Fact Check

Did Maxine Waters 'Condone' Violence, Looting During 1992 LA Riots?

The long-serving congresswoman's comments were taken out of context.

Published Apr 22, 2021

 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)
Image Via Gage Skidmore / Flickr
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters condoned violence and looting during the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles.

In public statements during the civil unrest in L.A. in 1992, Waters said she understood the pain and anger that drove members of the community to riot in the face of racial injustice, while also urging calm and speaking out against violence and looting.

On April 20, 2021, various Russian government-funded websites and right-leaning U.S. news sites reported that U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., "condoned the 1992 Los Angeles riots" that were sparked by the acquittal of four L.A. police officers caught on video beating Black motorist Rodney King.

Examples of this claim included the headline "Maxine Waters Condoned 1992 LA Riots, Defended Some Looting, Old Footage Shows," from the Russian government-funded website Sputnik. A similar headline from the right-leaning Daily Caller website read, "FLASHBACK: Maxine Waters Called LA Riots ‘Acceptable,’ Defended Some Looting."

We will explain below why these stories are misleading. In short, they take some of Waters' comments out of context to give the impression she condoned the violence and criminal acts committed during five days of civil unrest in L.A. in 1992, while leaving out other commentary by Waters that contradicts that framing.

The nuance to the story is that Waters has condemned both violence and looting that took place during the civil unrest but also acknowledged that what happened in April 1992, starting in the community then known as South Central, was a response to legitimate and unaddressed grievances in the community that included depressed economic conditions and police abuse.

What is the Context for these Stories?

These stories and many like them took statements made by Waters in years past out of context to make it look like she was instigating violence.

They were spun from other stories about comments made by Waters in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 17, 2021, which also decontextualized those comments to make it look like she was instigating violence.

For background, here's what happened in 2021:

Waters, who has long represented California's 43rd congressional district, was attending a rally on April 17, outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department. A white Brooklyn Center police officer, Kim Potter, had shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black resident, after a traffic stop on April 11.

The Saturday night rally on April 17 was held during the days leading to the verdict in another Minnesota case that sparked racial justice protests across the country — the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd in May 2020. Floyd's killing touched off massive civil rights demonstrations through the remainder of spring and summer 2020 nationwide.

While there, Waters was asked what protesters should do if Chauvin was acquitted (he was ultimately convicted on April 20 on murder charges.) In response, Waters stated, in part, "We’ve got to stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business."

On April 19, various right-wing personalities took to Twitter, picking up that portion of Waters' statements as a reason to insist that Chauvin's trial should be declared a mistrial because by making those comments, Waters was supposedly "threatening the jury" or inciting violence.

As Vox explained, Waters' comments were "exaggerated, distorted, and opportunistically spotlighted" by partisan commentators. Nevertheless, these takes were widely reported by the news media, and the judge in Chauvin's trial, Peter Cahill, opined in court that the comment may give Chauvin's defense grounds to try and get the trial overturned on appeal.

What Waters Said in Minnesota on April 17

As we previously reported, when Waters was asked on camera what she thought civil rights demonstrators should do if Chauvin were acquitted, she said they should "stay in the street," "fight for justice," and "get more confrontational." But there was more context to her remarks, and she didn't call for violence, nor did her words incite violence.

The entirety of Waters' remarks can be heard in a 10-minute YouTube video made during the rally by the left-leaning news collective Unicorn Riot. She said she came from Washington, D.C., to Minnesota because she wanted to be with protesters to show them support. She spoke about police reform legislation and the need for protesters to stay in the streets to keep the pressure on in pursuit of social change for racial justice. Later in the interview, she stated:

My message to young Black people is this. That we know that there is a lot of unfairness in the system. We know that oftentimes, young Black people are stopped, they are searched, they're not treated fairly, and they stand to lose their lives. And they've got to know that there are people who understand this, and who will stand with them, and who will fight for them. Who love them, and who tell them, 'we're not gonna stop until we get justice in this country.'

Per local news, there weren't any reports of violence following the rally attended by Waters.

As we previously reported, Waters responded to claims her comments were an incitement to violence in an interview with The Grio in which she described herself as "nonviolent" and added, "I talk about confronting the justice system, confronting the policing that’s going on, I’m talking about speaking up. I’m talking about legislation. I’m talking about elected officials doing what needs to be done to control their budgets and to pass legislation."

The Civil Unrest of 1992

After Waters' remark at the April 17 rally received widespread attention, some outlets posted stories giving the impression that the 82-year-old congresswoman had a history of condoning violence, pointing to years-old commentary made by Waters about the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers who beat a Black man named Rodney King.

But these stories, again, took her remarks out of context and left out other comments she made in which she condemned violence and looting.

For historical context, the region of Los Angeles formerly known as South Central, which was predominantly Black, erupted on April 29, 1992 with five days of fire and violence following the acquittal of all four LAPD officers. The beating of King, which resulted in skull fractures, broken bones and teeth and permanent brain damage, was captured on video and given to a local news station, where it was beamed into home nationwide.

The officers who beat king were charged with excessive use of force. But the trial was moved to the predominantly white Ventura County city of Simi Valley, where the officers, Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind, and Laurence Powell, were ultimately acquitted.

Dozens of people died in the outburst of anger and violence that followed, starting at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues in South Central. Thousands of buildings were set ablaze, with Waters' own office catching fire and ending up gutted. People all over the country saw aerial news footage of white truck driver Reginald Denny being pulled from his vehicle and beaten in the street. (Denny survived after being rescued by members of the community who took him to a hospital.)

Did Waters "Condone" Violence and Looting?

During this time, Waters did not condone violence — in fact, in a letter to constituents, which was later reprinted by the Los Angeles Times, she called for calm:

Our anger and frustration must not drive us to the streets. We must use our minds and our God-given talents and our legacy of perseverance and struggle. We must fight our battles in the courtroom, and in the halls of power. We must organize and rally and protest. And, through it all, we will celebrate living-- not dying.

I wish we could make life better for everyone, today. I wish we all had jobs, and happy, loving experiences each day of our lives. I wish we had peace of mind. And, if I could, I would give it to you.

Each day brings a new opportunity, a new possibility. I love you and will fight for you. I need you to stand with me to make this a better place. Let us get smart--it’s time to chill!

Although Sputnik quoted part of a news conference Waters had given in the early hours of the unrest, it left out the portion in which she stated she doesn't condone violence. During that event, Waters and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus urged the federal government to take legal action against the acquitted LAPD officers in an effort to calm the volatile situation:

As I stand here, nine people are dead. My last count last, this morning, before I tried to get some sleep, was over 50-something fires, raging all over Los Angeles. The fires started in my district and one of the largest was right around the corner from my house.

There are scores of injuries, and still anger and frustration, and people who plan on staying on the streets, and expressing their outrage and anger in any way they deem necessary. There are those who would like for me and others and all of us to tell people to go inside, to be peaceful, that they have to accept the verdict. I accept the responsibility of asking people not to endanger their lives. I am not asking people not to be angry.

I am angry and I have a right to that anger, and the people out there have a right to that anger. We don't want anybody killed. None of us believe in violence. But there are some angry people in America and young Black males in my district are feeling at this moment, if they could not get a conviction with the Rodney King video available to the jurors, that there can be no justice in America.

The Daily Caller quoted Waters from a May 10, 1992, story in the Los Angeles Times in which she spoke about an impoverished mother taking shoes for her children:

On Michael Jackson’s KABC radio talk show, Waters said: “There were mothers who took this as an opportunity to take some milk, to take some bread, to take some shoes. Maybe they shouldn’t have done it, but the atmosphere was such that they did it. They are not crooks.”

Later, she told a Times reporter: “One lady said her children didn’t have any shoes. She just saw those shoes there, a chance for all of her children to have new shoes. Goddamn it! It was such a tear-jerker. I might have gone in and taken them for her myself.”

But there was more nuance in that L.A. Times story. For example, Waters stated, "Most reasonable human beings abhor violence, and I do, too. It is wrong to burn, to kill, to loot."

The Times went on to report:

Waters readily admits that a criminal element participated in the rioting and believes that those who threw firebombs or physically harmed others should be dealt with quickly and harshly by the criminal justice system.

At the same time, she calls the violence “a spontaneous reaction to a lot of injustice and a lot of alienation and frustration,” and defends poor women who stole necessities for their families.

In April 2007, the L.A. Times published a brief blurb discussing terminology: "Was it a 'riot,' a 'disturbance' or a 'rebellion'? The Times quoted Waters representing the opinion that it should be called a "rebellion."

"If you call it a riot,” Waters is quoting as stating in 1992, "it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason. I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable. So I call it a rebellion."

Waters' comment on terminology reflects the fact that although the news media widely dubbed the events of April 1992 the "L.A. riots," many Angelenos consider it in political terms. Locally it's often called an "uprising."

Does her comment mean she thinks the death and destruction from the unrest of 1992 were "acceptable"? That interpretation contradicts her other remarks made at the time. It seems more likely that she was saying that widespread anger at the underlying conditions that sparked the unrest was justified.

Another quote by Waters cited as evidence that she condoned violence was in fact a reference to nonviolent civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard," Waters was quoted as stating during a church service at First AME in May 1992, where the Times reported, "the message was one of regret at the rioting but of continuing anger at underlying causes."

South Central L.A. and 1992 in Historical Context

Brenda Stevenson, history professor and Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained in a phone interview with Snopes that at the time of the civil unrest in 1992, Los Angeles was largely segregated, with the majority of its Black residents living in what was then the neighborhood known as South Central. (It's now called South Los Angeles.)

Black Angelenos were squeezed in a number of different ways, she said. There was high unemployment and underemployment in South Central. Jobs were leaving the area, and there was tension among residents and Korean American business owners, who ran a large number of shops in the area. Anger simmered over the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl, by a Korean business owner who received a sentence only of probation and a $500 fine.

Residents also lived with a lot of violence in the area because of street gang warfare and an out-of-control crack epidemic. There were also serial killers preying with impunity on Black women in the community at the time as well, Stevenson said.

"There was a sense that this part of the community was being left behind and nothing was being done to address its needs, "Stevenson said. There was a lack of jobs, access to medical and educational resources, and good housing. "Black people felt really trapped."

And on top of these factors, the community was targeted by police surveillance and police violence. So for some, the acquittal of the four officers who beat King was the proverbial final straw.

"Black people knew [police violence] happened all the time," Stevenson said. "They saw their loved ones come home all bruised up by the police or some policing agency. It's the rest of the world that continues to be in denial. They don’t get treated that way, so they can’t believe that other people get treated that way, and they think that if they do, they must have brought it on themselves."

Although there are camera phones everywhere now, at that time, the King video was significant, Stevenson said. For once, the world could see what the Black community had known. Even then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush said he was shocked by the footage, saying, "There's no way in my view to explain it away. It was outrageous."

Stevenson interpreted Waters' comment to the L.A. Times about the mother taking shoes along with totality of all her other remarks, to mean that while the congresswoman condemns criminal behavior, she also condemned a system that failed to support families and that allowed women and their children to live in poverty.

"People like her and approve of her in her district for a reason," Stevenson observed. "She makes it clear she hears them and supports their desire to have a decent, equitable life in our society."

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and has covered everything from crime to government to national politics. She has written for ... read more

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