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What It Was Like to Live Through the L.A. Riots

Slow Burn host Joel Anderson explores essential reporting from the 1992 uprising and its aftermath that captured the experience of Los Angelenos.

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At first, April 30, 1992, felt like the calm after the storm. The previous night’s riots had made Los Angeles a cautionary tale for the rest of the country. The next morning’s newspaper laid out the toll that April 29 had taken: at least four deaths, 106 people injured, and more than 150 fires burning across the city. But the quiet didn’t last long. On April 30, thousands more people took to the streets. Some were unleashing their anger at the police and the justice system. Some were driven by frustration at systemic inequality in the nation’s most glamorous city. And some just saw a chance to plunder while law enforcement was scrambling.

During this season of Slow Burn, we’re exploring the people and events behind the largest civil disturbance in American history. In the seventh episode of our season, we tell the story of what happened as the riots stretched on. How did people fend for themselves while the city exploded with violence? What did Rodney King think about what was going on in the streets? And would Los Angeles come together or go down in flames? Below you’ll find some of the links that helped me understand how people living in some of L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods dealt with the unprecedented events. —Joel Anderson

South L.A. Burns and Grieves

Hector TobarJonathan Peterson
Los Angeles Times

Joel Anderson: “This is an early dispatch from the riots. The carnage in L.A. didn’t touch the entire city—affluent areas like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica emerged mostly unscathed. Instead, the fires and turmoil were concentrated in poor and working-class neighborhoods on the south side. In South Central, Black residents first turned on police, then on motorists and merchants. In Pico-Union, Latino immigrants raged against the poverty of their neighborhood. And in Koreatown, shopkeepers took up arms to defend their stores from looters and arsonists.”

Korean Store Owner On Arming Himself For Riots

Michel Martin

JA: “This NPR broadcast from 20 years after the riots featured a grocery store owner named Kee Whan Ha. At the end of the second day of riots, news reports estimated that more than 100 Korean-owned stores—including many in South Central L.A.—had been ‘burned, looted, or robbed.’ We spoke to Dr. Ha for this episode on why he armed himself and what he saw during the riots.”

How A Radio Station Became Koreatown's Lifeline During The ‘92 Unrest

Tim Loc

JA: “By the early ’90s, Los Angeles had become home to the largest Korean community outside Asia. When we interviewed Jinho Lee, a reporter for Radio Korea, he told me the station had reached about 70 percent of the 1 million Koreans living in Southern California at the time. When the riots broke out on April 29, the station stopped its regular programming and just took calls from listeners. This story from LAist helped us understand the station’s impact for residents of Koreatown at a time when they felt abandoned by police.”

Rodney King Reacts to Verdict, Rioting


JA: “When the riots began, it gave Rodney King a feeling of satisfaction. But the violence also disturbed him. Under pressure from the people closest to him, he ultimately decided to address the public. It was the first time he had done so in 14 months. His question to the city, ‘Can we all get along?’ was immediately derided in L.A. and across the country. In our episode, we explore why and how these words became so iconic, and what they felt like to Black Angelinos who heard them.”

Pleas for Peace and Justice From Pulpits in Dozen Cities

Robert D. McFadden
The New York Times

JA: “In the end, nearly 60 people were killed in Los Angeles between April 29 and May 3, when the rioting finally stopped. This Associated Press story from May 4 was one of many contemporary accounts that helped us understand how people in L.A. and across the country processed the riots.”

Joel Anderson

Joel Anderson is a staff writer at Slate and the host of Seasons 3 and 6 of Slow Burn. Previously, he worked as a reporter on sports, culture, and politics for ESPN and BuzzFeed News.