The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising Started As A Traffic Stop

29 Apr The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising Started As A Traffic Stop

By MARSHA MITCHELL, Senior Director of Communications

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, and we are reminded that traffic stops have long been a contentious issue in Los Angeles–serving as a flashpoint for deep-seated tensions and systemic injustices that ultimately culminated in the city’s infamous civil unrest. 

The routine practice of pretextual traffic stops, often marred by racial profiling, police misconduct, and the disproportionate targeting of minority communities, has fueled a sense of frustration, anger, and disillusionment among residents who are unfairly targeted and marginalized. As instances of police brutality and racial discrimination during traffic stops continue to surface, they serve as a stark reminder of the underlying social inequalities and injustices that ultimately sparked the eruption of civil unrest in Los Angeles.

“A riot is the language of the unheard”—Dr. Martin Luther King, 1965

Watts Riots

The Watts Riots took place from August 11 to 16, 1965. Like the 1992 L.A. Uprising, the violence of the 1960s event started with a traffic stop. On August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye was suspected of driving under the influence and was pulled over on 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard. Before the conclusion of the Riots on August 17th, 34 people were dead, there was $40 million in property damage, and 14,000 National Guardsmen had been called to stop the looting, burning, and violence.  

Similarly, Rodney King’s encounter with numerous members of the Los Angeles Police  Department (LAPD) began as a traffic stop—which is the most common way that residents come into contact with law enforcement. Time and again, across the nation, we have seen black men and women lose their lives for what are routine traffic tickets for other citizens. 

  • Jerame Reid – pulled over for running a stop sign (Bridgeton, New Jersey – 2014)
  • Walter Scott – pulled over because his brake light was out (North Charleston, South Carolina – 2015)
  • Sandra Bland–pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. (Prairie View, Texas – 2015
  • Samuel DuBose – pulled over for a missing license plate (Cincinnati, Ohio – 2015
  • Philando Castile –pulled over because police said he had a “wide-set nose” resembling a suspect (Falcon Heights, Minnesota – 2016)
  • Daunte Wright – pulled over for an expired registration and an air freshener hanging from his mirror (Minneapolis, Minnesota – 2021)
  • Patrick Lyoya – pulled over for an improper license plate (Grand Rapids, Michigan – 2022)
  • Tyre D. Nichols – pulled over for reckless driving (Memphis, Tennessee – 2023)
  • Dexter Reed–pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. Officers fired 96 shots in 41 seconds, fatally wounding the 26-year-old (Chicago, Illinois –2024)

LAPD officers now required to explain ‘pretextual’ stops

On a daily basis, Black drivers are mentally and physically traumatized during traffic stops. Here in California, those stops are four to six times more likely to happen to Black motorists, according to data collected by state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office. Taking law enforcement out of traffic stops could literally save lives.

Since the LA Uprising, efforts have been made to address and curb pretextual police stops in Los Angeles. A pretextual stop is where apolice officer stops drivers for purported minor traffic violations with the goal of searching the car for higher-level crime indicators, including drugs and firearms. In October of 2019, the Los Angeles Times published a major data-driven story revealing that LAPD officers search Black & Latinx drivers at rates of more than four to one and three to one compared to white drivers, despite finding higher rates of contraband among white drivers. Many of these searches happen during traffic stops on the pretext that the driver had a minor equipment violation. 

LA Times Investigation 

The Time’s investigation revealed that across Los Angeles, 24% of black drivers and passengers were searched, compared with 16% of Latinos and 5% of whites, during a recent 10-month period. Blacks make up less than 9% of the city’s population. The article also found that 270 Metro officers—about 2% of the LAPD—have been deployed for hot-spot policing primarily in communities of color and have been making 60,000 vehicle stops per year (11% of LAPD’s total stops). These stops, which typically involve officers using minor violations as a reason to conduct a stop and search, disproportionately target marginalized communities and contribute to feelings of distrust and resentment towards law enforcement.

Promoting Unity Safety and Health in LA (PUSHLA) Forms

In that same month, Community Coalition came together with a broad cross-sector of base building, advocacy, and faith-based organizations and formed the Promoting Unity, Safety, and Health in Los Angeles (PUSH LA) coalition. PUSH LA partners include the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU SoCal); Catalyst California; Black Lives Matter Los Angeles; Brotherhood Crusade; Brothers, Sons, Selves; Children’s Defense Fund California; Community Coalition; Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA); LA Voice; Labor Community Strategy Center; Million Dollar Hoods; SEIU 2015; SEIU Local 99; and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Southern California. 

The group had four initial demands: 

  • An immediate moratorium and a long-term end to pretextual stops that are used to initiate a search and racially profile the city’s Black and Brown residents. As part of the request, PUSH LA also demanded an immediate withdrawal of the Metro Division from South Los Angeles.
  • LAPD will officially and publicly admit to racial profiling and issue an apology to all residents of South LA and elsewhere in the city who’ve been unjustly stopped and searched.
  • Reparations for these unlawful stops and searches.
  • Disciplinary action for officers who engage in unwarranted pretextual stops, have patterns demonstrative of racial profiling, or engage in misconduct and abuse must be disciplined and removed from our communities.

Community-Led Solutions

On June 30, 2020, the LA City Council introduced The Alternatives to Policing in Transportation Motion to explore alternative models and methods that do not rely on armed law enforcement to achieve transportation policy objectives.  In February 2021, the motion was finally passed, eight months after its introduction. PUSH LA members continued to advocate with the LA Department of Transportation (LADOT) to perform the work mandated by the motion, culminating in a report released to the Council’s Transportation Committee in November 2023.  Key recommendations in the report include ending pretextual stops, limiting tickets, fees, and fines, supporting infrastructure investments, and building unarmed, care-based response teams.  In terms of the next steps, the Public Safety Committee will likely hear the item on May 28th, and then the matter will go before the full City Council for consideration. 

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