Ferguson Revisited: Back to the Future ’92 L.A. Riots

Blogger’s Note: In this post, I examine parallels between the 2014 Ferguson and 1992 Los Angeles Riots borrowing a theme from a 1985 comic science fiction movie, “Back to the Future.” I then re-examine the 1992 L.A. riots from the perspectives of:

  • The social similarities between the two riots;
  • Behind the scenes politics for using the National Guard for civil disorder;
  • The effect of federal intrusion into State civil disturbance response;
  • Media impact on historical view of Guard response to  civil unrest; and
  • National Guard leadership and discipline in the midst of political controversy and confusion.

Like the fictional movie character Marty McFly who ventures back in time to repair romantic damage between his parents that changes their family future, I speculate whether repairing the political and system failures during the 92 riots  could have changed the outcome of how the Missouri used its Guard in Ferguson. 


Parallel Universes

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s controversial “non-order” of the National Guard onto  the

Critics allege Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to stand down during the first night of the Ferguson riots.
Critics allege Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to stand down during the first night of the Ferguson riots.

Ferguson streets at the height of the city’s unrest, resurrects memories of federal intervention that occurred during California’s 1992 Rodney King riots.

The 2014 Ferguson and 1992 L.A. riots are arguably mirror civil disturbances on at opposite ends of a time spectrum. Arguably violent revolts about inequalities in quality of life between each city’s Black and White communities. According to Fox News, Black unemployment rate in Ferguson is three times the White unemployment rate. Black males between the ages of 16 and 24 have nearly 50 percent unemployment rate than Whites, a Black child is almost four times likely to live in a poor neighborhood as a White child, and 52 percent of Black kids are in single  parent homes.  Similar conditions percolated beneath the surface of South Central Los Angeles before the ’92 riots. Court decisions involving the use of force by White  police officers against Black citizens arguably sparked civil disobedience in  both cases.

In Ferguson, riots exploded within 24 hours of a grand jury decision “not to indict” officer Darren Wilson. In L.A. violence erupted hours after Sergeant Stacey Koon, and officers Laurence Michael Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King. Both incidents had a National Guard controversy.

At the heart of this controversy is the Pose Comitatus Act –limiting and delaying Presidential powers for law enforcement–and the 1807 Insurrection Act–granting the President of the United States (POTUS) authority to deploy troops within the United States to put down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion. Nixon arguably flirted with both these sacred state safeguards when he allegedly entertained federal advice to limit National Guard use to avoid the appearance of militarization; then failed to delegate to local law enforcement the authority to employ the Guard at the height of Ferguson’s rioting.

Maj. James D. Delk's (left): Fires &Furies: The L. A. Riots- What Really Happened reveals what happened behind the scenes of the 1992 L.A Riots. Delk was the National Guard Commander, Joint Task Force Los Angeles during the 1992 L.A. Riots. (File Photos).
Maj. James D. Delk’s (left): Fires &Furies: The L. A. Riots- What Really Happened reveals what happened behind the scenes of the 1992 L.A Riots. Delk was the National Guard Commander, Joint Task Force Los Angeles during the 1992 L.A. Riots. (File Photos).

Back to the Future: Fires & Furies

California found itself facing a similar dilemma during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots—also known as the Rodney King Riots. In his book, “Fires & Furies: The L.A. Riots-What Really Happened,” Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James Delk documents the politics behind federalizing the National Guard during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

Delk recounts systematic failures that triggered federal military intervention of the ’92 riots. The first occurred when the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) told the Cal Guard it would not be needed for potential civil disturbance. The only Guard assistance requested was a lateral transfer of flak jackets and riot gear to civilian authorities in case needed by the LAPD.

A second error happened when civilian authorities disputably failed to exhaust California’s mutual aid  agreements–an agreement between  neighboring cities to share their emergency response resources  before asking for state and federal support. This collapse, arguably sparked overreaction for federal troops as civilian leaders witnessed rioting overwhelming the LAPD.

The Feds: “We’re Here to  Help (Kind of)”

Former Secretary of State Christopher Warren reportedly influenced Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to urge Gov. Pete Wilson to request Federal troops to restore order in South Central L.A. (FLICKR Photo)
Former Secretary of State Christopher Warren reportedly influenced Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to urge Gov. Pete Wilson to request Federal troops to restore order in South Central L.A. (FLICKR Photo)

A third systemic mishap disputably happened when Gov. Pete Wilson  listened to L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley‘s and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s advice to request President George W. Bush for federal troops–based on an erroneous  perception the Guard was responding too slow.  Magnifying  this misperception were National Guard logistical snafus created after the Guard latterly transferred riot equipment to the LAPD, and debatably poor ammunition storage  policies that removed ammo from neighborhood National Guard armories and centrally stored it at Camp Roberts, CA. Policies whose logic was based on public safety which, in part,  can be traced to 1970s when militants raided U.S. National  Guard  armories  for  ammunition and  weapons  to  rob  banks  and  arm radical  groups  such  as the Black  Panthers  for the purpose of overthrowing the government.

“Lieutenant, Under no Circumstances Are You to Embarrass the Governor”

Key Decision Makers during the Rodney King Riots: Gov.. Pete Wilson and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (FLICKR Photo)
Key Decision Makers during the Rodney King Riots: Gov.. Pete Wilson and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (FLICKR Photo)

I collided with the ammo question as a military public affairs  officer when the Associated Press asked me for the National Guard’s reaction to Gov. Wilson’s statement that the “Guard forgot its bullets.” I took the reporters contact information and called Gov. Wilson’s press Office to confirm whether the governor actually  said that. The public information officer (PIO) confirmed my worst fears–the Governor had made similar remarks to the press.

A passionate exchange followed. I was concerned about the operational security implications. The PIO was concerned about the political ramifications if the Governor publically backtracked on his statement. I explained that lives were at stake and that if agitators believed Guardsmen had no ammunition, they would either kill or be killed by a Guardsmen.

The PIO and I swapped some sarcastic retorts–one of which was, “Lieutenant, under no circumstances are you to embarrass the Governor.” We finally agreed to collaborate on a press release to clarify the ammunition issue while simultaneously showcasing Gov. Wilson’s leadership as the Guard’s Commander-in-Chief.

Guard Compliance with Implied Press Guidance

Former KCRA Reporter Roy Stearns was arguably the sole newsman to accurately report the logistical, operational, and policy issues affecting California National Guard deployments to the South Central L.A. during the '92 Rodney King Riots. Unfortunately, his report was upstaged by the political drama of the emergency. (FLICKR Photo)
Former KCRA Reporter Roy Stearns was arguably the sole newsman to accurately report the logistical, operational, and policy issues affecting California National Guard deployments to the South Central L.A. during the ’92 Rodney King Riots. Unfortunately, his report was upstaged by the political drama of the emergency. (FLICKR Photo)

Within an hour of that  conversation, I had an interview with KCRA-TV’s Roy Stearns, explaining that Guardsmen were on the streets, armed, and prepared to protect citizen’s and their own lives in cases of imminent danger. I also explained more troops were flowing into South Central L.A.

Stearns reported that Task Force Grizzly–the Guard’s counternarcotics program--was augmenting Task Force Los Angeles at Los Alamitos, CA with  both troops and ammunition; that additional ammunition would be en route from Camp Roberts and San Luis  Obispo once  logistical issues were resolved; and that soldiers were on the streets–strategically dispersed across a 32-mile area from the Hollywood Hills to Long Beach,  under Delk’s command.

For Stearns, a full-bird Colonel in the Army Reserves, his civic duty to promptly broadcast the  facts so as to minimize potential clashes between rioters and Guardsmen took precedence over his reporter’s instinct to pursue political drama behind the ammunition issue. The scandalous succulence of the ammo issue,  however, proved too tasty  for the majority of the press to resist. The media focused attention on the Guard’s ammunition flaws effectively: upstaging Stern’s report; pressuring the Governor’s press office to retreat from the  joint press release; and  subordinating the Guard’s voice to Governor’s press office under the implied guidance to “not embarrass the  Governor.”

Maj. Gen. Robert C. Thrasher, adjutant general, California National Guard 1988-1992
Maj. Gen. Robert C. Thrasher, adjutant general, California National Guard 1988-1992

Courage Under Political Fire

Civilian leaders appeared to consider Christopher a military expert and accepted as Gospel his assessment that the National Guard was responding too slow and federal troops were  needed  immediately.  Facts became casualties. The fact that hundreds of CHP officers were hunkered down at Los Alamitos waiting for LAPD missions was not reported. The  collapse of the  mutual aid system was largely ignored, and the policy that the Guard is the last  in, first out (LIFO) during civilian emergencies was overlooked.

Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Robert C. Thrasher, however,  reportedly neither lost sight  of these facts nor his duty within the purview of the PCA. He appeared cognizant that military overreaction on the part of California  leadership could unwittingly undermine the PCA. When members of  the  Governor’s cabinet allegedly recommended sending National Guard forces onto the streets with empty magazines, Thrasher is  reported to have refused to entertain  the notion, understanding  the peril to which he would be exposing his troops.

The General also understood he had an obligation to the citizens of South Central L.A. by ensuring troops were not deployed with excessive firepower. While his staff flowed in troops as fast as LAPD gave them missions, military armorers were deployed to install lock plates on M-16-issue rifles to prevent the weapon from slipping from single into  semi-automatic (multiple bursts) mode and risk killing incident bystanders–events that tragically occurred during  the ’65 Watts Riots. Later, a member of Thrasher’s personal staff who was present during many of the general’s meetings with the Governor’s office, told me about  the general’s poise. The staffer described the General’s composure as “courageous.” In hindsight, it  appears Thrasher had “courage under political fire.”

Knights of Honor and Their Measure of  Greatness

The Guard’s ammunition controversy disputably distracted the media from civilian leadership’s failure in planning for a riot of L.A.’s magnitude in  ’92; but it did not detract from the heroics of Thrasher’s operational staff in closing the gaps poor planning created. Despite having to  absorb undeserved blame for the state’s sluggish response–and behind the scene politics questionably flip flopping the Guard’s role from LIFO to FILO (First in, last out)–anyone would be hard pressed to deny their performance exceeded any military deployment standard.

An Air Guard staff that included the likes of Lt. Col. Charles Cross and Colonel Dan Gibson who continuously coordinated and planned military air transport of civilian law enforcement, Guardsmen, and supplies. Army officers led by officers such as Col. Edmund Zysk,  Maj. William “Bill” Hipsley, and  Lt. Col Dennis “Denny” Hines who creatively filled logistic shortages through  the transfer of ammunition, men, and hardware  from the nearly  500-person Counternarcotic Task  Force. Concurrently they uncorked the logistics jam at Camp Roberts and San Luis Obispo, that streamlined the flow  of ammunition and supplies to  sustain both  military  operations.

This staff did not have the advantage of a “cold start.” They worked from a disadvantage of responding from a “deep  freeze.” Having to procure gas masks, flak  jackets, and other riot gear to replace that they loaned to LAPD. They had to bring nearly 10,000 troops to Los Angeles–troops not garrisoned  at a central base–but scattered throughout  187 Californian communities at debatably the same pace with civilian law enforcement units.They mobilized, deployed, and were on mission in 17 hours, empowering these citizen soldiers to accomplish their mission before active duty forces ever set foot on the ground. Yet, civilian leadership pulled the rug from under their accomplishments by bringing in active duty forces and federalizing the Guard.

The political cacophony surrounding  their efforts arguably diminishes their accomplishment in California’s history book. It’s my opinion, however, that they were “Knights of Honor,” custodians of the Constitutional Holy Grail—the PCA–whose true measure of greatness during the first three days of the riots was not of planning gone awry, but how good they were when plans did go awry.

“Governor, I Take Orders from the President of the United States

On May 2, 1992 civilian leadership, in essence, peeled the Cal Guard’s operational fingers from this PCA Holy Grail when more than 4,000 federal troops were deployed to Los Angeles–bringing total military strength to 14,000 (10,000 Guardsmen plus 4,000 active). Additional forces unneeded according to Delk who was quoted as saying the Guard had “accomplished  its  mission before the 4,000  federal troops  arrived.”

The Guard were now federal troops functioning under the auspices of the 1806 Insurrection Act. Their mission changed from restoring law and order to preserving law and order.  Maj. Gen. Marvin Covault assumed command of JTF Los Angeles, subordinating Guard commanders Delk  and Brig. Gen. Daniel Hernandez to his authority. Law enforcement units to which Guard units were attached, could  no longer delegate missions directly to them. They now had to request–and have approval–for each mission through a central headquarters–in essence bureaucratizing the military  missions  similar to  what appears to have occurred when Missouri’s Governor retained authority to order his state’s Guard Quick Reaction  Forces (QRF) onto mission.

The Governor was no longer their Commander-in-Chief, the POTUS now commanded them. In an apparent effort to retake control of military operations, Gov. Wilson reportedly tried to order Covault to deploy active duty troops onto the  streets, according to Delk’s book. Covault refused explaining the Guard was on mission and that he wanted active duty forces to undergo the minimum hours civil disturbance training required before deploying them to the streets. When  the Governor reportedly pressed Covault, the  general purportedly  responded:–“(Paraphrasing) I don’t take orders from the Governor, I take them from the President of the United States.”

Thrasher Delivers a Fit Force able to Maintains PCA Discipline

Instead of a riot, one National Guard member described the 1992 Los Angeles riots as urban warfare. (FLICKR Photo)
Instead of a riot, one National Guard member described the 1992 Los Angeles riots as urban warfare. (FLICKR Photo)

Thrasher debatably deserves credit for astonishing discipline and restraint Cal Guardsmen exercised during the  mission. When comparing the 1992 Cal Guard’s performance to that of the 1965 Guard during the Watts Riots, the difference  is staggering.  In the ’65 riot, Guardsmen fired more than 20,000 ammunition rounds  from various  weapon types including the  .50-caliber machine guns.  Authorities  could not  account for how many, if any, of the  34 people killed,  or 1,000 wounded by Guard  bullets may have hit in the ’65 melee.  The ’92 Guard  fired  20 rounds  of ammunition from  small  arms–accounting for two of the 53 people killed and none of the 2,000 injuries. In one of those deaths, the soldiers held their fire until they could literally see the whites  of the assailant’s eyes who repeatedly tried to run these citizen soldiers over with his car–perhaps believing they had no bullets.

This discipline is arguably attributable in part to the fitness culture Thrasher inspired. When the Guard came under public  criticism as  an unfit force not in compliance with the Army’s physical fitness standards shortly after Thrasher was appointed adjutant general in late ’80s, he answered critics  by publically taking the army physical fitness  test (APFT)  under the watchful eye  of a  master fitness trainer–in front of state media.

I can testify how the statewide media coverage changed the Guard’s fitness culture during Thrasher’s watch. The Officers and NCOs in my battalion–132nd Engineers–and the three Infantry Battalions it supported–no longer viewed the APFT as a chess game of obtaining physical profiles, fudging scores, or altering performance standards to skirt around the test, but a measure of their leadership and unit pride to emulate the general’s example. Those were the kind of troops Thrasher delivered to South Central L.A. –the kind that arguably saved more lives than would have been taken if soldiers lacked the self-control that fitness instills.

Fast Forward to Ferguson

National Guard troops secure the police station in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 25, 2014. (FLICR Photo)
National Guard troops secure the police station in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 25, 2014. (FLICR Photo)

If the 1992 California National Guard could fast forward to the future, compare notes with the Missouri National Guard, and give its feedback, I would imagine it would be something like this: Thrasher, Delk, and their staffs would form the 10,000 Guardsmen reporting to duty in 1992 into  formation. The commanders would  bring  their units to attention and order  arms,  about  face, and snap a crisp salute to the Missouri National Guard. The ’92 era  Cal Guard  would  shout out a word distinguishable  to those  in the  military  culture. A word rooted in military ethos–invented from three derivative words: Hear you, Understand you, and Authenticate–HUA or Hooah!   A word that means all things good, but in this case, means, “Well done Missouri National Guard! Well Done!

A Cal Guard era force that–like the Missouri Guard– hears the same duty call to perform law enforcement functions the PCA authorizes only citizen soldiers; Understands the impact on morale that federal interference inflicts; and Authenticates that despite this interference–no matter how minute–that the Missouri Guard exceeded military standards  in executing  their mission despite being  denied the opportunity to help prevent the $5 million of damage violent  rioters inflicted.

As a Missouri Legislative committee convenes to investigate why  the  Missouri National  Guard never received orders at the rioting’s height, it might consider whether systematic failures occurred, or if the systems can be better managed in the following areas:

  • Commander-in-Chief.   Gov. Nixon deserves credit for staging the Missouri National Guard, but may have unwittingly undermined his own authority as commander-in-chief if he followed federal advice to limit the Guard to avoid the appearance of militarization. It’s the PCA that empowers Governors to prevent “militarization practices,” such as Marshal law and other tactics necessary under the Insurrection Act. The Governor should debatably not seek advice from higher federal authorities, but input from on-ground law enforcement authorities and incident commanders and the delegate them authority to use the Guard at the scene as necessary.
  • Mutual Aid Agreement & Incident Command System:  Christopher M. Schnaubelt observed in his 1999 article, Lessons in Command and  Control from the Los Angeles Riots, the “fierce culture of independence,” on the part of California law enforcement for using both mutual assistance agreements and the National Guard. Perhaps a little healthy skepticism can serve as a check against overrelying on the Guard, but it’s in the best interests of the state for neighboring law enforcement agencies to dust off its mutual aid agreements and collectively rehearse–to include  the Guard if needed as a last resort. Whether Missouri law enforcement was reluctant to use the Guard is unknown, but programs in which law enforcement and Guard can collectively train and rehearse do exist–programs such as the National Guard/ Bureau (NGB)/United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM) Joint Staff State Training Course  (JSTC).
  • National Security  Strategy (NSS). When the White House changed the National Security Strategy (NSS) focus from multiple regional conflict (MRC) fought simultaneously to a single conflict, it arguably changed both Guard focus on its Homeland Security missions–to include civil disordr–as well as appropriate mix of military resources available to Governors for civilian emergencies. It’s arguably in the  state’s best interest for their Governors to urge the White House to return to the  two MRC strategy, and lobby Congress for the funding to support a two-MRC strategy. Returning to two MRCs will not only strengthens National Security against  the growing ISIS threat,  Russian Build-up,  and China’s growing influence, but more important, it intensifies Guard readiness for homeland security on civil emergency support at home.


Occasionally, within  the sanctuary of a Sunday Mass at my church,  I feel the  fires and furies  flare inside me compelling  me to confess my sin–or regret–for  failing  to  produce that press release never written. A press release that would  have revealed generals with courage under political fire, Knights of Honor who remained  calm under political chaos, and citizen-soldiers whose discipline perhaps saved countless lives. I have long forgiven Gov. Pete Wilson  for, what I  believe, listening to civilian advisors instead  of his generals.

In fact, any misgivings I had about the former Governor have since been replaced with admiration  and respect  for his Commander-in-Chief legacy.  A legacy, I believe, is unequaled by any previous governor and unsurpassed by any governor since his watch.  Californians arguably dodged a 9-11 thanks to his early decisions within  the Counterdrug  program that resulted with a border infrastructure that now channels drug,  human, and weapons trafficking  into adjoining states. Under  his leadership,  he flawsly activated the Guard almost annually for earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and security during his watch. Perhaps a legacy built on lessons learned from the  L.A.  riots?

When the priest asks the congregation to pray for our political leaders, I pray for the leaders of Missouri and Ferguson will learn  not  only  from our  mistakes,  but also place  blame on the  real  culprits of civil unrest: complacency and apathy. Complacency that creeps into emergency  planning when there is a quarter-century hiatus between civil disturbances, robbing emergency planners of their sense of urgency. Apathy that seems to replace policy makers’  passion over time for correcting the  social injustices that arguably provoked violent social outbursts in the  first place. If I could go back to the future, I would encourage local, state, and federal authorities to remain vigilant in their joint planning and training as time distances them  from the last civil disturbance; and for Governors  to choose wisely between those sacred Congressional and  Constitutional chalices of Posse Comitatus and  the Insurrection Act.

Of course, everyone knows we can’t go back to the future, but perhaps we can change the future’s course and break a pattern of repeating the  past.



  1. Stan – excellent article. As the Executive Officer, Countrrdrug Task Force (CDRF) and Military Field Commander for the Hollywood District I clearly remember how we (CDTF) issued ammo and rations to the first troops in. My troops were also armed for all our missions. And how my hands were tied after we were federalized and could give the LAPD support they requested without a bureauratic wait and loss of mission.
    Thanks again for your analysis.

  2. Well written article, but may have a few minor discrepancies. Troops did have ammo in Counter Drugs and the 40th MP’s. Other ammo had been stored for some time at the direction of one of the AG’s, Schober I think, which caused the ammo problem — dumb move on his part. We used to have ammo in the vaults until some unit didn’t practice the SOP security and break-ins occurred (probably inside job). Rather than fix the problem, the AG just has it removed. Real smart!!

    Having been involved in both 1965 and 1992, I can tell you there was no comparison between the Watts 65 and LA 92. 1965 was not just protesters, but ass holes shooting at us.

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