Twenty-five years ago on April 29, the world got a first-hand demonstration of how dangerous unchecked racism and prejudice can be.
It began with an attempted police stop of a motorist that spiraled out of control and ended with four members of the Los Angeles Police Department charged with assault and excessive use of force.
A video of the incident in Lake View Terrace, taken by amateur videographer George Holliday, was widely screened.
In the trial that followed, the defense attorney successfully sought a change of venue, arguing that the four officers would not receive a fair trial in central Los Angeles. Consequently, the trial of officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon was moved to Simi Valley, a community located between the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County.
This was part of a growing collection of happenings that would meet and combust in a few weeks. Simi Valley was another part of the puzzle—a majority White community heavily populated by law enforcement which produced a jury that contained 10 White people, one Hispanic person, and one Asian person. The officers were acquitted but were convicted of federal civil rights charges.
Two weeks after the March 31, 1991 beating of Rodney King, Korean-born shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, in South Los Angeles shot a 15-year-old Black girl named Latasha Harlins, in the back of the head in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice.
A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But instead, the judge gave her probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.
This created even more stress between the Korean and African American communities. This was compounded by a campaign by the Community Coalition to rid South Los Angeles of the liquor stores that community residents felt were problematic. The majority of the stores were owned by Korean immigrants.
During the same time period, according to UCLA sociologist Keyoung Park, there were tensions between Mexican American and Central American workers and their Korean bosses.
Then came the Rodney King verdict, and that seemed to be too much. Black anger exploded, and spilled over into their Hispanic neighbors, said Park.
It spread northward from the intersection of Normandie and Florence avenues to businesses as far north as Wilshire Boulevard and as far west as Pico Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue with businesses being looted, burned and destroyed. More than 54 people died and more than 2,000 others were injured.
The city of Los Angeles estimates that there was nearly $1 billion in property damage. Park wrote that 2,280 Korean-owned businesses suffered a partial or total loss of property at a cost of more than $400 million, which was more than 50 percent of the total among of damage done.
Then-Mayor Tom Bradley surveyed the ruined metropolis and announced a new organization that would repair the shattered city, Rebuild L.A. (RLA). Its mission was to spend five years harnessing the power of the private sector to replace and improve on what was lost. While Rebuild L.A. created a lot of hope, it also created even more disappointment. Critics cite lack of resources and an overly ambitious timetable as the reason.