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The L.A. Uprising’s 20th Anniversary and the Resurrection of Tupac Shakur

Posted on Apr 28, 2012
Don Hankins (CC BY 2.0)

By Marcia Alesan Dawkins

Sunday, April 29, marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Los Angeles uprising and the two-week anniversary of the resurrection of slain gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur as a hologram at Coachella. The events are not a coincidence. Rather, they are part of a cultural argument that speaks to racial tensions, police misconduct and vigilantism that have plagued the city for decades.

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When asked 20 years ago for his thoughts on the uprising, Shakur said, “I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.” He went on to talk about how the media framed the “uprising” as a “riot” to play on fears and racial stereotyping and to take attention away from larger issues of structural racism in law enforcement, entertainment and financial industry practices that made South L.A. a powder keg in 1992.

Shakur’s comments reveal that when we refer to the uprising as a riot we make the people involved seem purposeless and lawless. When we use descriptive terms like “uprising” or “rebellion” we remember that, at its core, this event was really a cry of disappointment and a call for change.

As a member of L.A.’s African-American community, Shakur saw firsthand the demographic and economic shifts that occurred between 1965 and 1992. The 1965 “riots” were largely black versus white and began after an incident of police brutality against Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old black man, on the edge of the Watts neighborhood. The incident resulted in six days of rioting, 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, nearly 4,000 arrests and the destruction of property valued at $40 million. Shakur also saw an influx of Korean-Americans into the neighborhood after 1965 due to changes in immigration policy. He watched as many of these immigrants were given bank loans that were denied to African-Americans and Latinos. He watched as many Korean-Americans resented the fact that they were extended loans to open stores only in areas that most white-owned businesses had abandoned.

In 1991 Shakur saw these forces collide in the killing of Latasha Harlins, an African-American teenager. Harlins was shot and killed by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du over a bottle of orange juice. Du thought Harlins looked suspicious and the two had an altercation. Du shot her in the back of the head as Harlins turned to leave the store. Du was sentenced to a mere five years’ probation, a $500 fine and 400 hours of community service for the crime, further cementing the belief that the justice system does not value the lives of African-American victims. Connections have been made between Harlins’ case and the current one of Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 of this year. 


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And, like the rest of the nation, Shakur saw the Rodney King beating and the involved police officers’ acquittal, which sparked the uprising in 1992. Recently, King was asked about his thoughts on the Martin case. He is reported to have said, “Thank God my attack was caught on tape.” Shakur dedicated the song “Keep Ya Head Up” to Harlins and all those she came to represent. Of course, we should not forget that Shakur himself was gunned down in Las Vegas and his killer(s) were neither discovered nor punished.

Shakur’s comments in 1992 and his resurrection at Coachella in 2012 serve to remind us that the metrics of the 1992 uprising have never been binary. They’ve just been reported as black/white. In fact, when the dust settled, statistics showed that more Latinos were arrested than African-Americans, Koreans or European-Americans combined. Therefore, we must remember the uprising accurately and in full color. It was an interracial and intercultural class conflict among African-Americans, Latinos, Korean-Americans and European-Americans. Some had the law on their side and others did not.

We must also remember that the demographics of Los Angeles have shifted since 1992 and the city is now 48 percent Latino, 28 percent white, 13 percent Asian, 8 percent black and 3 percent other. Yet even as the city’s demographics have gone from predominantly white to predominantly Latino, the African-American population has decreased from 13 to 8 percent. Although it is true that L.A. has a different complexion, it is also true that African-Americans in the city still have important issues that need to be voiced and addressed. Shakur’s words and image have been resurrected to remind us of exactly this fact. He reminds us that unemployment among African-Americans in L.A. is now 16 percent, higher than it was in 1992 when the uprising began. He reminds us that more African-Americans are in prison now than in 1992. He reminds us that African-American youth have the lowest high school graduation rate currently in L.A. And he reminds us that African-American and Latino youth are still overrepresented in poverty. 

So, as we remember the uprising on its 20th anniversary and look for signs of progress and change, we must also remember some things have stayed the same. And for that reason we all must stay vigilant and, in the immortal words of Shakur, “keep our heads up.”

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By William Toth, May 1, 2012 at 8:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As I recall the person shot, punched the elderly female shopkeeper in the face repeatedly after being confronted for hiding merchandize in a backpack. Her son was off work the victim of a viscous strong arm assault while having worked the register prior.

Early 90’s. Street gang murder rampant, crack cocaine flooding the streets. For the vast majority, a dedication to “Thug Life” didn’t prove to be a good idea.

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By heterochromatic, May 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment

Wazooo—- claims that the gun went off accidentally are pretty hard to verify or
credit or matter all that much when the gun was pointed at the kid’s back as she
was leaving.

other than that, this might have been the most worthless piece of shit essay I’ve
read in Truthdig.

the racist actions and attitudes of black people and their casual and
contemptuous victimization of Koreans by those “disappointed” folks is not even
recognized by Dawkins and might mean that she is not worth publishing or

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By Wazoo2u2, May 1, 2012 at 7:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good grief,
The lies come thick and fast on blogs like these. Little Latasha was shoplifting and the gun Du had went off accidentally, as it has a hair trigger after it was modified by gang members who stole it some months before.  This all according to the very liberal LA Times.

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By Elmer, April 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The future plans for our Republic has been well lain. Eventually­, we will have three distinct levels of national society. The unknown ruling element will remain intact. Too, the unshakable middle class will stay afloat. As to the thinning, the slow climbers into the middle class will be completely eliminated­. This will leave a national mob under the nation wide police state, as it expands today. All state and federal employees will receive the highest pay, in order to control them. Our Republic will be reconstruc­ted, as to the have and those who have nothing but soup lines. Artificial inflation plus the profession­s striving from Medicare recipients will dwindle, while the undesirabl­es are slowly fed poisoned food and the lack of medical care. A standing military will be well fed and clothed. This new dictator ship will be absolutely merciless. And the circus will proceed on its well planned events in crucifying any press club that fails to buckle down under physical and mental slavery!

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By mediss, April 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

very interesting information, I loved your article

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By Skipper John, April 30, 2012 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

“Uprising?,” what a joke. I guess that Marcia never had the pleasure to view the
riots first hand. I worked for the Los Angeles Times that night and was shot at
twice by the “uprisers.’ They missed.

The building suffered about $500,000.00 in damages by the assholes tearing
around the block. And they weren’t black activists searching for truth and justice.
They were an amalgam of thugs from all races looking to rip off whatever they
could and/or set fire to whatever was available.

Looting was an ever popular event. I saw one idiot tearing down the street with
one tennis shoe he had liberated from the local sporting goods store. Another
hero even got the ageing FAX machine out of our office on Spring Street. Now
there’s an action to set the world straight.

Across the street from us, Phil’s Coffee Shop was one of the first businesses seen
on TV that was set on fire. Tell the struggling owner who worked 12 hours a day
that his sacrifice was justified.

Mr. Du should have gone to prison for the shooting of Latasha Harlins. The
Rodney King quartet of brutalisers finally got their’s at the end of a court trial.

Calling this an “uprising” does no justice to the memory of Latasha. The men who
beat Rodney King got their’s in court. The city of Los Angeles got their’s at the
hands of a bunch opportunist criminals.

Too bad Marcia wasn’t with me the night of riots, her perspective of senseless
violence and anarchy might be different.

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By EmileZ, April 30, 2012 at 1:29 am Link to this comment

Perhaps it was an uprising of sorts, but it was also a riot.

This article is for me, a reminder of how weak and ineffectual “P.C.” language and thought can at times be.

Should we pay homage to some stupid fucking James Cameron hologram in a bullshit corporate gangsta rapper event, and try to convince ourselves that the LA smashing, burning, and assaulting was some sort of justice jubilee that we can all take pride in???

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By heterochromatic, April 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment

RR—sorry if you think that it waas some mythical “media” that expounded on the
way that the Koreans were targeted prior to the riots and during them…..

and it wasn’t only in LA it happened in NYC as well.

ignorant is you, sonny.

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By heterochromatic, April 29, 2012 at 9:25 am Link to this comment

Who Wants to have an Unforgettable Scavenger Hunt Experience?

step1—throw a garbage can through the window of a Korean-owned business

step 2—step through

step 3—grab a couple of something to help keep your head up.

step4—have some Lampwick drivelously sentimentalize

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By sabina, April 29, 2012 at 8:45 am Link to this comment

A chance to win a $25.00
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Who Wants to have an Unforgettable Scavenger Hunt Experience?

A chance to win a $25.00

Visa or MasterCard Gift Card

This contest will be a fun and engaging way to look around the site
and find clues that could win you a $25.00 gift card from
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Let the games begin!

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By Ron Ranft, April 28, 2012 at 10:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My, my hetero, just about the time I think you can’t make a stupider comment you just reach farther down and show your lack of real knowledge. I lived in LA during all of those events. And the explanation in this article makes a lot more sense than anything that ever appeared in the media. But having escaped the merciless ravages of intelligence, rational thought, and a good education it is easy to see how it is that you always just take whatever the media says that fits your own beliefs, however lacking in facts they may be.

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By gerard, April 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm Link to this comment

Closing sentence: “...we all must stay vigilant and, in the immortal words of Shakur, ‘keep our heads up.’” Something quite smug here, I feel.
  We (means everybody—not just the “readers” here.
  ...“stay vigilant”?  “Vigilance” is a weak semblance of what we really “must” do—much more than “keep watch”, we all (regardless of what color) must WORK together to make social changes that create and keep a more truly interracial country; to help those who almost always get the short end of the stick get fair deals in every way all the time, till it becomes a habit, which it would.  Especially in the eyes of the law, which is supposed to be fair and is not fair. This means special attention to police training, to legal judgments and those who make them or break them, and to unfair imprisonment in a cruel prison system which is now a disgusting, cruel mess—a largely unsupervised “private
enterprise” making profits from using punishment
as revenge and making their victims’ lives miserable.
  We are far from a fair nation; the Civil War, over 100 years old, still poisons us, ready to serve injustice at any and every moment. 
  When, if not now, will those of us who say we care, decide to really be fair? When, if not now, will we treat others as we ourselves want to be treated?  When if not now?  It’s time—no, past time, and still very few people make any active daily effort to come to terms with widespread endemic prejudice. Prejudice grows in the shadow of silence.  It is a contageous disease.
  Talk is cheap—as are articles like this, and all the comments that may follow—all cheap, and doomed to be insincere until you and I use heart-felt and determined strength to support social actions to make things fair. Justice is a right, not a privilege.  Little Gulags lead directly into bigger Gulags—especially when they are run for profit.
  (P.S. Want to read about a good, rich guy?  Google Shel Kaphan, first employee of, now retired. He walks the walk.)

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By heterochromatic, April 28, 2012 at 9:11 pm Link to this comment

the ethnocentrism and lawlessness of the people who
preyed on Korean storekeepers is a deplorable thing and
anybody who thinks that the fucking LA riots weren’t
properly called riots or who thinks that
“disappointment” is reasonably expressed via random
murders, racist firebombing, and other such shit should
stop keeping her head up her ass.

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