Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Institute History


Thanks to the safety of a nearby balcony, one person's initiative and video technology, the world knows what happened in Los Angeles the evening of March 3, 1991.

Late that night, after a high-speed chase, four white LAPD officers pulled over Rodney King, a black man, for speeding. They order King out of his car, shock him twice with an electric laser gun, and then—as 21 bystanders look on—the officers kick, punch, hog-tie and beat the man 56 times with a baton. While the 81-second home video plays over and over on TV, Chief of the LAPD, Daryl Gates, calls the beating "an aberration."

The day after the officers' criminal arraignment, Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American shopkeeper in South Central, fatally shoots Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl accused of shoplifting a carton of orange juice. A store security camera records the entire incident. Eight months later, Soon Ja Du's sentence—five years probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine—enrages the city's African-American community.

On April 29, 1992, a jury in the suburban, mostly white community of Simi Valley dismisses all charges against the police officers on trial for beating Rodney King. According to the defense, the beating fell within the guidelines of the LAPD's use-of-force policy. Broadcast live, news of the "Not Guilty" verdict ignites demonstrations across the city. Fires and looting are reported. Later in the day, Reginald Denny, a white trucker passing through South Central, is pulled from his vehicle and beaten while a Channel 13 "telecopter" hovers over head. That too is broadcast live.

Los Angeles erupts in three days of burning, looting, and killing that some called the worst riots in United States history. By the morning of May 1, 90 percent of the Korean-owned retail stores in South Central have been wiped out. President Bush declares Los Angeles a disaster area and posts nearly 8,500 federal troops throughout the county. May 4, after 58 deaths, 2,383 injuries, over 7,000 fire responses, and 3,100 businesses damaged, the curfew ends. More than 800 mainly Latino immigrants are deported following the unrest.

Using their own words culled from hundreds of interviews, Smith reveals in TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992 the shades of loss embodied by over 40 characters indirectly or directly involved in the "civil disturbances" that rocked Los Angeles—a Korean grocer, a "homeboy," a white juror, the police commissioner, a gang leader and a Beverly Hills talent agent. It is not "mimicry" in the traditional sense, but an account of what and how these people spoke to her about their lives and this pivotal event.

As ex-gang leader Twilight Bey describes, Americans are in limbo, our relationship to race suspended in that time between day and night. Part of perceiving the light is seeing the race canvas as more than a black and white picture. This story of Los Angeles and the riot gives us that opportunity.


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