20 Years Later: Want to Understand the '92 LA Riots? Start with the '84 LA Olympics

If you don’t light the fuse, the bomb won’t blow. But striking the match and lighting the fuse is only the final step in a process of creating a deadly explosion. The match that started the 1992 LA Riots was struck when a videotape showcasing the brutal beating of African American motorist Rodney King by five police officers was released to the public. It lit the fuse on the bomb when a near all-white jury (10 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 one billion dollars, 53 deaths, and thousands of injuries. 

The match and wick had done their job, but as we reach the 20th anniversary of that day, we should recognize that the gunpowder was packaged to the point of bursting by urban neglect and rampant, unchecked police violence. It was the 45% 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 U.S.’s 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.

From 1984-1989, there was a 33% spike in citizen complaints against police brutality. The complaints went nowhere. According to an LA Times investigative report, the district attorney’s office chose not to prosecute the “vast majority” of complaints. Between 1986 and 1990, 1,400 officers were investigated on suspicion of using excessive force, less than 1% were prosecuted. Ffrustration, as Langston Hughes predicted decades earlier, “festered like a sore.” 

Gates and Bradley, still basking in Olympic glow, were oblivious to the rising anger. As Gates said blithely, "I think that people believe that the only [policing] strategy is to harass people and make arrests for inconsequential types of things. Well that's part of our strategy, no doubt about it."

1968 Olympian John Carlos who was living in Los Angeles at the time, said to me that constitutional rights just didn’t exist for those “shut out of the Olympic party.” He remembered, “The police were on a mission to make sure whole sections of the city were on lockdown by any means necessary."

Then there was the economic side of the 1984 Olympic legacy. Many in Mayor Bradley’s office celebrated those official reports that showed 70,000 jobs were created by the Games. But all of those jobs were non-union temporary employment and disappeared with the recession as quickly as they arrived. If replaced at all, by more service industry jobs. How masses of people worked, in union-dense Los Angeles, had turned a corner toward a more precarious future. As Mike Davis wrote in 1990, "Southcentral L.A. has been betrayed by virtually every level of government. In particular, the deafening public silence about youth unemployment and the juvenation of poverty has left many thousands of young street people with little alternative but to enlist in the crypto-Keynesian youth employment program operated by the cocaine cartels."

Institutional support of police brutality against a workforce either unemployed or limited to service jobs was the  flammable mix saturating the streets of Los Angeles, that caught fire when Rodney King hit the nightly news.

There are lessons here, if we are willing to learn them. For cities like London and Rio, the host cities of the next two Olympic Games, attack the working poor of your country in the name of “Olympic security” at your own peril. For the citizens of these cities, be vigilant against efforts to bestow absolute power into the hands of 21st century versions of Daryl Gates. But above all else, the lesson is about what happens when people are brutalized and their anguished cries are ignored. The lesson is about how people will respond if unchecked poverty and police violence puts a continual odor in the air that stinks like rotten meat. When the people have no voice, no community, and no power, their frustration is left no physical choice but to explode.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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