How George Floyd protests in Los Angeles differ from 1992 riots

Civil unrest engulfs Los Angeles metro area on scale not seen since 1992 riots

LOS ANGELES--Protesters marched through Venice Beach, chanted George Floyd's name downtown and knelt in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. Graffiti and broken glass covered a trendy shopping district. National Guard troops with assault rifles blocked access to businesses that had been looted. Curfews began as early as 1 p.m.

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Civil unrest has engulfed the Los Angeles metro area this week on a scale not seen since the riots of 1992.

Then, the spark was the videotaped beating of Rodney King by four white Los Angeles police officers. Now, it was the videotaped killing of Mr. Floyd by a Minneapolis officer, a painful reminder to many Angelenos that police violence against black men continues.

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But compared with 1992, the new unrest in Los Angeles has been more organized, more peaceful, and largely centered in the city's wealthier areas, as well as downtown, where the government of America's second most-populous city is based.

"It's only when those spaces are disrupted that those who currently have power are awakened to the pain and rage we're experiencing," said Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a Black Lives Matter organizer.

LA County Sheriffs surround alleged looters on Vermont at ML King Blvd on April 30, 1992 in Los Angeles, California. (Steve Dykes/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The 1992 riots began after four white LAPD officers were acquitted of using excessive force against Mr. King. Outrage exploded into violence in South-Central Los Angeles, then a majority-black neighborhood, and rippled across the city. More than 60 people were killed--including 10 by police and the national guard. Thousands of buildings were destroyed. Los Angeles police effectively pulled out of South-Central and let it burn.

The protests of the last week, by contrast, have been organized and taken place across the city, drawing largely peaceful crowds. Though numerous stores have been looted, the violence has been comparatively limited. No one, thus far, has been killed. South Los Angeles, as South-Central was renamed in an attempt to overhaul the area's reputation, has been largely spared.

Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who has been involved with reforms at the Los Angeles Police Department, said the LAPD's relationship with residents, though not perfect, has substantially improved as the last several chiefs have sought to change a culture in which many officers saw themselves as soldiers and minority communities as war zones.

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Shootings by LAPD officers fell to a 30-year low last year, with officers firing on 26 suspects, compared with 115 in 1990. Twelve people were killed by police in 2019, the fourth consecutive year of declines since 21 were killed in 2015.

Tensions between the police and minority communities still abound, however. On Monday, the current chief, Michel Moore, said some people were capitalizing on Mr. Floyd's death, and "his death is on their hands as much as it is those officers'." He quickly apologized, and has denounced the policing that led to Mr. Floyd's death, but protesters have called for him to resign.

"The dynamics aren't quite the same as they were," in 1992, Ms. Rice said. "But the meta-problem of toxic policing still exists."

Those problems have been compounded, she said, by a lack of economic opportunity for minorities, who have also been more affected by the coronavirus and accompanying downturn.

Demonstrators hold up signs Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles during a protest over the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

"If you leave people in an opportunity desert with no hope, you're still going to get the riots," Ms. Rice said.

Unlike in 1992, protesters this time have concrete demands, including cuts to the LAPD. Mayor Eric Garcetti responded to that pressure Wednesday night, saying he and the city council had identified $250 million in cuts from departments including the police that would be invested in jobs, education and health, with a focus on minority communities. He also announced changes to police policies including requiring officers to intervene when they see inappropriate uses of force.

"This is a moment we have to look back on 20 years from now and say we did the right thing," the Democrat said in a speech streamed online.

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At a demonstration along Hollywood Boulevard on Tuesday, signs saying "Defund the police" abounded.

"I'm glad that everybody, no matter what color they are, is sticking together," said Brandon Allen, a 30 year-old African-American, who said he came out to protest "how black people have been oppressed for hundreds and hundreds of years."

The crowds on Tuesday, both in Hollywood and downtown, were diverse racially, a factor some activists said was necessary to make lasting change.

Debra Scharwath, 62, who attended the downtown protest with her husband, said she had supported Black Lives Matter from afar, but this was the first event she had attended. "It was an honor to take a knee with everyone," said Ms. Scharwath, who is white.

Mr. Garcetti has said he supports peaceful protesters and their goals, and that the national guard wouldn't be deployed in South Los Angeles "because of the memory of 1992." On Tuesday, Mr. Garcetti took to one knee alongside protesters outside of City Hall, something several LAPD officers have also done.

Demonstrators take part in a protest Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in downtown Los Angeles, sparked by the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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But Mr. Garcetti also said law enforcement wouldn't stand for violence or looting, noting that businesses had just opened their doors after the coronavirus lockdown.

One of the stores hit was Sunny Optometry, in Santa Monica. The owners, Alice Sun and her husband Daniel Sjolund, watched security footage from their home on Sunday as looters kicked in the door, stole all the shop's frames, and set off a fire in the building, which may not be safe to re-enter for months.

"We have a lot of student loans. We have a lot of debt that helped us purchase this practice," Ms. Sun, 30, said. "Without income, I don't know where that money's going to come from."

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Ms. Abdullah, the Black Lives Matter organizer, said the media and public officials were paying too much attention to property damage, and criticized the police's "very violent" response to protesters. Los Angeles police shot rubber bullets and swung batons at protesters over the weekend.

Little about the police department had changed since 1992, Ms. Abdullah contended, noting that police killings in L.A. didn't start falling until after Black Lives Matter became active in 2013.

The LAPD didn't respond to requests for comment.

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"I think we're at a boiling point," Ms. Abdullah said. "Under this pandemic, black communities in particular have been over-policed. There's still no accountability."

Talal Ansari and Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this article.

Write to Ian Lovett at ian.lovett@wsj.com