If you don’t light the fuse, the bomb won’t blow. But striking the match and lighting the fuse are only the final steps in a process of creating a deadly explosion. The match that set off the 1992 LA Riots was struck when a videotape showcasing five police officers brutally beating African-American motorist Rodney King was released to the public. It lit the fuse on the bomb when a near all-white jury (ten whites, one Latino, one Asian) in Simi Valley found the officers innocent of all charges. The blast then spread over the next five days in the form of the largest urban uprising in the history of the United States. When the shrapnel had stopped flying, the damage amounted to $1 billion, fifty-three deaths and thousands of injuries.
The match and wick had done their job, but as we reach the twentieth anniversary of that day, we should recognize that the gunpowder was packaged to the bursting point by urban neglect and rampant, unchecked police violence. It was the 45 percent unemployment-rate of African-American males in South Central. It was Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and his violent programs of police enforcement like the infamous Operation Hammer. It was deindustrialization and the loss of union jobs. It was the Bush recession, the longest the nation had seen since World War II. But there was an accelerant that started the city on the road to rebellion, and it’s what is regarded to this day as one of the city’s most shining moments: the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The 1984 Olympics were supposed to show the vibrancy and virility of Ronald Reagan’s America. The games were actually opened by a speech from Reagan, the ﬁrst time a world leader had launched the games in Olympic history. These games were nationalist theater, an absolute gold glut for the United States since the countries behind the Iron Curtain boycotted in protest of the American refusal to attend the 1980 games in Moscow.
The Los Angeles Olympic Games are remembered as as success because, appropriately for the Reagan era, they were the ﬁrst privately ﬁnanced Olympics in history. They ended with an announced surplus of over $200 million and spurred the creation of 70,000 new jobs. Olympic organizer Peter Uebberoth was the Time magazine Man of the Year and given the job as commissioner of Major League Baseball. Also lauded were Mayor Tom Bradley and Chief Gates for keeping the peace.
But the Olympics weren’t a glorious affair for everyone. Gates kept calm by expanding his infamous police gang sweeps (later immortalized in the NWA video for Straight Outta Compton) and keeping entire areas of the city, especially South Central and East LA, under conditions of military occupation. Politicians and judges conspired to revive old, anti-syndicalist laws to jail masses of black youth, though the overwhelming numbers of people arrested were never charged.
Before the Olympics, Gates was on thin ice as police chief. In 1982, he infamously said that African-Americans died under a chokehold used by police officers because “the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.” But Gates emerged from the Olympics as an untouchable hero. Every incentive for him and his department was to stay in “Olympic mode.” Treating the city as occupied territory became institutionalized.