It is through Gangsta Rap subgenre of Hip-Hop, that the question: “What were the underlying cultural reasons for the Los Angeles Riots of 1992?” can be answered. This paper will examine rap lyrics from prominent Los Angeles Hip-Hop acts in order to investigate the deteriorating rapport between the city’s oft-biased police department and the city’s increasingly restless black urban youth, from the perspective of the latter group. These lyrics will be juxtaposed with statements various accounts of events involving racially motivated police actions, in order to assess their validity. In doing so, it is shown that hip-hop reveals the problematic culture of aggression that led to the riots– the militant mindset of both the LAPD and the young inner-city African American community, and the increasingly antagonistic and violent relationship between the two. Word Count (132)
Summary of Evidence
In the late 1980s, the hip-hop subgenre known as Gangsta Rap, which focused on the oft-violent lifestyles found in the poverty-ridden inner cities, emerged as a phenomenon.. The participants in the Gangsta Rap scene were not third person observers of the situations they depicted; the majority of these rappers were minorities and came from low-income backgrounds. If a rapper was not from the ‘hood’ he commanded no respect, and if he rapped about things he had never been through, he instantaneously lost all credibility. Songs were written in the first person, and subject matter came from personal experience. In the words of Ice-T, who is widely recognized as one of the forefathers of the genre , the goal of Gangsta Rap was to provide “street-level journalism, real-life observations told in poetry” . And at its best, it was successful in doing so. Its ability to inform the marginalized black youth about the problems plaguing their community led politically driven rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy to credit rap as the “Black folk’s CNN”.
And its ability to supply a forum to express grievances and call for change led it to also be praised as “a voice for those impoverished and overlooked by governments, police, and politicians that had the power to change urban communities, but that failed to represent their needs” . The LAPD was a frequent target Hip-Hop artists, who characterized the department as racist and excessive. These accusations are understandable. Under Commissioner Gates, the LAPD “Went after crime before it occurred,” Gates said. “Our people went out every single night trying to stop crime before it happened, trying to take people off the street that they believed were involved in crime. And that made us a very aggressive, proactive police department.” This mentality opened up the door for frequent employment of racial profiling. In 1987, C.R.A.S.H (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), a special operations unit of the LAPD, launched the Operation Hammer initiative.
The operation consisted of a series of arrests and drug raids that were made in an attempt to crack down on the gang violence that plagued the city. However, due to the stereotyping utilized by the police, innocent minorities were regularly targeted and treated with brutality. From 1984 to 1989 the number of citizen complaints about police brutality increased 33% , and the LAPD developed a reputation for accepting and even encouraging the use of excessive force, especially with minority suspects. This excessive use of force on minorities was demonstrated on March 3rd, 1991, when Rodney King, an African-American construction worker, was brutally assaulted by a group police officers using billy clubs. The beating became front-page national news, due to on-looker George Holliday, who recorded the incident on camera, and sent the videotape, which showed King getting stuck by a baton 56 times to a local news station.
Four of the officers involved in the beating were charged with excessive violence, but were acquitted of all charges by a jury of ten Whites and one Asian, enraging the minority community. The perceivably unjust acquittal caused the long-building social tension caused by the crack epidemic, economic hardship, racial inequality, antagonism between races, racial profiling, and police brutality, to completely erupt. Angry citizens took to the streets, and from April 29,1992 to May 4, 1992, the city of Los Angeles fell victim to the most violent riots of the 20th century in the United States. During these tumultuous six days, $735,000,000 worth of property was damaged , 53 people died , and 248 people were critically injured14. Word Count (591)
Evaluation of Sources
Source: Video of Rodney King Beating, Taken by George Holliday
This source is a video of Rodney King getting brutally abused by members of the LAPD. It was taken using a personal video camera by on-looker George Holliday, who sent the tape to local news stations. The purpose of the video was to capture the extreme violence that the LAPD used to subdue King, and to show this evidence to the public. The value of the video is that it played a major role in the start of the riots. The video circulated extremely rapidly, stirring up racial tensions, and increasing animosity towards the LAPD. The source is also valuable because it provides a direct look into the beating that led to the riots, allowing the viewer to make his or her own judgments of the events without the influence of any outside opinion. The video is limited because of its low resolution, which makes some of the action difficult to decipher, and also by its lack of interpretation or analysis of the beating. Source: Gangsta Rap group N.W.A’s 1988 protest song “Fuck Tha Police”
This source is a recording of the song “Fuck Tha Police” by Gangsta Rap group N.W.A. (which stands for Niggaz with Attitudes) off of their debut album, Straight Outta Compton. Its purpose was to express the frustration that the members of the group held against the LAPD, and to help the sale of Straight Outta Compton. This is a valuable source because it demonstrates the intensity of the hatred that the black community had towards the LAPD that caused the riots. The song became a soundtrack to the riots, and was used by rioters to explain their actions. The source is limited due to its bias. The song does not show the viewpoints of most of those in Los Angeles, it merely shows those of the rappers in the song. Word Count (294)
The juxtaposition of the video of the beating of Rodney King and the song by N.W.A provides a good of example of hip-hop’s role in the riots. Hip-Hop served as the black community’s response to the prejudiced actions of the police. While these songs portray the Department in an extremely negative light, accounts such as George Holliday’s show that the descriptions told by artists many Gangsta Rappers were justified. For example, rappers often complained about being pulled over while driving without cause. In “Cop Killer”, Ice-T complains “A pig stopped me for nothing”12. The Christopher Commission, a 1991 post-Rodney King beating independent investigation that looked into the practices of LAPD, led by future secretary of state Warren Christopher, validates their sentiment: “Routine stops of young African-American and Latino males, seemingly without ‘probable cause’ or ‘reasonable suspicion,’ may be part and parcel of the LAPD’s aggressive style of policing”17 the commission declares.
In “Fuck tha Police” Ice Cube further analyzes the prejudices of the LAPD, claiming that police stop him when he is driving expensive cars because they would rather him conform to their image of an African-American, than accept the fact that he has achieved economic success “You’d rather see me in the pen/then me and Lorenzo rolling the Benzo”14. In the Fuhrman Tapes, LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman specifically mentions that he arrested a black person in Westwood because “He was a nigger. He didn’t belong”18, and muses, “Nigger drivin’ a Porsche… you always stop him”18, By arresting a black person in Westwood without cause, and suggesting all black people driving expensive cars should be pulled over, Fuhrman conforms to Ice Cube’s description, further displaying rap as a genre it which its artists describe real world experiences in order to make a political argument. Hip-Hop also demonstrates the animosity that existed between the LAPD and the minority communities of the city.
For example, many rappers hurled extremely derogatory slurs in the direction of law enforcement officials. In Cop Killer by Ice T and in many songs by Los Angeles based Latino Hip-Hop group Cypress Hill, police officers are referred to as “pigs” on numerous occasions . In their song Fuck Tha Police, N.W.A. refers to one as a “Punk ass motherfucker… with a fake ass badge and a gun” and on the same track, member MC Ren mocks the police officers by calling their billy clubs “silly clubs”11. And in the Cypress Hill song Looking Through the Eyes of a Pig, B-Real demeans the character of the police department of Los Angeles, describing them as “the biggest gang you’ve ever seen, above the law” . While these insults may seem to be a bit over the top, the passion and anger behind them can be understood when one looks at the culture of racial bias that existed within the LAPD during this era. . The Christopher Commission found evidence of officers referring to Blacks as “gorillas” and proclaiming “Monkey-slapping time!”9 before entering black neighborhoods. In his series of interviews with Laura McKinney, LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman refers to African-Americans as “niggers” 49 times.
Yet despite Fuhrman’s clear prejudicial attitudes (attitudes that resulted in a self-estimated 3000 or 4000 pages of internal affairs investigations concerning him10), he received 55 commendations throughout his police career . Darryl Gates, the police chief of the LAPD during this era, was quoted as calling Mexican police officers “lazy” and making a distinction between “blacks” and “normal people” . That the head of the entire police department would behave in such a manner, and that a police officer with a reputation for overt displays of bigotry would be commended so frequently, reveals the fundamental problem within the LAPD during this time– the tolerance or even celebration of comporting oneself in a prejudiced fashion. Word Count (630)
The Los Angeles Riots of 1992, so often attributed to the verdict of the Rodney King trial (to the point where they are sometimes referred to as the Rodney King riots), were not the product of one singular incident. The source of the riots lies in the problematic culture of Los Angeles during the late 1980s and early 1990s—the poor state of the urban community, the violent and antagonistic relationship between the police and the minorities of the city, and the tensions that existed between races within the city. This culture is best understood through the context of hip-hop, the biased actions of the police and the increasingly frustrated and aggressive mentality of the poor and oppressed community of minorities. The Rodney King verdict served merely as a trigger to an inevitable event caused by a long developing rage caused by the systematic oppression of a group of people.