Self-Defense Lessons from the L.A. Riots
Updated: May 4
With the recent passing anniversary of the April 29,1992, Los Angeles riots, it's interesting to look at that event with a view towards the rising civil unrest we are seeing during this time of uncertainty -- especially in light of public resistance and push back against government restrictions under the COVID-19 banner.
What can we learn from Los Angeles riots so we might be better prepared for our own self-defense and the protection of our family and loved ones?
Background on the Riots
The spark which ignited the riots in 1992 was the initial verdict from a jury acquitting four #LAPD officers for use of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King a year earlier. A video taken by a bystander showed Los Angeles Police Department officers repeatedly striking King with batons. The not-guilty verdict set off a six-day riot which saw 63 people killed, more than 2,300 people injured, 12,000 arrested, and property damage of more than $1 billion.
Minority community leaders had been complaining of examples of police brutality for years.
The whole powder keg was primed with the video's damning evidence against the officers after striking King 56 times with batons. Despite King's admission that he didn't stop because he knew he was violating parole by driving intoxicated, his pulling out the initial TASER barbs after officers stopped the car which was speeding at 100 miles per hour, and the other two passengers who complied immediately, the public was shocked at seeing the edited video clip which showed a seemingly helpless man beaten repeatedly by the cops.
Even then Police Chief Daryl Gates is quoted as saying, "I played the one-minute-50-second tape again. Then again and again, until I had viewed it 25 times. And still I could not believe what I was looking at. To see my officers engage in what appeared to be excessive use of force, possibly criminally excessive, to see them beat a man with their batons 56 times, to see a sergeant on the scene who did nothing to seize control, was something I never dreamed I would witness."
The acquittal of the officers set off a wave of murder, looting, and arson which quickly overwhelmed the law-enforcement community and left the community at large vulnerable to the orgy of violence.
What are the lessons we can draw from the Los Angeles riots for our self-defense training?
Accept. Violence can happen anytime, anywhere despite our own personal circumstances. It's true that most of the time if you "play stupid games you win stupid prizes". That's on your own behavior. But the fact remains that many times crime and violence can overtake you without any culpability on your part. Resist the common denial which enters many peoples' minds during a crisis -- "this can't be real. This can't be happening to me." Accept that bad things happen even to good people. Accept your own responsibility for your safety. Accept that the police are probably not in the position to save you. We've covered elsewhere on the site that law-enforcement officers are actually not legally responsible nor morally obligated to protect you or help you. Accept that you will have to act.
Avoid. The most obvious lesson is to practice avoidance. As ol' Uncle Remus says "stay away from crowds". There are a number of ways to do this including watching your local news, listening to local AM news stations, and monitoring social media as best you can. As Mark Twain said it's always easier to stay out of trouble then to get out of trouble. I was actually in London when the riots started and I called a friend in L.A. His take was that the disturbance was mostly localized to the Florence and Normandie area and they could see the columns of smoke from the valley. It seemed the rest of the city was fairly normal if you were not in the general neighborhoods surrounding the flash point. However, I've heard there were as many as 200 gun store burglaries across the L.A. area during the riots so the criminal community throughout the city was busy taking advantage of the lack of police presence. I've also heard, but can't confirm, that the riots in Ferguson were similar in that they were mainly focused around one particular area.
Observe. Part of avoidance is to practice situational awareness. The keyword here is 'practice'. This is a skill that you have to employ over and over to become habitual. Scan your environment to look for people who are out of place or acting unnaturally. Be aware of pre-indicators of violence. These can include groups of fighting age males looking outward at passing cars and pedestrians instead of looking inward and interacting socially. The breaking of social norms are exhibited with behaviors such as shedding of clothing, yelling at others while posturing with arms splayed out, chins up, chests out, and moving with exaggerated gaits. Small legal infractions like crossing the street to hold up traffic, throwing signs or rubbish bins in the street are simply warmup acts for bigger actions. Then comes breaking storefront windows. Then throwing rocks or bricks at passing cars which can quickly escalate to attacking drivers in passing vehicles (just ask Reginald Denny). Then comes the looting and arson. Under the cover of this lawlessness is often a time for grudges to be purged against past injustices real or imagined.
Evade. If you can't avoid, then evade. Leave at the first sign of trouble like we highlighted above. You might have found yourself innocently driving through an intersection before any news of the disturbance has been reported (again, ask Reginald Denny). Make a detour. Move or drive away from the trouble. Don't let inconvenience push you into a bad spot. So what if it takes you an extra half hour to get there? So what if you have to go out of your way? Resist the temptation to tell yourself you are overreacting. You are not. Your eyes, ears, and maybe even your nose, are telling you something is wrong. Do not tell yourself to ignore it. If you drive out of your way and you don't get attacked, is that something to be embarrassed about? You are alive, unhurt, and your property is undamaged. That's a win in my book.
Escape. But what if you are trying to evade and you still get funneled into a violent situation? Now is the time to respond and escape! If you are being blocked or restrained from moving away from the problem you need to aggressively break free and move. Aggressively. Do not apologize. Move! At this point, someone holding you or threatening you is using violence against you -- even if you are not being hit, stabbed, or shot. At the least, they are assaulting you with the promise of more violence to come as the collective shark tank becomes more frenzied with the pent up frustrations being released in a without-rule-of-law #WROL or #SHTF environment. You cannot afford to be courteous anymore. You cannot afford to be indecisive. Your life probably depends on it. Use your car as a 3,500-pound escape capsule. Drive around the traffic. Go up on the sidewalk if you have to. #Attackers are throwing rocks at your car and trying to yank open your doors. Drive through or over them. Move! Scan 360 degrees for more attackers and retreat away from the threat. Continue to move to escape the situation until you can get to a stable, defendable position. At this stage of the violence, traditional safety points like fire stations and police stations are essentially worthless since all personnel will be deployed trying to respond to emergencies. The further distance you put between you and the hotspot, the more diluted the threats should become. However, keep moving and don't stop until you are sure you are out of danger.
As with any time we talk about using physical or deadly physical force, you should be knowledgeable about your local and state laws regarding use of force. Different states have different requirements. For example, 11 (updated 5-4-22) states still have a "duty to retreat" law. Not only is it your responsibility to know your local laws but it makes good sense to preview how and when you can respond to different threats.
Finally, even if you can't control the situations which can create these deadly environments, you can control your self-defense preparations, training, and equipment.
Stay alert and stay alive.
Train like your life depends on it.