DocTalk: Cole Nelson on “LA 92”

Then Again: A Review of 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.

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.