After Rodney King LA Riots, 4 Lesser-Known Incidents of Police Brutality and Racial Protests


For many, the death of Rodney King earlier this week brought back to mind the riots in Los Angeles his beating by LAPD officers sparked in April 1992. Although those riots, leaving 55 dead, nearly 2,000 injured, and about a billion dollars in property damage, represent, by far, the most significant incidence of racially-motivated rioting in recent history, several other important race riots have occurred since. A look at four:

1992: Washington Heights, New York City

In July 1992, just a little over a month after the Los Angeles riots shocked the nation, New York City was hit with nearly a week of its own riots prompted by the fatal shooting of Jose "Kiko" Garcia, a 23 year old Dominican immigrant and father of two, by NYPD officer Michael O'Keefe in the city's drug-ridden Washington Heights neighborhood. Charges of institutional racism and allegations that O'Keefe had taken drugs and money from some of the neighborhood's dealers flared up existing tensions between Washington Heights' largely Hispanic community and the NYPD leading to six days of vandalism and violence as rioters faced off against nearly 2,000 officers in riot gear during the height of the unrest. The riots left one dead and 90 injured and did significant damage to both the neighborhood and the political career of then Mayor David Dinkins who, in light of a grand jury's refusal to indict O'Keefe for homicide, was roundly criticized by political opponents for appearing to side with Garcia supporters before substantial evidence corroborating O'Keefe's side of the story was released. Among the most vocal of Dinkins' critics was the then former U.S. Attorney for New York's Southern District Rudy Giuliani who had run against Dinkins in the 1989 mayoral election and would go on to defeat Dinkins a year after the riots.

1996: St. Petersburg, Florida

On the afternoon of October 24, 1996, Tyrone Lewis, an 18-year old black man, was shot dead by Officer James Knight of the St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida after refusing to exit his vehicle and, according to Knight, slowly pushing Knight towards oncoming traffic with his car. Racial tensions amassed from five prior police shootings that year were compounded by witness accounts defending Lewis. On October 25, those tensions erupted into violence as a riot began at the site of the incident as police tried to investigate. About 300 rioters caused more than $5 million in damage and set nearly 30 fires in the unrest that ensued. Several police officers and firefighters were injured. After Knight was cleared by a grand jury less than a month later, rioting resumed with confrontations between angry youths and police that were sparked by the shooting of an officer outside the meeting place of a black separatist group that had previously called for the executions of all police officers involved with Lewis' death. Media coverage of the initial incident was often spotty: some outlets failed to report that the car Lewis was driving was suspected of being stolen, that cocaine was later found inside, and that Lewis had marijuana in his system when the shooting occurred.

2001: Cincinnati, Ohio

On April 7, 2001, Officer Steven Roach of the Cincinnati Police Department shot and killed Timothy Thomas, a 20-year-old black male with 14 outstanding misdemeanor arrest warrants, after pursuing him on foot along with several other officers. The following week, after vandalizing City Hall, unruly protesters were met by officers in riot gear. Demonstrations around the city quickly became violent and riots ensued for four straight days during which dozens were injured and scores of homes, shops, and vehicles were damaged. By the end of the unrest, more than 800 people had been arrested and the city was left with over $13 million in riot related expenses. Many attributed the potency of the Cincinnati riots, widely considered the most significant in the U.S. since the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, to the city's by then well-ingrained racial tensions caused by, among other factors, the killings of 15 black males by police between February 1995 and April 2001. The riots also coincided with a sharp reversal of the city's downward trend in crime: Cincinnati's homicide rate, one of the highest in the nation, has yet to return to the lows achieved in the years prior to the riots.

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2005: Toledo, Ohio

On October 15, 2005 counter-protests to a rally being held by the Neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Movement in downtown Toledo turned violent as demonstrators from a variety of anarchist and left-wing groups, in addition to local gang members, began throwing objects at rally participants. After Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre canceled the event, protestors began attacking police officers prompted by frustration at the police department's efforts to protect ralliers. Eventually the situation escalated as mobs began damaging and looting shops and destroying other property. Over 120 people were arrested. Just a few months earlier, gang violence and the ongoing immigration of African-Americans into a historically Polish district had led to tense debate about race relations in the city.

In all of these incidences, as well as the 1992 Los Angeles riots, existing racial tensions, insufficiently addressed by authorities, community leaders, and ordinary citizens, provided the fuel for the eventual riots. The implication is obvious: the perceived grievances of minority groups should be brought up for open discussion, debated, and rectified.  In other words, we should have honest "conversations" of the kind someone is sure to invoke the need for whenever race gets talked about these days. But as trite as the suggestion may seem, the truth is that "conversations" on these issues are inevitable. If we want them to take the form of  peaceful dialogues between citizens and leaders rather than less verbal "exchanges" between police and rioters in our streets, then we should all do our best to talk frankly, meaningfully, and purposefully, in our politics and in our daily lives, about how to deal with racial prejudice and prevent violence.