USC forever changed by LA riots

Twenty years ago, on April 29, riots broke out in the city of Los Angeles not far from campus. The 1992 Los Angeles riots carried on for six days after the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers who were videotaped beating a man after a high-speed chase. The ruling incited a citywide violent protest declaring justice had not been served.

Businesses were looted, homes burned down and 53 lives were taken as a result of the racial tension and uprising. The National Guard, U.S. Army and Marines were called into the city to help quell the riots and protect the city.

Erna Smith, a professor of journalism who conducted a study on the media coverage of the L.A. riots, said she found animosity between races boiling before the beating of Rodney King.

“Prior to the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney King beatings, there had been several high-profile cases that exacerbated racial tensions, including the shooting of a black teenage girl by a Korean shop keeper who was sentenced to probation,” Smith said.

The L.A. riots, however, crossed racial boundaries as victims and businesses of all races were targeted. Damages amounted to nearly $1 billion, according to Time magazine.

Joseph Saltzman, a professor of journalism, said USC handled the immediate danger in the South Central area with concern to the students.

“The university reacted very well in calming fears, adding more security and holding various meetings with students and faculty so everyone had the best possible, latest information,” Saltzman said. “Panic and fear usually [come] from the unknown, so by getting information out quickly, it helped calm everyone down.”

Bryce Nelson, a professor of journalism, said students took part in the aftermath of the riot by helping with the cleanup.

“USC always hoped to and worked to build a stronger relationship with the neighborhood,” Nelson said. “It was strong before that, but it played an increasing role after the riot.”

Though USC’s academic standing and admissions were expected to be affected by the L.A. riots, Nelson said there was no damage to the school’s reputation.

With the 20th anniversary of the riots approaching, Smith said it is important to realize the severity of racial issues in Los Angeles.

“Unfortunately, race, in particular institutional racism, still matters a lot in this county,” Smith said. “And it will continue to matter if the only time we talk about it is when there’s riots.”

6 replies
  1. Jaccoma Maultsby-163X-Ray
    Jaccoma Maultsby-163X-Ray says:

    Twenty years ago I came to work as usual unaware that all Hell was going to break loose as soon as I began patrol.
    That day I was assigned to Field Service Patrol with the Supervisor for Residential Protection as my ride along.
    Our officers on duty did their best to protect all of the SC students and community when the “Riots” hit. I saw the incidents first hand. The Trojan family stuck together when the going got tough. They also got right in there and did there best to help those in need afterwards.
    It is very nice to hear the kind words from former students who were there about our efforts to defend them. I know how difficult it was during this historic time.
    Hopefully you all went on to make the world a better place. “Fight On!”

  2. Lisa Regan
    Lisa Regan says:

    I was a sophomore at USC that spring. I was at my work-study internship at the USC Admissions Office. Our director came down to the office to announce that the university was shutting down, something I couldn’t fathom. He had a uniformed officer pick me up in a squad car and drive me to my off-campus apartment. My roommates and I smelled the smoke and watched the drama unfold from our Cardinal Gardens balcony and my little 19-inch TV. We kept flipping around the channels to watch the action and to see if finals, which were scheduled to start the next morning, were going to be cancelled. We saw the flash of gunfire out on Jefferson & McClintock that left a man laying dead in the streets for the rest of the night. We saw nearly every building on Vermont aflame. We saw the USC parking gates closed and locked, armed officers just inside, standing guard. At about midnight, I got a call from my editor at the Daily Trojan that she was negotiating with the administration to let us come back to campus and put out a special issue. Another hour later, my journalism prof, herself a newspaper assistant editor, called me back to say her final scheduled for 8 am was cancelled.

    The next morning at 11, driving away from our apartment on our way to a friend’s house in Santa Monica, I passed shops and gas stations still burning and smoldering but emptied of their merchandise. I saw the ash covering the swings and playground at Vermont Avenue School, where I’d been volunteering all semester. I wondered if my students would ever come back.

    A day later, I was back on the 4th floor of the Student Union, watching the rising smoke from our vantage point and producing a DT issue that still today makes me very proud. The following fall semester, my SOCI 320 class had been renamed “The Social Psychology of the L.A. Riots.” Dr. Vern Bengtson, a remarkable USC sociologist and gerontologist, connected our academic learning to real-world exploration of the riots through guest speakers such as then-LA Times City Editor Leo Wolinsky, then-LAPD Deputy Chief Bernard Parks, and then-USC President Steven Sample. To ensure that the university and its students stay connected to those events, my DT colleagues and I wrote many more articles about the university’s response to the riots that next year.

    It was an unbelievable week to be a USC Trojan and a resident of South L.A. Twenty years later, I commend the DT and academic departments who continue to open up lines of dialogue across campus and around the city to discuss, learn, and hopefully grow from the riots.

  3. MEK
    MEK says:

    I was a freshman at ‘SC living in Marks Hall in Spring 1992. It was hot and humid for April. As the verdict was announced that afternoon — being lil’ geek girls — we tried to continue studying. I remember sitting in the hallway of the dorm that evening hearing gunshots.

    Finals became “optional.” 95% or more of the student body left. I don’t remember how or win the announcements were made. The DT published a special issue. People just started leaving. I was from out-of-state. Friends offered to have me come stay with them in Orange County. Even one of my Thematic Option writing instructor called me and offered a place if I wanted to get away from campus. I was one of the handful who stuck around. History was happening around us.

    Less than 24hrs after the riots began the CA Army National Guard were deployed and eventually were housed at the Coliseum. For those of us who remained on campus, EVK was opened to the LAPD and the National Guard. Active duty soldiers from the Army (Ft Ord 7th infantry) and active duty Marines were being deployed to South Central (by order of the President). A battalion of Marines were eventually deployed in LA.

    Those of who stayed on campus were (relatively) safe and protected. There were students in the University-owned apts north of campus who reported being chased and threatened.

    The Payless and the Baskin-Robbins north of campus were looted. When 32nd Street Market (Third World Market) was reopened finally, there were National Guardsman only allowing in specific numbers of people.

    As an 18-yo from a rural Midwest town, it was history.

  4. Michele
    Michele says:

    I was a Senior in 1992, preparing for finals and getting ready for my graduation, when the riots hit. We were on lock down and anyone that could get out was told to do so. USC security did a fantastic job of holding down the fort. Friends and roommates stood on the rooftops of our buildings, watching the helicopters above, talking to parents on the phone, trying to convince everyone we were okay. There was one pizza place that would deliver the day after, but they wouldn’t get out of the car and you had to be downstairs waiting for them with cash when they arrived. Graduation in May was extra special. We had all watched what had happened, returned to campus to celebrate our hard work, and made plans to help rebuild the community that had sustained the brunt of the anger of the day. I have always been proud to be a Trojan…but never as proud as I was with the way they handled the riots. In the days before text alerts, blast e-mail and cell phones, we were safe and well taken care of. Kudos to everyone who was there 20 years ago and thank you.

  5. Ras
    Ras says:

    It angers me when any articles about the rioting become softened by euphemisms like “Civil Disturbance”. I am glad the DT is using the right term – a RIOT.

    Not enough is being said condemning the actions of these violent criminals that decided to burn the city down. Lives were ruined and some families still suffer from the aftermath two decades later. however, we are afraid to call out these animals that chimped out in our city because we have become such cowardly, politically correct, mealy-mouthed hypocrites. These same thugs that rioted like feral animals have contributed to WHY WE PROFILE WHETHER WE ADMIT IT OR NOT!!!! All one has to do is see footage from the riots and see who was doing the killing, looting and beating.

  6. Hipster
    Hipster says:

    Having been around SC when the riots happened, I remember exactly what USC told people, “Get the F-out of here!” For the most part everybody did leave. There were no phantom meetings and virtually no communication from SC despite the happy talk you read above. The campus went on lock down and pretty much nobody came in or left. Rioting occurred all around the campus but not on the campus as campus security defended all the entry points. The businesses on Figueroa were hit pretty hard especially the strip mall at 28th and Figueroa which was pretty much cleaned out.

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