DocTalk: Cole Nelson on “LA 92”

Of the many activities that were catalyzed in the wake of the unjust murder of George Floyd, a dive into the historical archives may appear among the least formidable or strategic in comparison with demands for large-scale social transformation. Yet, historians, protestors, journalists, activists, and everyday people alike have all become motivated by this moment to excavate the ever-growing collections of historical material that relate to concerns of Black liberation, systemic racism, and the presence of militarized domestic policing. This engagement with history marks the current moment as contiguous with previous events, demonstrating connections across a range of seemingly isolated incidents of civil unrest.

A man speaks a police scanner:
We’re southbound on
Overhead footage of a police chase.
A man speaks a police scanner:
Appears to be three male Blacks in a vehicle. It’s a white Hyundai I believe.
Video of police beating Rodney King. It’s dated March 3, 1991.
Audio (speaker not pictured):
At any time during this evening, did it go through your mind that this was not a human being, that you were beating?
Another speaker, not pictured:
The police approach Black men as criminals first
Words appear: From Academy Award-winning directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin
Speaker, not pictured:
and citizens second.
Rodney King appears in a wheelchair.
Closeup of Rodney King’s face.
Speaker, not pictured:
Tonight we must
Footage of police carrying Rodney King.
Speaker, not pictured:
tell our children
Footage of police kicking a man on the ground.
Speaker, not pictured:
that for African-
A man lies in the middle of the road with his arms out as a police officer approaches him.
Speaker, not pictured:
American children and adults
The woman speaking appears on screen.
Woman: freedom is not yet a reality in the United States.
Words appear: From Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn and Emmy-winning producer Johnny Chinn
Speaker, not pictured:
If they cannot get a conviction
Footage from the Rodney King trial
Speaker, not pictured:
with the Rodney King video available
The woman speaking appears on screen.
Woman: there can be no justice in America.
A judge appears at his bench.
The camera pans the courtroom audience.
Jury member:
We, the jury find the defendant
The camera does a closeup of Rodney King and the defendant.
Footage of men watching the verdict on TV from a bar. They stand up in anger.
Jury member:
not guilty.
Words appear: National Geographic presents
People stand up in the courtroom.
Speaker, not pictured:
Today, this jury told the world
Closeup of a man crying.
Speaker, not pictured:
that what we all saw
Footage of police beating Rodney King.
Speaker, not pictured:
wasn’t a crime.
A man shouts at the camera:
This is a travesty of justice.
Words appear: A moment by moment retelling
Crowds riot.
Speaker, not pictured:
We have to show Los Angeles
Police hold back a protester.
Speaker, not pictured:
that we are resilient.
Words appear: Using only raw footage
News reporter, not pictured:
There has been a mini riot at this
Footage of riots.
News reporter, not pictured:
location. The people have suffered not only civil rights but the right to be a human being.
Words appear: of the events that lit the fuse
A crowd cheers.
Speaker, not pictured:
How many more
The man speaking appears in front of a microphone.
Man speaking:
Rodney Kings do there have to be?
Footage of a crowd cheering.
Footage of police pulling someone out of a truck and beating him.
News reporter, not pictured:
Now, they’re pulling the driver out. They’re beating the driver.
Woman, not pictured:
Oh my god.
Words appear: And ripped a city apart.
A man speaks at a microphone.
People riot.
Woman, not pictured:
How much worse does it need to get?
People fire guns.
Firefighters approach a fire.
Speaker, not pictured:
Proclamation of a
Vehicles and buildings burn.
Speaker, not pictured:
state of emergency for
Crowds run away.
Speaker, not pictured:
Los Angeles city
Women cry.
Speaker, not pictured:
We have no police support whatsoever.
Buildings burn.
A woman screams:
This is not fair!
People knock over structures.
Woman, not pictured:
This is not fair!
Buildings burn.
Man, not pictured:
It’s not right what
The speaker appears on camera, yelling at the crowd.
Man:
y’all doing. It’s not right.
George W. Bush appears in the Oval Office.
George W. Bush:
I will use whatever force
Police in riot gear patrol the street.
George W. Bush:
is necessary
George W. Bush appears in the Oval Office.
George W. Bush:
to restore order.
Military vehicles drive down the road.
A woman stands up and shouts:
This is America.
Words appears appear on top of footage of buildings on fire: Premiere Event LA 92 Sunday April 30 9/8c
Speaker, not pictured:
Folks, you’re on your own down there.
Words appear: National Geographic

The documentary “LA 92” (Martin and Lindsay, 2017), though slightly predating the current developments in historical engagement, provides an example of creative research that has a guiding impact on the present. Indeed, the film presents itself entirely through archival material: a compilation of documentary evidence — home video recording, news footage, amateur photographs, radio broadcasts, recordings of police scanners, etc.— lays out the context and incidents of the Los Angeles uprisings in 1992.

The history is painfully familiar: from the brutal beating of Rodney King, immortalized on video, to the murder of Latasha Harlins, to the acquittal of both King’s brutalizers and Harlins’ murderer. These events served to catalyze mass civil unrest. “LA 92” displays these events chronologically, providing context for the intensity of the moment — a sensation emulated through a rapid succession of both local and national news footage covering the city-wide acts of rebellion and the subsequent suppression by the National Guard.

However, “LA 92” allows for one minor yet significant inclusion into this historical narrative. It draws explicit comparison between Los Angeles in 1992 and Watts in 1965 through a juxtaposition of these events, bookending the film with a black and white newsreel of the aftermath of the Watts rebellion. In so doing, “LA 92” demonstrates the longstanding persistence of racialized police violence and the resistance to systemic racism it sparks.

The narrative of historical continuity that “LA 92” paints results in two theses: on one hand, racialized police violence repeatedly generates mass expressions of anger and frustration against that system of violence; on the other hand, this continuity demonstrates that little has been done to diminish police violence against African-Americans in the intervening 27 years. History becomes relegated to mere repetition.

The only difference that separates the two, it is suggested, through the words of ACLU director Ramona Ripston, “is that (this time) we have the proof,” referring to the footage of King’s brutalization. Indeed, the explosive character of the LA rebellion was fueled in no small part by the proliferation of video and news coverage which broadcasted to a global audience and which is the source material for “LA 92.” The proliferation of this coverage is captured in “LA 92” with images of captive audiences gripped to their television sets followed by the announcement of the verdict by a cacophony of newsroom talking heads repeating the same standard line: The police are “not-guilty on all accounts but one.”

The filmmakers, no doubt, are aware of the immediate relevance of their historiographical work. The film is prefaced by a quote from Frederick Douglass that suggests “LA 92” is less a means of dispassionately remembering the L.A. uprisings for posterity than of making history speak to the present: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” “LA 92,” however, was produced just over two years after extensive protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and after the attendant rise of the Black Lives Matter movement which continues to address systemic racism and police violence. As such, it misses the contemporary urgency of its subject matter in favor of simply marking the 25th anniversary of the L.A. uprisings. The absence of any placement of Ferguson alongside Watts and L.A. within the historiography of “LA 92” diminishes the claim that racialized police violence is a continual issue, neglecting to connect the chants of protestors in the streets in 1992 of “no justice, no peace” to their echoes in Ferguson and around the world today.

Despite this shortcoming, “LA 92” provides significant insights for present consideration. For instance, a concluding segment of the film presents the determination of a community to heal itself in the face of flames and ashes. In the last several minutes we see community members in the streets of Los Angeles coming together to clean and build anew the neighborhoods that were the targets of destruction, bringing to life what historian Robin D.G. Kelley wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion: “what they burned is less important than what they built.”

This appears as the final claim of the film: that the immediate rage against egregious displays of injustice is never divorced from the collective striving for a substantive justice in its place. For that, “LA 92” remains firmly grounded in its lasting significance as an attempt to reignite the embers of a seemingly smothered history and survey it so as to offer a practice of healing in the present.

“LA 92” is streaming on Netflix and has also been uploaded by NatGeo in full on YouTube.