The language of the unheard: The LA Riots

Zaneta J Smith
Apr 30 · 3 min read
Source: Los Angeles Times

When the 1997 Los Angeles Riots started, I was living on Brighton and Florence Avenue just one block from where it all began. I remember a feeling of extreme caution in the air and a sense that we might not be safe but for staying in the house.

Weeks ago after Nipsey Hussle was shot and the community event was held at his memorial, that same feeling of caution was in the air. People murmured the word riot and hoped that the community frustration, anger, and misplaced grief would not turn into the destruction of the neighborhood. Thankfully, that did not happen.

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the LA Riots. If you do not know by now, the LA riots started after four officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Crazy how 27 years later this is still black people’s normal. A person is stopped by police, police beat, shoot or kill him/her. The officers are not proven guilty in a court of law even with a viral recording — the images of which are stuck in the world’s mind forever.

Trayvon Martin

Dispatcher: Are you following him?

George Zimmerman: Yep

Dispatcher: Ok, we don’t need you to do that

Eric Garner

“I can’t breathe”

Philando Castile

Diamond: Stay with me. We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back. And the police just…he’s covered. They killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed to carry. He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out his pocket…

(All of this happening while Philando lies in the front seat with gunshot wounds, a bloody shirt, and gasping for air. And the police officer still has his gun pointed at Philando)

Child (in patrol car after shooting as mom mentions wanting to take cuffs on): No, please, I don’t want you to get shooted.

Korryn Gaines

Police Negotiator: You are a young lady; you got your whole life ahead of you. You got a beautiful baby..but you know and I know that this ain’t right

Korryn: It’s not

Police Negotiator: That’s right. It shouldn’t have went down this way…

Korryn: No

Police Negotiator:…ain’t nobody gettin hurt today…I promise you

(This was after she’d been arrested weeks before, mistreated while in custody leading to the lost of her unborn twin babies, failing to appear in court then, having police arrive at her door to fulfill arrest warrants for her and her boyfriend. She was shot by police while holding a shotgun) She was traumatized. She was tired. She was mistrustful of police. She was protecting her body and her family.

I often tell myself not to watch these videos for fear that I will not be able to erase the sounds from my mind or the feelings from my heart. I cannot. But I watch because it is a reminder of our Black power and how we are not valued in American society. It is a tough reminder that recalls Black people’s resilience, especially those black people who are descendants of slaves.

I was pleased to see Rodney King’s daughter taking a leadership position in controlling the narrative of her father’s legacy. It is no secret that Rodney King struggled with his demons — surviving an alcoholic father, surviving imprisonment, surviving police brutality where he had multiple bruises and broken bones. Battling his own abuse of alcohol, acquiring money due to police brutality, and the struggle of who to be after the uproar.

As the daughter of a family with addiction issues, I know firsthand what a rollercoaster ride it can be accepting a loved one for who they are and how they react as a result of what happened to them. Sometimes that means being a witness to their destruction of self and not being able to do anything about it. It is kind of like their own personal riot.

According to, a riot is a violent disturbance of peace by a crowd.

The LA riots were a response to outrage, to hurt. A response by the unseen and unheard. They were a reaction to the trauma and pain of hundreds of years of mistreatment. Today, we remember that time. More importantly, I remember the peace and collaborations that ensued to rebuild a better Los Angeles.

Zaneta Smith coordinates operations of an African American civic engagement and public opinion research organization, the California Policy & Research Initiative.

Zaneta J Smith

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Coordinates operations of an African American civic engagement & public opinion research organization, the California Policy & Research Initiative.