The Los Angeles Riots, 1992

Author’s note:  30 years ago right now Los Angeles was on fire and 10,000 rioters and looters were systematically destroying the city.  What follows is a first-hand account of that event, never before published until today.  It is a sad story in our history that many of you may not be aware of. 

By Marvin L. Covault – May 1, 2022

Background:  March, 1991 the nation saw, on film, five white LA police officers brutally beat a black gentleman, Rodney King.

While all of us had viewed the taped beating over and over in great close-up detail, a year later those five police officers were found not guilty by an all-white jury.  That verdict was announced at 3:15 pm 29 April, 1992. At that time I was commanding the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, California.  The 7th ID was an especially designed light division capable of rapid deployment to anywhere in the world.

Three hours later, by 6 pm, riots were breaking out all over Los Angles, but primarily in South-Central LA. It escalated like a wild fire and the final tally was as follows: 55 killed, over 2000 injured, about $1 Billion dollars in damages, over 10,000 rioters were directly involved in looting and destruction, over 1000 buildings seriously damaged or destroyed, the fire department responded to more than 4000 fires. This was not taking place at 5th and Main, it covered an area of about 100 square miles of built-up urban terrain; by far the most difficult terrain in which to perform a military operation.  Largest riot in US history.

President George H.W. Bush dispatched 1000 Federal riot-trained law enforcement officials, FBI SWAT teams, special riot control units of the US Marshals Service, Border Patrol, Bureau of Prisons personnel and other Federal law enforcement agencies.  Governor Pete Wilson was on the scene full-time with a small staff.  The California National Guard began rolling towards LA.  On scene was the LA Chief of Police Daryl Gates and the LA County Sherriff, Sherman Block.  Gathered in outlying areas was most of the California Highway Patrol.  A brigade of Marines from Camp Pendleton had been alerted.  But there was no plan.

At about the 36-hour point, May 1st at about 2 a.m. we, 7th Infantry Division, Fort Ord California, received a call from our military higher headquarters in Atlanta, and were told, “a military force may be needed in LA but don’t do anything yet.”  Dumb order; we immediately began to plan for a rapid deployment.  Six hours later at about 0800 we received a second call, “there will be a military deployment but it will not be the 7th ID.”  CNN was following everything related to the riots live and continuously.  Thirty minutes later we watched President Bush, live on TV, walk into the White House Briefing Room and announce, “I have decided to deploy elements of the 7th ID to LA.”  Game on.

Rapid deployment, in general, is very difficult with lots of moving parts.  We trained to it continuously.  We just happened to have two C-141 Air Force transport aircraft on the ground for training at nearby Monterey airport.  The “ready brigade” began immediately to move and the airlift to LAX began.

By noon I was on the ground in LA with a skeleton planning staff.  What became immediately apparent was that no ONE was in charge of the multitude of federal, state or local agencies involved. All I could see and sense was chaos. And most concerning was that the California National Guard continued to stream into the city with no deployment plan in play.

No one in my chain of command up to and including General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knew President Bush was going to make that deployment announcement.  I had no guidance and never did get any. Old saying, when in charge, take charge.

I had a dozen of the Division’s best majors (I called them my iron majors) flown in the first afternoon and I assigned them as my personal liaison to the Governor, Mayor, Chief Gates, Sherriff Block, Highway Patrol, all the Federal Agencies, the CA National Guard and the Marines. Before dispatching them, I looked them in the eye and told them exactly what they were to do. “You stay about 3 feet from your principal at all times and tell me everything they do, everything they say and who they communicate with. There can be only one boss of this mess and it’s me.  You understand?”  Their first mission was to get their principal on a conference call with me that evening at which time I gave the participants my first deployment briefing and told them to thereafter be on a conference call with me at 8 a.m. every day wherein I would give them an overall assessment of the night’s activities and what was to be accomplished in the next 24 hours.  Principals only on the conference call. The Governor was not amused about the “principals only” part and it got a little ugly but it worked.

The day we arrived on the scene the city was shut down, 24-hour curfew.  There was no public transportation.  All stores were closed.  People were running out of food.  No one told me what our mission was.  I knew the public needed to know.  Was this Marshall Law?  Were we going to be patrolling with tanks in the streets? So, in a press conference the first afternoon, I tried to make it as clear as possible that we were there to create a safe and secure environment so the city could systematically resume all operations.  It worked.  Community support was outstanding.

As if President Bush’s surprise deployment announcement at 0830 that morning wasn’t enough; he saved another one for later in the day.  At 6 pm CA time, 9 pm at the White House, President Bush presented an update briefing to the nation.  First topic of the speech was, “I have decided to Federalize the California National Guard.”  At that moment, with those words, I became the Commander of the CA National Guard and they all became federal US Army soldiers.  That was actually a blessing because we immediately took charge of their rally points, established training stations (particularly to train rules of engagement) and integrated them into the overall deployment plan.

The overall plan was simple; a soldier on every street corner to establish a “presence”.  Sustainment was not simple.  How do you feed 12,000 soldiers and Marines scattered over 100 square miles of urban terrain?  How do you communicate with them?  Where do they sleep and shower?  How many Quick Reaction Forces do we need?

Since we only deployed communications trucks, how did we transport 12,000 soldiers and Marines around the city?  Simple, we had the mayor recall all the city bus drivers and got them rolling.

We trained hard every day and night at Ft Ord to be able to rapidly close with and destroy the enemy.  No enemy in LA.  My first task was to solve that problem. How do you tell each individual soldier what he can and cannot do?  I wrote the rules of engagement while in plane on the way down, called them back to my chief of staff who had printing people standing by.  Thousands of 3×5 cards printed with the ROE were soon available.  One for every soldier and marine to have in his or her breast pocket.

Soldiers flew into LAX, were loaded onto city buses and transported to an abandoned air strip in the middle of Central/South LA.  Every squad leader and his or her soldiers began at the head of the strip and moved from station to station observing scenarios that were being briefed and played out to illustrate the rules of engagement.  First rule: everyone has the inherent right of self-defense.  At the end of the air strip, they were issued ammunition, got back on a bus and were deployed.  By the middle of the first night, we had all 12,000 trained and deployed.

Communications in flat urban terrain is very difficult with line-of-site FM ratios.  Cell phones were in their infancy.  We cut a deal to provide security to the folks who owned the cell towers in exchange for 100 cell phones.  We quickly published a phone directory and got the cell phones into the hands of battalion and company commanders.

We politely raided every tourist shop and book store we could find and “procured” all their city maps.  One to every squad leader.

I published and signed a letter making every battalion commander an authorized “government purchasing agent”.  I should still be in jail for that one but we knew the answer if we had asked permission to do that.  Why?  Food distribution was difficult and not always timely.  A company commander would find a vehicle, drive outside the curfew area, stop at a McDonalds and order 250 big macs, 125 fries and 125 drinks to go.  He would say, “my battalion commander will be by shortly to pay for them”.  It worked.  My Division Finance Officer showed up on day two with $500,000 in cash and paid the bills.  I never asked how she got the money.

LA Police Department:  Daryl Gates was more of an LA celebrity than an adequate Chief of Police.  If he and his ego were occupying a room there was hardly any space for another person.  LA police had long ago lost contact with the general populous and merchants.  They occupied cars and their standard operating procedure when called to the scene of an accident or crime scene was to first drive by and determine if it was safe to stop.  I vividly recall one night about 0200 seeing a parking lot full of police cars.  This was when the 100% curfew was still in effect.  I told my driver to pull in and see what was going on.  I found my soldiers on the roof and at the front door guarding the police precinct building with the police officers hunkered down inside.

My first encounter with Gates was about 10 p.m. the first night when I went to visit him and LA County Sherriff Sherman Block at their joint emergency center.  Gates and Block were seated at a conference table and my Command Sergeant Major (affectionately known throughout most of the Army as “Mad Dog”) and I were asked to take a seat across the table from them.  Gates’ opening comment was, “General, we don’t need you and we don’t want you.”  What came out of my mouth is not fit for mixed company but it was short and to the point.  The greater LA community knew that Gates was a bigger part of the problem than the solution.

The gangs, Bloods and Crips, were a potential serious problem. They completely ignored the curfew and the LA police never lifted a finger to enforce it.  The problem was that most gang cars had someone riding shotgun.  Literally.  Guns in plain sight.  The message they were sending was, “we own these streets at night, just watch me.”  I told the senior National Guard officer I needed an immediate seminar with a room full of gang guys, the more senior the better.  He made it happen.  My message to them was, in a few days or weeks we will be gone and you will again own the streets.  In the meantime it is not in your best interest to pick a fight with the US Army. You will lose.  Discretion is the better part of valor.  It was a calculated guess but it worked. They took the message to whomever and like magic, the streets cleared.

As pointed out, the media was everywhere all the time. I could use them to my advantage when necessary but I did not want my upward chain of command to get their information from CNN or the LA Times.  So, every night, while cruising the city, I would stop at midnight and write a couple-page SitRep, situation report.  I would try to capture the last 24 hours in words, the status as of that moment and the plan for the next 24 hours.  By the time the sun came up on the East Coast, every commander had access to the SitRep.  When I later briefed President Bush, he told me the SitRep was the first thing he read every morning during the crisis.

I am proud to have been a senior commander in your Army but never so much so as I was when the events of the LA riots unfolded.  If I had been screwing things up, the story might have been different but here is what did NOT happen.  This was an international story.  The nation was riveted on LA at the time.  The media was committed 24/7 to what unfolded.  My immediate boss was a 3-star Corps Commander.  I never heard from him; perfect.  My second boss was a 4-star US Forces Commander (commander of all Army forces inside the US).  He never called or sent anyone to see me; perfect.  The Chief of Staff of the Army is by law the Executive Agent for the US Government on civil unrest. Therefore, he was almost compelled to weigh in somehow.  He called once and I will never forget every word of that phone call, “Marv, it’s Gordon, if you need anything, call me.”  Click.  General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was at one time our next-door neighbor.  I knew him very well.  He never called.  Why not?

The big difference between deliberate planning and execution and crisis planning and execution is, in a word, time.  Time is the enemy during a crisis because there is never enough of it.  The farthest we could see ahead was 24 hours.  We were planning and executing in 6-hour cycles.  Often times it was only minutes between decision and execution.  Our objective was to maintain near total situational awareness in the 100 square mile area of operations.  My senior chain of command understood all that.  They knew there was no time for a “mother-may-I?” communication.  They also knew the absolute last thing we needed was a team of outsiders to come to LA to “help” us.  They were a team of the strongest leaders I have ever known and they did exactly the right thing; “if you need anything, call me.” Perfect.

The people of Los Angeles literally and figuratively embraced your soldiers.  What they saw in each and every one of them was focus, compassion, steadfastness, commitment to their mission.  I was taking a briefing from a battalion commander in one of the city parks when a woman drove up.  She said she had heard the soldiers weren’t getting enough to eat.  She had a car full of groceries.  We were there over Mothers’ Day.  A few days before a truck from a large drug store chain pulled up to our headquarters with 10,000 Mothers’ Day cards for distribution to the troops.  An elderly couple coming out of a grocery store stopped me and expressed their gratitude for the safety we had brought to the city.  They said they normally had to take a taxi both ways from their house to buy groceries because it is unsafe to be on the streets.  I inquired how far away they lived.  “Three blocks.”  The hundreds of strip malls were easy targets for looters and arsonists.  We provided security for them all.  The store owners who sold any type of consumable (candy, ice cream, soft drinks, etc.) would routinely leave the front door unlocked and tell the soldiers to go in and help themselves throughout the night.  There were thousands of those stories.  You should be understandably proud of your soldiers.

The only visitor in my chain of command showed up about two weeks later to thank the troops; President Bush. By arrangement “Mad Dog” and I were waiting on a side street within a block of where the troops, police etc. were assembled to hear the President. He pulled up in his limo and got out, my Command Sergeant Major and I saluted, he returned the salute and I moved forward to introduce myself.  Just as I began, the President interrupted saying, “General, I already know all there is to know about you” and smiled.  He was thrilled that Mad Dog was with me and they chatted for a while. I had a 3-ring binder with a few briefing charts in it and delivered the brief on the hood of his vehicle.  I told him that’s the way we do in-the-field briefings in the Army.  I think he liked it. He asked if we were finished in LA and I told him we had accomplished all we came to do but we would leave behind a very troubled city with deep-seated problems that have existed for a very long time.  He completely understood.  The next day we began redeployment and mustered the California National Guard out of the regular Army.  I was back to commanding only one Division and glad of it.

From the arrival of the first 7th Infantry Division soldiers until our redeployment, no one died from riot-relations actions.

Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired, is the author of VISION TO EXECUTION, a book for leaders, a columnist for THE PILOT, a national award-winning local newspaper in Southern Pines, NC and the author of a blog,

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