LOS ANGELES — Those who remember the last time the Insurrection Act was used, during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, warn that President Donald Trump could undo decades of progress between police and the communities they serve if he invokes it now.
Calling governors weak and urging them to “dominate” American cities, Trump threatened Monday to invoke the little-known law against people protesting the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The Insurrection Act, which dates to 1807, allows the president to call up active-duty military units or federalize the National Guard under certain circumstances.
“We don’t need to be telling people that we’re going to dominate them. That language doesn’t work,” said professor Erroll Southers, a former law enforcement officer who specializes in national and homeland security issues at the University of Southern California. “It just reinforces where we were decades ago.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Defense Secretary Mark Esper both signaled distaste this week for using the Insurrection Act. Newsom said Wednesday that he would reject any attempt by Trump to militarize the response in California.
“It won’t happen,” Newsom told reporters while visiting a cafe in South Los Angeles. “It’s not going to happen. We would reject it.”
Esper said Wednesday that he believes the National Guard is “best suited for performing domestic support” for civil and local law enforcement.
“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he said. “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now.”
The last time the law was used, a city was burning.
Citing the “urgent need to restore order,” President George H.W. Bush mobilized federal troops and federal law enforcement officers to help quell the violent fervor that had overtaken parts of Los Angeles after four police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King were found not guilty.
The circumstances surrounding those riots differ greatly from those of the protests of today.
In 1992, the riots weren’t the peaceful protests seen recently throughout the country and around the world. People weren’t urging police officers to march with them or to take a knee with them. Instead, the rioting was concentrated in Los Angeles neighborhoods targeted because of what they represented to marginalized and oppressed communities.
“L.A. was the epicenter for the 1992 riots. Minneapolis might have been the epicenter for George Floyd protests, but this is now a national earthquake,” Southers said.
Looters zeroed in on Koreatown, in part, because a Korean business owner had killed a black teenager over a bottle of orange juice just two weeks after King was beaten in March 1991. Latasha Harlins, 15, didn’t die in Koreatown, but the race of her killer fractured an already widening rift between black and Korean communities in Southern California.
“They also took on businesses in their community that were not owned by black individuals,” said Dr. Robert Tranquada, former dean of the Keck School of Medicine at USC, who was a member of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, which was formed in April 1991 after the beating of King. “That was a clear pattern. But this time we’re not seeing that.”
By the time Bush invoked the Insurrection Act in May 1992, dozens of Angelenos had been killed. Businesses weren’t just looted; they were burned to the ground. Entire city blocks had been reduced to rubble. Dusk-to-dawn curfews were in effect, and millions of residents were scared to leave their homes.
Southers remembers watching people storm the former headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department and thinking the city was lost. It later came out that Mayor Tom Bradley hadn’t spoken with Police Chief Daryl Gates for several months leading up to the riots. Their fractured relationship hampered the LAPD in its response to violence and looting.
“No chief wants to say ‘I need the [National Guard here].’ When that decision comes, it’s time to check your ego at the door,” Southers said. “In 1992, Gates was like ‘we got this covered,’ and his troops got overrun.”
It didn’t take long for that to happen. The riots erupted within hours of the four officers’ being acquitted, largely because of ongoing distrust between police and the black community. Bradley, who was African American, told The Associated Press in 1991 that he hadn’t been allowed to ride with a white officer in the 1940s even though he was a member of the force.
The riots changed how the LAPD functioned. In the following decades, the department hired more people of color into its lower and upper ranks. Some officers turned into community liaisons and became more involved in the daily lives of residents. Police were encouraged to stop driving through neighborhoods and to learn the names of people who lived in them, instead.
Southers worries that if a military response to the current unrest were to sour relations between communities and law enforcement, police officers would ultimately pay the price, not just in Los Angeles but also across the country.
“When the National Guard leaves, the officers are still going to be there,” he said. “Trust is going to disintegrate.”
Three days into the 1992 riots, Bush deployed 4,000 soldiers and Marines to Los Angeles to end what The Washington Post called “days of urban anarchy.” Bush also mobilized 1,000 federal troops trained in urban policing.
More than 4,000 National Guard members had already been in place by the time federal assistance arrived in Los Angeles. Seeing the armored vehicles roll in seemed to reassure law-abiding business owners and perhaps force potential looters to think twice.
Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country
Angelenos who remember the riots recall an almost deafening silence settling over the city as unrest wore on. Armed civilians flanked the rooftops of buildings to protect their businesses. In areas that weren’t being looted, residents hid in their homes.
The scene unfolding across the country today is demonstrably different. Protesters are young and old, men and women of all ages, races and incomes pouring into the streets in a show of solidarity for Floyd and others like him. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was seen demonstrating in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their golden retriever in tow.
Eyewitness accounts suggest that some of the violence across the country was started by law enforcement. A crowd demonstrating outside the White House was hit with tear gas this week to facilitate a presidential photo opportunity, and journalists have been injured or arrested.
It remains unclear what role the active military would play in quelling the unrest if it’s deployed under the Insurrection Act.