#MusicMonday: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.

Rodney King

Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.

On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.

The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.

The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.

All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.

The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.

  • “Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)tupac

Lyrics that reference Latasha Harlins’ death: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”

Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.

  • “Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991

Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.

“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take
So they watch every damn move that I make
They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob
They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”

  • “Livin’ on the Edge”- Aerosmith, 1993

Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t his
It sure ain’t no surprise”
  • “Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992freeyourmind
The female group took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow
Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
  • “Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad
I’m lookin’ through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
I’ve got a face, not just my race.”

Betsy Ross & the Myth of the First American Flag

Many elementary school children have heard of Betsy Ross, one of the few female figures of the Revolutionary War period of early American history that receives attention in classrooms. She is commonly known as the seamstress that created the first American flag. However, historical evidence actually does not exist to support this well-known “fact.”

The claim that Betsy Ross created the first American flag didn’t actually come up until the 1870s, about 100 years after her supposed accomplishment and when the nation was on the brink of celebrating its centennial of independence.

The story goes that George Washington himself, along with signers of the Declaration of Independence Robert Morris and George Ross (a relative of Betsy’s), went to Betsy Ross’s home in Philadelphia in June 1776 to discuss the need for a flag for the soon-to-be-declared independent United States. Ross looked at their design and suggested a change from a 6-pointed star to a 5-pointed star because it would be easier to sew and accepted the job of making the first flag. End of story? Not so much. 

RossBetsy

However, there are no written records of this meeting, of Betsy’s accepting the job, or of her completing the first American flag. Only oral tradition exists. The first time the public heard tale of Betsy Ross was when her grandson William Canby made a presentation in 1870 to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania claiming that his grandmother “made with her hands the first flag” of the United States. His source was another relative, making it simply family oral tradition without proof. 

Myths are often rooted in some truth and Betsy Ross was indeed an upholsterer (not a seamstress, but a related trade) and she did make flags for the burgeoning United States during the Revolutionary War, specifically for the Pennsylvania navy. But her role in the creation of the first American flag is contested.

Those who argue that the story isn’t true point to the lack of archival evidence–no letters, meeting minutes, resolutions, receipts, etc.–and to the fact that the first time it was brought up was 100 years after it supposedly happened. In the 1870s the public was quick to believe the story as patriotism geared up in honor of the nation’s centennial celebration in 1876 and looked for heroes and heroines of the Revolution to honor and revere. Also, there were many upholsterers in Philadelphia that could have made the flag.

However, those that argue its truth have several interesting points as well, as outlined by the Betsy Ross House house museum’s website. Betsy’s relation to George Ross through her marriage could mean that she would have been selected to work on the flag over the many other upholsterers in Philadelphia. Betsy and her husband John had made bed hangings for George Washington in 1774, making him familiar with her work. Also, Betsy made other flags for the United States and had many government contracts over the years, well into the 19th century.

At the end of the day, one must decide for themselves. It remains a historical question that simply cannot be answered. It has not been proven true nor false. 

BetsyRossBicentennial-1952

The attention placed on Betsy Ross has meant that much about her life is known and preserved, which regardless of her role in the creation of the first flag, is important historical information about women’s lives during the Revolution and the early years of the new nation. She certainly led an interesting life. A few quick facts about Betsy Ross:

  1. She was born into a Quaker family, but was expelled from the Quaker church (and cut off from her family) when she married John Ross, a son of a revered of the Church of England. The two fell in love when they were both apprenticed to the same upholsterer and they eloped.
  2. They were married just a few short years before John died, possibly in a gunpowder explosion in his role as a member of the local militia.
  3. Her second husband, Jacob Ashburn, also died just a few years after their marriage–he died while imprisoned for treason in a British jail.
  4. She married for a third time – John Claypoole – and had several children, but all the while she continued the upholstery business.
  5. Her business efforts supported the Continental Army for which she made and mended uniforms, tents, blankets, etc. Acts that were technically treason against Britain.

Read more about her:

From the Betsy Ross House: http://historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/woman/ 

From Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-08/no-01/ulrich/

Ulrich’s Review of Marla Miller’s biography of Betsy Ross (which I also recommend): https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/books/review/Ulrich-t.html

Marla Miller’s book Betsy Ross and the Making of America: https://www.amazon.com/Betsy-Making-America-Marla-Miller/dp/B00BFQCIDA

What do you think? Truth or myth?