racial reconciliation, whether expressed by academics, activists, and civic leaders, were buttressed by claims that the rebellion was partly fueled by mutual misunderstanding between racial groups. President Bill Clinton would later champion a similar explanation of racial conflict at the federal level. In 1997 he appointed a national commission on race, which, in the shadow of his crime bill and welfare reform, held race dialogues, dubbed “One America Conversations,” in thirty-nine states.

“Race relations” and capital investment, rather than using the power of the state to redistribute wealth and decrease the power of police, were the solutions of the day.

Today, more people are letting us know that empty dialogues and corporate solidarity statements are not enough. Whether in the streets, on social media, or in communications with bosses, colleagues, and organizations, more people are telling those in power that the time for talk is over if it’s not accompanied by serious structural changes. 

Most importantly, we’re seeing an unequivocal demand that was not as widespread in the wake of 1992: Defund the police. While stopping police brutality and reforming the criminal justice system were major goals of residents and community activists in 1992 Los Angeles, the demand for defunding the police brings us closer to creating lasting alternatives to policing, punishment, and imprisonment. 

Of course, “defunding the police” is not inherently abolitionist. Indeed, without abolition as both process and goal, defunding the police in practice could be coupled with increased vigilantism, particularly from white people, as seen with contemporary lynchings, such as the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, or in armed responses to today’s protests. And the private sector, including the tech industry with its supposed innovations, all too willingly develops and maintains surveillance upholding a carceral state, as well as employs its own private security forces. 

Thus we need to remain vigilant of not being politically diverted by what Toni Cade Bambara describes as “the sharks, the next wave of repression, or the next smear campaign” trying to move us towards policing by other means. What defunding the police does, in this moment, is help us avoid the pitfalls of those reforms that, as Mariame Kaba warns, may ultimately strengthen the police financially and institutionally. 

The demand to defund the police also has what Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as stretch, helping us “to reach further than the immediate object without bypassing its particularity.” It can help us interrogate reforms that promote capital and weaken the social welfare state, such as those proposed in response to the 1992 LA Rebellion. We can instead ask how budgets are created and who and what we prioritize in terms of their use. And it can encourage us to reimagine work beyond punishment industries and occupying occupations. 

In our current economy, millions of people labor as police officers or for the Department of Defense, which is currently the largest employer in the United States. Finally, defunding the police can open up more space to imagine a less punitive social welfare state — as mass incarceration, as noted by Elizabeth Hinton, was partly fueled by crime control measures enacted to regulate social welfare programs — and to normalize a more humane social welfare state where everyone’s basic needs are met. 

While it’s far too soon to declare victory, let’s take stock of how far political demands have come since the 1992 LA Rebellion. Calls to defund the police, and more importantly, the momentum the demand is gaining, is progress from below. It is a major political advancement from the post-1992 push for capital investment, public-private partnerships, or facile “race relations” dialogues, all gestures that rehabilitate capitalism — which always engenders policing — but don’t ultimately confront power or the structure of our economy. 

Let’s celebrate this victory and keep going.