Wednesday, April 29th, 1992, the city of Los Angeles was scarred by the worst riots it had seen in decades. A year earlier, on March 3rd, 1991, 25-year-old Black construction worker Rodney King led a high-speed chase through San Fernando Valley. In a violent confrontation with the police, King was severely beaten and tased by four officers. A partial showing of the incident on television garnered national outrage, especially in Los Angeles, where the city’s Black population experienced decades of mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement.
A bitter year passed before the nearly all-White jury found the four officers not guilty of using excessive force. Forty-five minutes after the acquittal, a crowd gathered on Florence and Normandie Avenues (1). The demonstration turned violent as mobs ransacked stores and beat pedestrians at traffic stops. As the police retreated, fires broke out, stores were looted, and projectiles turned into bullets.
In a matter of hours, Mayor Tom Bradley declared a state of emergency, and then-Governor Pete Wilson ordered the mobilization of the National Guard. The following days would be a test of resilience for nearly 10,000 National Guard and Federal troops largely unprepared for civil disturbance at home in the United States (2).
Approximately 2,000 members of the California National Guard assembled in their armories before midnight (3). The next day, at 2:35 pm, the first units rolled out from their armory in Los Alamitos. Sheriff’s cruisers provided escort to a convoy of 30 Humvees belonging to the 40th Military Police Company.
Along the Harbor Freeway, the troops witnessed a city in anarchy. The air was thick with black smoke. Burnt cars and trash bins littered the streets. News choppers hovered overhead, capturing the mayhem below for the world to see. More ominously, fresh graffiti illustrated the deadly intentions of the rioters.
F*** The Police.
F*** The National Guard.
The force arrived at Ralph’s Supermarket and Thrifty Drug complex at the corner of Vernon and Figueroa. Once in position, the MPs immediately faced a hostile reception. One individual tried to yank away a trooper’s rifle, prompting a rifle butt to his head. Realizing the troops were ready for battle, the crowd retreated.
The MPs, as expected, were armed with live ammunition. Commissioned officers reportedly carried two tear gas grenades for crowd control (4). At the same time, these troops – including those to follow – had signed off on specific Rules of Engagement (ROE), which enforced strict fire discipline for all involved. Every soldier would be held accountable for each bullet fired during the riots.
Troops of the 670th Military Police Company were the next to arrive. Near Ralph’s Supermarket, an outnumbered police force held back a crowd of 500. The very presence of National Guardsmen prompted any would-be looters to return home with no further incident.
As night fell, troops found themselves patrolling in blackout conditions. Bystanders and looters became shadows against the fires. These figures sometimes materialized into gangbangers who made taunting gestures and threats to fight fire with fire.
Over the next five days, these entities – totaling possibly 100,000 – became the primary challenge for the California National Guard (5).
The Gang Threat.
By 1992, South Central Los Angeles had become a powder keg (6). Unemployment reached a staggering 50% among Black males, and the crack epidemic ravaged one neighborhood after the next. Coupled with a crime wave that claimed 1,000 lives in 1992 alone, this section of Los Angeles dissolved into an urban hellscape for its residents.
At the same time, South Central LA became a battleground for the Los Angeles Police Department, which preferred to fight crime with armored cars and battering rams. The LAPD had a well-known disdain for these neighborhoods, reportedly using the shorthand code NHI (No Human Involved) for crimes involving Blacks.
Such conditions allowed for urban gangs and criminal organizations to flourish by the late 1980s. Blacks and Latinos accounted for most gangs, the most prominent consisting of the Crips and the Bloods, which totaled 50,000 across the nation. When not at war with each other, both groups faced frequent raids and standoffs with the LAPD.
In a coincidental happenstance, just a day before the Rodney King verdict, both factions sought to end their feud in a landmark delegation in Watts (7). Along with shifting efforts toward community building, the Watts Truce prioritized the need to counteract police violence in their neighborhoods. Some would take this initiative to a different level as the authorities – and the military – rolled onto their turf in late April.
Command & Control.
By sundown on April 30th, nearly 1,000 servicemen and women were in position throughout South Central LA. Another 1,000 remained on standby in their armories across Southern California. With many troops largely untrained in civil disturbance response, those on standby conducted the required exercises needed before their respective missions.
Overseeing the operations was Major General James K. Delk, a veteran of the 1965 Watts Riots who knew the streets of South Central LA well (8). Unlike the Watts Riots, the new crisis scorched neighborhoods from the Hollywood Hills down to Long Beach.
Delk met with LA County Sheriff, the Chief of Police, and the Commissioner for the CA Highway Patrol to establish an effective command & control system. In the tradition of a civilian-run military, all undertakings originated from the Sheriff’s Emergency Operations Center. Military units would provide escort and security to law enforcement and emergency services as they re-established order.
In particular, Guardsmen set up command posts in shopping centers such as the Fox Hills Mall, one of the many “playgrounds” among gangbangers. At the intersection of Vernon and Vermont, commonly known as “gang central,” Guardsmen set up a command post and provided security to the area. Their presence often prompted vandals and looters to reconsider taking more action.
Frequently, servicemen faced off against gangbangers who flashed offensive gestures or made repeated threats to fire shots. These taunts often proved fruitless, as was common for young gang members to make a scene in front of fellow gang members.
Nevertheless, California National Guard units faced countless hostilities ranging from isolated gunshots to near misses with vehicles. – some of which ended in direct engagement.
In the first hours of the riots, looters targeted gun stores, from which thousands of handguns and shoulder-fired arms flooded the streets. Patrols would later encounter thugs armed with AK-47s, among other weapons.
At the Baldwin Hill Crenshaw Shopping Center, a sniper shot out the driver’s window of a sedan driven by two Guardsmen. On May 3rd (two days after the CANG was federalized), members of the 40th MP Company apprehended a thief who twice turned their weapon on them. No injuries were reported, even after the thief and the troops exchanged shots.
In a remarkable show of restraint, the National Guard held fire throughout most of the operation. When available, their rifles were fitted with lockplates preventing accidental switching from semi-automatic to burst fire. Compared to the Watts Riots, in which 1,000 rounds of ammunition were spent, the California National Guard spent nearly 20 rounds in hostile acts.
The most notable incident occurred on the night of May 3rd on Pico Boulevard.
At 7:40 PM, a 1974 Datsun 240Z rolled up to a roadblock guarded by troops of the 40th Support Battalion. The driver attempted to run the troops down along a four-block stretch. Troops dove out of the way as the Datsun retreated up the street. Seeing it turn back for a second run, three troopers opened fire – first to disable the wheels, then to stop the driver altogether.
The driver, a gangbanger named Marvin “Victor” Rivas, 26, had tried to run over LAPD officers two weeks prior. His career as a gangbanger ended with three well-placed shots to the head (9).
On May 5th, another felon ran down a police officer in an attempt to escape with drugs in his vehicle. After two guardsmen fired into his vehicle, the felon tried to flee the area on foot but was promptly arrested. He suffered fragment wounds to his buttocks and testicles. This incident was just one of twelve reported episodes on May 5th where troops encountered either sniper fire or shootings from hoodlums.
In one night alone, there were a reported 30 shootings at or near US servicemen. Once more, in most episodes, the troopers exercised restraint that saved countless lives.
Federalization & Setbacks.
Early into the riot, the former Secretary of State Warren Christopher Wilson advised Mayor Tom Bradley to request federal troops.
The sudden outbreak of hostilities was met with a reasonably slow military build-up, as the armed forces were initially informed their presence would not be needed following the April 29th verdict. A shipment of riot control equipment, dispatched via CH-47 Chinook helicopter, took considerable time to fly over half the length of California (equivalent to flying from Belgium to Italy).
This seemingly slow response garnered much media scrutiny, prompting Governor Wilson to request federal troops in Los Angeles. His request was granted by President George HW Bush hours later, who signed Executive Order 12804, invoking the Insurrection Act and subsequently activating Operation Garden Plot, to effectively federalize the California National Guard.
The newly assembled Joint Task Force Los Angeles (JTF-LA) dispatched a force of Marines from Camp Pendleton, California, as part of a 4,000-man federal force. The Task Force, commanded by Major General Marvin L. Covault, would assume control over California National Guard units already present on May 1st.
Unfortunately for those arriving, the violence had all but ended.
By May 2nd, approximately 6,000 CANG troops were deployed in the streets, with another 2,700 more in reserve. That same day, the first 600 of 4,000 Marines arrived to assist in quelling what remained of the unrest. Reports indicate that the CANG – with some units having gone 36 hours without sleep – were rendered 80% less responsive under their new command.
Troops were no longer deployed in squads with non-coms leading the way. Now, missions required at least platoon sized-units with an officer in charge at all times. This generated a sense of frustration with many National Guard troops who were now left on standby in wake of decisions needing to be made from the top.
Adding more to the frustration was the fact that the military and law enforcement adhered to different protocols in high-stress situations.
On the night of May 3rd, at 3:58 AM (the same day as the Victor Rivas incident), Marines accompanied two police officers responding to a domestic dispute (10). On the patio, a gunman inside the house fired a shotgun through the door. The officer on the scene shouted, “Cover me,” prompting the Marines to fire nearly 200 rounds into the house. Miraculously, the incoming fire hit no one in the house – not the man nor the three children. However, the incident highlighted communication gaffes between soldiers and civilians in uniform.
Over the next few days, the US CANG and Marines assisted law enforcement in pacifying the streets. Though initially disgruntled at federal control, the CANG enjoyed a boost in morale after JTF-LA granted CANG Major General Daniel J. Hernandez command over all Army forces.
Returning To “Normal.”
The remainder of the force’s time in South Central Los Angeles was spent observing and assisting law enforcement in bringing the city back to an uncertain – but hopeful – normal.
Gangbangers still made their presence known via nightly gun battles and drivebys. By day, however, citizens enjoyed a 70% drop in crime rates. In Compton, an individual expressed his joy at walking safely to the store for the first time in twenty years. Unbeknownst to troops, who heard gunfire on a nightly basis, LAPD officers took notice of the lesser extent of violence that plagued the city.
On May 7th, President George HW Bush arrived in Los Angeles to tour the riot-stricken city and offer a $600 million recovery package for areas most affected by the damage (11). By then, federal and state troops were beginning to return to original assembly points at El Toro, Los Alamitos, and Tustin.
On May 9th, the Defense Department faxed authorizations to de-federalize the guard and begin returning federal troops home. At this point, the 40th Division of the CANG had only 176 troops committed to the streets, with 8,000 more on standby in staging areas and armories. The next day, Governor Wilson announced plans to begin the phased withdrawal of Guard units.
Starting with troops from Northern California, the 10,000-man force dropped to 3,000 in a few days. The National Guard was also released from state duty and returned to “part-time” status. Occasionally, Guard units assisted law enforcement in sweeps through neighborhoods where gang activity flared.
By May 24th, however, the National Guard withdrew their liaison personnel from the EOC, effectively ending its mission.
The Value Of Professionalism.
The story of the Los Angeles Riots was a story of failure – in policing, politics, and community building. The riots resulted in 58 deaths, 2,000 injuries, 8,000 arrests, and nearly $1 billion in property damage.
The unrest highlighted the overlooked conditions of impoverished and marginalized communities not only in Los Angeles but in nearly all urban centers across the United States. In his book, Fires & Furies: The L.A. Riots, Major General Delk noted how the solution to South Central LA’s problems would have been a “booming economy” with “industry scrambling to employ entry-level workers” (pg. 325).
Unfortunately, this part of the city – now called South Los Angeles – would remain at a disadvantage for years to come. The Watts Truce helped stem gang violence in some areas, but the problem with drugs and crime remained ever present in the post-riots environment.
At the same time, the Los Angeles Riots highlighted key vulnerabilities for the United States military in times of social unrest.
As is often the case, political decisions from the top hampered the military response to the riots. Failures in communication between agencies and key figures (Mayor Tom Bradley and Police Chief Daryl Gates had reportedly not spoken in a year before the riots) led to the overall slow pace at which the forces assembled.
The lack of communication further impeded military response time to the riots, as evidenced by the dispatch of riot control gear by a single CH-47 helicopter. The lack of preparedness on the civil authorities’ part essentially left the streets at the mercy of looters and gangbangers until an effective command & control network was established.
However, the real victory for those in uniform is twofold.
First, the discipline exhibited by the troops during the riots proved quite remarkable. Of the 58 fatalities in the riots, only one individual – gangbanger Victor Rivas – was killed by armed forces. The ROE proved invaluable as memories of both the Watts Riots (1965) and the Kent State Massacre (1970) still lingered in this episode of social unrest.
Secondly, and most importantly, the communal response signified the success in bringing relative stability to an already battered and beleaguered part of Los Angeles.
On the first night, troops at the Atlantic Boulevard and Rosencrans intersection received free meals from the popular El Unico Mexican restaurant on the block. That same evening, troops visiting a Mcdonald’s on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu received a completely free helping to warm food, plus 1,200 Big Macs, for their service.
The troops also exhibited a unique willingness to correct immediate mistakes made on duty. On the night of May 2nd, troops responding to reports of gunfire emptied a building in the university area. The culprit was never found, and those evacuated from the building were civilians not involved in the incident. As compensation, the troops returned the next day with “goodies” as an apology to the individuals, who were more than forgiving of the mistake.
The countless stories of free meals, “Thank You” cards, and expressions of gratitude by Angelenos weary of life dominated by gangbangers easily overshadow all reports of hostilities during the five-day operation. In this light, the story of the United States military deployed during the Los Angeles Riots stands as an example of how a professional military conducts itself in a period of urban unrest.
- Delk, James D. Fires & Furies: The L.A. Riots. ETC, Publications, 1995.
Writer of history, politics, and film.