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What I Learned About Civil Unrest During The Los Angeles Riots 25 Years Ago


The age of cell phone video ubiquity treats us with daily outrages over people in authority behaving badly towards the powerless. Unreasoned passion leads to a thirst for justice, or at least the appearance of justice.

In 1991, there were no cell-phone cameras and the Internet was still in its infancy. In March of that year, after a high-speed chase through the night, Los Angeles Police Department officers arrested Rodney King. King was intoxicated. He later admitted that he tried to evade the police because a DUI charge would violate his parole conditions for a prior robbery conviction.

King’s arrest turned ugly as four uniformed LAPD officers swarmed the resisting suspect, tasered him, beat him with batons, and kicked him. A citizen videotaped the latter part of the arrest from his apartment window and that footage eventually made its way onto the L.A. nightly news, then around the world.

So it was that on May 1, 1992, I was an Army National Guard captain leading my first patrol with live ammunition in a real-world mission. Operation Garden Plot wasn’t a training exercise, it was a large-scale effort to restore order to riot-torn Los Angeles.

Smoke hung in the air. It was an acrid haze—smoldering cars have a distinct smell. Behind me were seven National Guardsmen armed with automatic rifles. In addition to my M16, I carried two tear gas grenades, as did most commissioned officers. Our numbers included a Vietnam veteran who grew up in the largely black neighborhood. Given the racial unrest at the heart of the L.A. riots, I took point and placed him second in our file.

As soon as our foot patrol left the relative safety of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza parking structure and hit Crenshaw Boulevard, with West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to our backs, the Vietnam veteran locked and loaded. In rapid succession, six bolts slapped forward, chambering rounds.

Our rules of engagement forbade a round in the chamber unless we were threatened. I stopped and addressed the soldiers, trying to sound low-key: “Take the rounds out of your chambers. This is America, not Lebanon. If someone takes me out, you’ll have plenty of time to lock and load and return fire.” I smiled. Soldiers reluctantly tugged at their charging handles, removing the chambered rounds and placing in the other 20-round magazine they carried.

From Home to a Domestic War Zone

Some 48 hours earlier, I had been in a windowless office working on a classified missile defense program for Lockheed in San Jose, 400 miles to the north. My wife and infant daughter had traveled with me and were staying at a hotel a few miles away. Unknown to any of us at the time, in the days when mobile phones were as large as shoe boxes, at 3:15 p.m., April 29, 1992, a California jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers of the charge of using excessive force in King’s arrest the year before.

A little more than two hours later, a rioter attacked a driver at Florence and Normandie in what was then known as South Central L.A. (the 51-square-mile region of 25 neighborhoods was officially rebranded simply “South Los Angeles” in 2003). LAPD officers responded, but then retreated at mob opposition. They wouldn’t come back to try to restore order for almost three hours.

Abandoned to rioters, the busy intersection turned into a gauntlet. At 6:45 p.m. Reginald Denny, clueless about the spiraling violence, entered the intersection in his gravel truck. Rioters stopped his truck, quickly dragged him from his cab, and started to beat him with a brick, a large fire extinguisher, and a tire iron. Denny was on the verge of death when four people, two men and two women, interceded, shielding him from further harm. They mounted the truck and drove it haltingly out of the riot zone.

Two hours later, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley declared a state of emergency, triggering Gov. Pete Wilson to call up 2,000 National Guard soldiers. The nightly news in the Bay Area made it appear that the unrest in L.A. was highly localized and likely to fade away as law enforcement reasserted itself. I called my National Guard armory in National City just south of San Diego and was told that, while we hadn’t been activated yet, we could be.

Just past midnight, Mayor Bradley declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the parts of L.A. most affected by the riots. Early next morning the violence subsided, leading many to think the situation was coming under control. But the rioters were merely sleeping in. Rioting and looting is primarily a nocturnal activity, giving the unrest a battle rhythm: cool in the morning, hot at night.

I drove to the classified vault on the Lockheed campus. By lunchtime, a co-worker called my attention to a wall-mounted TV that had just been switched on. Los Angeles was on fire. “Aren’t you in the National Guard?” he asked. There were images from a news helicopter of hundreds of looters smashing storefronts and emerging with video cameras, shoes, TVs, stereos.

I gathered up my wife and our baby and made it to the airport. Our armor battalion still hadn’t been called up yet, but it was obvious that we would be. By late afternoon, we were in the air over Los Angeles. A dozen columns of inky smoke made their way high into the reddening sky as we approached John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

I grabbed my gear and drove to join my unit, which I learned was forming up at an armory in Long Beach, a few miles south of the rioting.

Our First Two Altercations

Early in the morning on May 1, we convoyed to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza at the corner of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The parking garage would be our base for the next few days. The sight of burning retail buildings assaulted our senses as we made our way to Crenshaw, no firefighters in sight. Knots of looters ignored us as we rumbled by in our ancient deuce-and-a-half trucks and Humvees.

After coordinating with the local LAPD unit, we began sending out patrols. Burning cars littered the neighborhood. Looters stole cars, using them as giant battering rams to break into liquor stores and other retail shops with high-value items. Overwhelmed firefighters came under gunfire as they responded, necessitating armed escort.

As we patrolled, residents routinely called out, “God Bless the National Guard!” By noon, however, gang members had started to make their appearance and the mood grew tense. They flashed gang signs and glared at our soldiers, hurdling the occasional insult. Around 4 p.m. at our battalion headquarters in the parking garage, the back passenger window of a journalist’s car suddenly shattered about 30 feet away. Assessing the field of view, we figured it was likely from a stray bullet rather than an aimed sniper shot.

At midnight, I led my second foot patrol out of the parking structure. We aimed for what the LAPD called “The Jungle,” the frequently violent fault line of two gang territories, one Mexican-American, the other African-American. We soon heard what sounded like a woman in distress and jogged over to investigate, soldiers about 10 yards apart in a wedge formation.

It was a domestic dispute taking place under street lights, smoke wafting through the air. On one end of the block stood a woman yelling, “I’m going to kill him!” At the other end of the block was a visibly drunken man holding a paper bag. Turning first to the woman, I said, “Ma’am, there’s a curfew. You have to go home.”

She turned to me with anger then saw that I held a bayonet-tipped rifle and was wearing body armor. I wasn’t the cop she expected. She opened her eyes wide, and was silent for a moment before turning back to the object of her fury. “I’ll kill him!” she said, shaking her fist at the man.

Our actions were intently watched from several windows in an apartment building that ran along the block.

I dispatched a soldier to escort the woman home. She left reluctantly, looking over her shoulder at the man. Turning to the man, I asked him to go home. “But she’ll kill me!” he slurred thickly. We moved to escort him home. “Can I kill this?” he asked, as he swirled the brown paper bag holding the bottle of liquor.

“Do you really think that’s a good idea?” I replied. He looked at me, looked at his bottle, then poured the rest of the whiskey down the storm drain and steeled himself for his fate as we escorted him home. Our actions were intently watched from several windows in an apartment building that ran along the block.

The final patrol that night could have been tragic. Because of the curfew, we saw few vehicles after sunset, and most of those belonged to law enforcement. Then a black car slowly rolled towards us. As the car approached, I could see it had chrome rims. It looked like a gangster’s ride. The tinted windows were half-open. I ordered the squad to form an “L” at the intersection to optimize our firepower and flexibility. We expected a drive-by shooting attempt.

I bellowed, “Halt! There’s a curfew. What’s your business?”

The car stopped with frenzied activity inside made barely visible by the streetlights and confirmed by the car’s rocking. The driver’s side window came down all the way and a cracking voice yelled out, “LAPD vice squad!” The driver stuck his police badge out the window.

I was dumbfounded. The wisdom of sending the vice squad out in an unmarked car—and a tricked-out one at that—as fires still raged and nervous guardsmen patrolled unfamiliar streets was highly questionable.

The U.S. Marines Arrive

By May 2, many Guard soldiers had been awake for more than 36 hours, trying mightily to restore order to Los Angeles and succeeding. Probably due to dueling political rivalries and concerns for upcoming elections, the interplay between the mayor, the governor, and the president resulted in the decision to deploy active-duty soldiers and Marines into Los Angeles.

When we found out that the Seventh Infantry Division commander would take command of Army National Guard troops—soldiers who had brought order to chaos—our morale crashed. Our view on the ground was that there was no need for the active-duty to save the day. Within a few hours the commanding general of the Seventh Infantry Division assumed command of the joint Army-Marine Corps force. He then placed the National Guard commanding general over all Army forces, both Guard and active-duty. With honor restored, our morale largely recovered.

We also mostly ignored the order because, if followed to the letter, it would have relegated our troops to the status of armed statues.

Another challenge quickly arose when the Seventh Infantry Division’s military lawyers (JAGs) believed that the Guard’s federalization compelled it to act within the Posse Comitatus Act. The joint force commander immediately ordered our close cooperation with the LAPD scaled back. We were incredulous. We also mostly ignored the order because, if followed to the letter, it would have relegated our troops to the status of armed statues.

National Guard members usually operate under control of their respective governors in peacetime, thus, the Posse Comitatus Act restrictions against federal troops assisting in civilian law enforcement duties doesn’t apply. In fact, the federalization of the Guard troops would have caused Posse Comitatus to come into effect except for the fact that when President Bush signed Executive Order 12804 on May 1, invoking the Insurrection Act, he authorized the Army and Marines, as well as the federalized National Guard, to enforce civilian law to help restore law and order.

This was in accord with Article I, Section 8, Clause 15 of the Constitution, the “Militia Clause” which allows the militia’s use to “…suppress Insurrections…” The Seventh Infantry Division’s JAGs erred.

From the beginning of the riots, patrols found flyers calling for ‘insurrection’ and exhorting violence against law enforcement.

By May 3, soldiers and Marines were taking a lower profile. Rumors proliferated that we had no ammunition or weren’t allowed to shoot. Gang members were getting more aggressive, and wanted their turf back. Mayor Bradley indicated his intent to lift the curfew on May 4, and we were worried about maintaining order without a curfew.

That night, however, a young man tried to run over a team of Guardsmen at a checkpoint. He missed twice, scattering the citizen-soldiers, and was coming in on his third pass when the soldiers fired on the onrushing car, aiming for the tires first, then, when the car came on, at the driver. They struck him twice, once in the shoulder and once in the head, killing him at the scene. Police later determined the driver was trying to earn initiation into a street gang.

With the military on L.A.’s streets now shown to have a deadly sting, May 4 opened with newly docile gang members. Mayor Bradley lifted the curfew as planned and the night was quiet.

From the beginning of the riots, patrols found flyers calling for “insurrection” and exhorting violence against law enforcement. Communist organizations and gangs authored the flyers. Given the Cold War had ended with Soviet communism’s defeat only two-and-a-half years before, it seemed the American communists didn’t get the memo.

Aftermath of the Riots and Lessons Learned

The 1992 L.A. riots claimed the lives of 53 people—19 more than died in the 1965 Watts Riots. There were no deaths during the unrest in Ferguson or Baltimore in 2014 and 2015. During the far less destructive Watts Riots, the National Guard expended a large amount of ammunition, including .50 caliber heavy machine gun rounds. This level of force in an American city was unacceptable. In the 1992 riots, the National Guard fired 20 rounds, signaling a high level of training and leadership.

The last 25 years of urban unrest in America, and around the world, show how rapidly domestic tranquility can collapse when law enforcement steps aside or is overwhelmed. Further, once anarchy overcomes order, it can take a major effort to restore public peace.

This was the case in L.A. when police abandoned the intersection of Florence and Normandie to rioters, turning a local incident into a regional conflagration in 24 hours. This is the case today whenever police stand by and allow fringe groups to battle each other in our streets and on our campuses, catching up innocent people in the violence and allowing the destruction of private property—and, frequently abridging the First Amendment rights of non-liberal speakers.

The last 25 years of urban unrest in America, and around the world, show how rapidly domestic tranquility can collapse when law enforcement steps aside.

Cities that have experienced violent unrest often feature police departments that do not have the trust of the people they serve. The visceral reaction to the excessive force used in the Rodney King arrest didn’t happen in a vacuum. It spoke to deeply held public feelings about police behavior. Similarly, in Ferguson, Missouri, the police department had been enlisted by city government as a revenue tool, collecting arcane fines and fees from the residents under the threat of arrest for nonpayment. This practice severely corroded community-police relations.

In Los Angeles, the law enforcement environment was further compounded by the fact that 1992 was the worst year for violent crime in the region’s history, with a record 2,589 homicides occurring in Los Angeles County, compared to 649 in 2015. Rampant lawlessness made it far more difficult for police to do their jobs.

Lastly, it is instructive to note that during every significant episode of urban unrest there is a cadre of professional agitators in the shadows urging people on to violence and revolution. In 1992, they had no apparent success, although not for the want of trying. With the weaponization of social media by terrorist groups, it is likely that domestic radicals have had some recent effect in deepening and prolonging unrest.

Three months after a state jury’s acquittal of four LAPD officers led to the deadly L.A. riots, a federal grand jury indicted the same men on charges of violating King’s civil rights. A year later, a federal judge sentenced two of those officers to prison for two-and-a-half years.

While the judge acknowledged the appearance of a double jeopardy prosecution—the officers were convicted of civil rights violations, not use of excessive force of which they were acquitted—the rule of law prevailed. Holding our government, including our police, accountable can be a step toward healing the divisions that can develop in any community.