Mike Zacchino Original Race

“Can’t We All Just Get Along”: Anniversary of 1992 LA Riots

Mike Zacchino reflects on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, police brutality, and white privilege on the thirty year anniversary of King's famous speech.
May 1 is the anniversary of Rodney King’s plea to stop the rioting when he famously said, “Can’t we all get along?”  

By Mike Zacchino / Original to ScheerPost

Thirty years ago​, on April 30, 1992, I woke up and called my supervisor at the LA Times.

“Is it still going on?”

“Yes, it is.”

“OK, I’m heading in.”

My shift didn’t start until 3 PM. 

“It” was the civil unrest that began shortly after I arrived at work the previous day, April 29, when four white police officers were found not guilty of using excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King.

The officers were found not guilty by a jury that mostly resembled them, in a city 40 miles north of Los Angeles where only two percent of the population resembled Rodney King, the Black victim of the beating.

I lived in Irvine, a community 40 miles south of Los Angeles, where 74% of the community resembled me, and 2% resembled Rodney King.

After watching the video of the savage beating—​leaving King with a broken leg, badly cut face with his eye swollen shut, bruises on his body and a burn on his chest from a stun gun—I never thought a jury could reach a verdict of not guilty. ​Like many, ​I was shocked, sad, and angry. Still, the next morning I thought it possible that the city had calmed down and that the unrest might have stopped.

Such a notion stemmed from one thing: White Privilege.

White Privilege wasn’t a term used 30 years ago, and it’s not something people who resemble me really understand today. But it’s what allowed a jury to acquit four officers of that savage beating. It’s likely why Derek Chauvin assumed he’d get away with murdering George Floyd. It’s why William Bryan thought that releasing his video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing would show that his neighbors didn’t do anything wrong.

That these words are a form of “whitesplaining” is not lost on me. I don’t pretend to have answers, nor am I trying to educate anyone. Rather, I look back to 30 years ago and wonder why more has not changed. 

I had intended to share my recollections of what it was like to work in downtown LA during the worst civil unrest the city had seen since Watts in 1965; about seeing a Times security guard holding closed a door to the outside with one hand while gripping a pistol in the other, not knowing that the banging on the door was coming from one of our photographers trying to enter the building; about hearing a shotgun blast outside our lobby and retreating to a service elevator to rise to safety, then calling the lobby elevators to our floor to lock them into position so the angry people downstairs could not enter our realm; about feeling a breeze waft through the hallways of the first floor after all but two windows had been broken on the ground floor of our building, and the feeling of safety when I saw dozens of officers outside our building, having secured it from the shocked and angry mob.

The video of Rodney King’s beating was recorded by a man from his balcony, across the street from where King had been pulled over. A local TV station borrowed it to broadcast it that evening. The station called local print media outlets and offered to let them shoot stills of it for the next morning’s edition; they deemed it too important to keep to themselves. They would break the story for their viewers in a couple of hours, but they knew it called for a wider audience.

Several buildings in a Boys Market shopping center are fully engulfed in flames before firefighters can arrive as rioting continued in South-Central Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 30, 1992 in the aftermath of the verdicts in the Rodney King assault case. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)AP

That I grew up learning never to distinguish people by their race or ethnicity is a testament to my mother, who made it her mission to teach her children never to discriminate. 

A daughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe, our mother would walk alone to school through her diverse Newark, N.J. neighborhood. A group of older Black girls daily pushed her off the sidewalk into the street, frightening her and leaving an emotional scar she carried for 40 years. To my mother’s credit, it was not until my sister was in college that we learned about our mother’s childhood trauma.

My sister wanted to bring a friend home for Thanksgiving dinner. He was ​an exchange student from Africa, and our mother made several excuses as to why it would not be possible to host her friend. Finally, after my sister presented a series of logical questions​ that elicited no suitable answers​, my mother explained that she ​simply ​was not comfortable around Black people. My sister was shocked; not once had we ever heard ​our mother utter a derogatory word about any people of color.

My sister asked why she had never mentioned this before, and our mother said that it was her experience, and she did not want to pass on her childhood fear and hidden prejudice to us because she knew it was wrong.

The following summer, our mother suggested that my sister bring a new friend, her fellow camp counselor, home for the weekend. My sister looked at her and before she could speak, our mother said, “Yes, Narda, I know Karen is Black. I’m trying.”​ ​She warmly welcomed Karen into our home and would surprise us again by voting for Jesse Jackson in the 1984 presidential primary. 

This May 1,1992 file photo shows Rodney King, right, accompanied by his attorney Steven Lerman, making his first statement, pleading for an end to the rioting in South Central Los Angeles, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/David Longstreath, File) AP

The memory of Rodney King’s beating and the jury verdict in that case rushed back as I watched the video of Der​ek Chauvin killing George Floyd​​.​​ L​os Angeles erupted in 1992; the country erupted in 2020.​ The jury that convicted the three killers of Ahmaud Arbery resembled the defendants, but for one who resembled Aubrey. Maybe they learned something along the way. They got it right. Standing next to a coworker, I held back tears as I watched the verdicts being read. “Finally,” I said. Her reply: “It’s a start.”

Yes, it’s a start. Yet, ​I know I’ll not live long enough to see an end to institutional racism in this country. Knowing that no longer shocks me and knowing that leaves me sad and angry.​ 

​If only more people could be as ​enlightened as our mother. 

Mike Zacchino

Mike Zacchino is a professional photojournalist who has worked for 30 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Portland Oregonian, and currently works at a television station in Southern Oregon.

8 comments

  1. I worked at the California Academy of Math and Science Dominguez Hills in Carson. We waited to be sure all our students were picked up before we left. I lived in San Diego and commuted. The local gas station was afraid to serve me for fear they would be burned down and I hoped I would not run out of gas as I drove the freeway south seeing fires on both sides. Mostly I was worried about my students who were mostly from the inner city. It was a scary time. I also remember the Watts Rebellion from when I was a child. My father, Paul Weeks, a civil rights reporter, had predicted the “riots.” The LA Times sent teams to go from hotel to hotel in Mazatlan where we were vacationing to find Dad and bring him back since he knew all the players. I remember when officials from African countries stayed at our modest home in Altadena because the big LA Hotels were suddenly full when black officials needed a room.

  2. Seems to me there is a good Critical Race Theory to teach from the very earliest – the theory that is critical of “race” – that points out there is no such thing as separate “races”, that we are all members of one race, the human race – that we come in all sizes shapes and colors and ain’t that great!

    I wonder who would object to that … perhaps we might be surprised …

  3. 26 years into the Democrats’ war on the poor, most of whom are white. This has cost too many lives.

  4. The so-called Rodney King trial was moved from Los Angeles to Simi Valley, because the judge ruled that the cops couldn’t get a fair trial in Los Angeles. A lot of cops live in Simi Valley, so the trial was rigged as soon as it was moved there. Criminal defendants have a right to be tried in a venue where they can get a fair trial, but this right is often perverted by cop defendants. This law needs to be amended to fix this problem.

    As to the civil unrest after the verdict, I remember calling friends in L.A. and trying to convince them to organize people to get up to Simi Valley instead of burning down their own neighborhoods. Of course I knew that wouldn’t happen, but that’s where the rioting should have taken place, to the extent that it should have.

  5. I believe White privilege is thinking we can all get along while failing to discuss the reasons for the racism, and how it all works. Ultimately, it is all based in money, conspiracy and violence, which can be summed up as wealth seeking.

    Unfortunately, none of the wonderful, loving, brave people who came to this country from someplace else, like Mr. Zacchino’s mother, have ever made a substantive difference in the destruction of the dominant culture. I know we all want to think those personal choices are will someday turn the tide, but that isn’t in the least true. On the contrary. Every single person who buys into our economy MUST support White supremacy for the reason that racism is cultural and economic.

    It just happens that some races of people have profoundly different cultures than we do, and our only objective is to be fair and just within our own cultural and economic structure, even though that isn’t possible. We don’t have enough planet to do that. And we’ve known it for a long time.

    Until capitalists live like now-destroyed Nature cultures around the world used to live, or like the Amish at best, and give up their money and violence in pursuit of money, we will have racism and misogyny, and bigotry, and invasions and justifications and rationalizations, and the rest of the death march this society has been responsible for over the past several centuries.

    We don’t get it. Pull up a true scale map of the world and take a good look at it. Look at how small western Europe is. Then consider that we have invaded every single square inch of land around the globe over the past 500 years, except for mainland China, but that wasn’t for lack of trying. We held Hong Kong for 150 years. We held India for 150 years. We’ve been invading the middle east since the middle ages. Seriously.

    Pick a spot on the planet, any spot, in Africa, in Asia, an island in the Pacific, this entire hemisphere, and some western European has invaded it, and stolen a large portion of it.

    We divide up other people and their countries up among ourselves, picking which industrialist gets to invade where, and then we do. We have been doing that for a really long time. It is happening now in conference rooms around country. Rich men are looking at maps and reports about what they want where, and talking about how they can get it.

    Really think about it.

    No, Mr. Zacchino, as lovely as your mom sounds, her choices were exactly how good people are also the problem within our culture, because our entire culture is the problem. If you have to leave where you’re from because the people there are so terrible, to live on stolen land that was obtained through centuries of genocide and land theft, you are also the problem.

    Sorry. We all need to own that one, because it’s just the truth.

    1. @Lupe
      I agree with your comment, except for the “wonderful, loving, brave people who came to this country from someplace else …” The first wave of people who came here from Europe were seeking wealth or religious fanatics who were not welcome in Europe. Most people come here because they want to get rich. The secondary group who come here are people fleeing oppression and/or persecution in their native countries, but they’re a minority. So most people who come here are not people to be admired.

      Additionally, this is stolen land, so people shouldn’t be coming here to begin with unless they’re invited by the Natives. If you’re oppressed or persecuted, go to western Europe, which is largely the cause of these problems.

      1. I could not agree more, Jeff. Thank you. My comment was an acknowledgment that there are good people from all walks of life, and it was also a bit tongue-in-cheek.

        Americans wax rapturously about our brave (or intrepid, adventurous, exploring, rugged, strong, virtuous, constructive, free and freedom-loving, equality-loving, unique, exceptional) Victim European founding fathers (ancestors, settlers, pioneers, colonials, frontiersmen, immigrants) in this country nonstop.

        If I never heard another deluded, glowing characterization of entitled, violent, thieving squatters ever again, it would be too soon.

      2. @Tupe
        Glad we agree on this. Sarcasm is hard in writing, as I can’t hear your voice inflection, nor see your face or body language.

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