SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty-five years ago Saturday, Los Angeles erupted in riot after four white officers were acquitted of all but one charge in the beating of a black motorist named Rodney King.
The riots didn’t impact southern California, they sparked protests across the nation, inspired songs discussing the issue and led to major discussions. In Utah, the riots were a front-page news in Salt Lake City and leading off broadcasts.
It was a buildup from an incident March 3, 1991, when King led officers on a high-speed pursuit in Los Angeles County. When the pursuit ended, King was beaten as he was arrested by police. A man named George Holliday videotaped the moment from his apartment and delivered that video to KTLA in Los Angeles.
The video sparked outrage and King was released without being charged four days after he was arrested. The officers involved were indicted a week after that — 17 other officers who stood by and did nothing were not indicted.
The trial was moved to Simi Valley in November and a verdict was delivered the next year on April 29, 1992. The acquittal led to riots. Even King himself pleaded for peace two days into the riots, but more than 50 people died as a result of either riot-related homicide, riot-related death or officer-related homicides over the next five days, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A California Highway Patrol officer stands guard at Ninth Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles as smoke rises from a fire further down the street, April 30, 1992. (David Longstreath, AP Photo)
How Utah reacted to riots
While the incident in question happened thousands of miles away for most American cities, the verdict led to protests and riots across the country. For Salt Lake City, reaction was a little more subdue than other cities.
In Utah, calls began to flood the Salt Lake chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — many asking the NAACP how they planned to respond and how they could help, then-president of the chapter Alberta Henry told the Deseret News in a newspaper that was published on May 30, 1992.
Surprise appeared to be the initial reaction from Henry, then-Salt Lake County district attorney David Yocom, a University of Utah diversity official and a Salt Lake police lieutenant quoted in the article.
“So is it OK now (to beat someone)? That’s the question. Obviously, it’s not OK,” the lieutenant told the newspaper. “… We’re just like everybody else. We have good guys and we have bad guys. And we don’t want the bad guys to get away with anything.”
On May 1, 1992, some county turmoil was believed to be linked to the King protests. In Sandy, a marked patrol car was torched and a person was suspected of starting eight small fires downtown. The county sheriff’s office said there was a rash of 911 hangups.
In Provo, someone used red spray paint to write “R King” on the side of a Utah Highway Patrol vehicle. The same phrase was written in several places across BYU’s campus.
A May 5, 1992, article documented about 100 people or so at an outdoor meeting held by the NAACP. Attendees vented frustrations about race in society at the time: from violence to race statistics regarding incarcerated individuals.
“What is so different about what happened last week from what’s been happening in this country for a long, long time?” one attendee asked. “We are shocked by the looting. How about the looting of human life and human dignity?”
Another attendee said: “Let’s stop all this fighting and start building each other up.” People of various races then held hands and sang “Reach Out and Touch (somebody’s hand),” the report stated.
The Jazz-Clippers game played in Anaheim
The Utah Jazz are currently in the midst of an opening-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers and that was exact same scenario 25 years ago.
The Jazz, then a No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, came to Los Angeles for the third and fourth game of the series. The Clippers won Game 3, 98-88, at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena — their first home playoff game in 16 years. That game was played the night before the verdict was announced.
The day that the verdict was read, the team was practicing at Inglewood High School in a gymnasium closed to the outside. Armed police joined the Jazz on the team bus and guards were there during the practice.
As head coach Jerry Sloan told reporters that day, “When all is said and done, basketball is just a game.”
Much like the initial reaction from Salt Lake City, Jazz players were quoted in their surprise of the verdict. “It blows my mind that that can happen in the justice system,” then-Jazz player Tyrone Corbin told reporters.
Deseret News columnist Brad Rock was in Los Angeles as the paper’s Jazz beat writer at the time. His bylines in the paper split from his normal basketball reporting duties as the riots broke out, penning his experience in Los Angeles at the time the riots began.
“They were trying to tend to business and say we still have a basketball game to play but it made them nervous,” Rock said, reflecting on the interactions with coaches and plays 25 years later. “I remember they’d have a team meeting in the hotel and everything was just sort of guarded. They closely protected the players.”
As for what the city was like; “It was a surreal feeling,” Rock recalled. “They closed the restaurants — some of them in the middle of the afternoon because people didn’t want to be out after dark. The streets were so congested because people panicked to get away from where the trouble was.
“Some of the people didn’t pay attention to even the median strip. They’d just drive over it,” he added. “I won’t say it was chaos but people were really nervous.”
“They were trying to tend to business and say we still have a basketball game to play but it made them nervous. I remember they’d have a team meeting in the hotel and everything was just sort of guarded. They closely protected the players.” — Deseret News columnist Brad Rock
He remembers the airport closing for a period of time and a member of the Jazz organization leaving as quick as it reopened, as well as helicopters buzzing around Dodger Stadium during an afternoon game he attended. Afterward, radio announcers warned motorists to avoid south-central Los Angeles, he also wrote at the time.
Game 4 scheduled to be played April 30 wound up getting postponed multiple times due to looting, rioting and violence near the area of the arena. Initially pegged for just a two-day delay, the game wouldn’t be played until May 3 — a game the Clippers won 115-107.
Rock said he remembers the crowds for the Clippers games were energetic just because it had been such a lengthy playoff drought for the team.
“They were pretty excited but I think people were kind of guarded — sort of on-edge, like if anything seems strange ‘I’m out,’” he said. “That’s the sense I got.”
The Jazz went on to win the series in a decisive final game played in Salt Lake City the next day.