This week marks the 20th anniversary of L.A.’s riots, which were sparked by a mixed verdict in a racially-charged trial of police officers accused of using excessive force against a suspect. His name was Rodney King. He had refused to cooperate in an arrest which had been secretly videotaped and was subsequently – also repeatedly, selectively and partially – broadcast by the media nationwide.
I know firsthand that April 29, 1992, was a horrible day in metropolitan Los Angeles, California, because I was here. Within a week of rioting, 53 were killed, 2,000 were injured, $1 billion in property was lost and the city was looted and burned, left to rot for days, while white people and businesses were targeted for attack until the Marines, National Guard and Army were dispatched and citywide curfews were imposed. Here’s what I recall about that dark initial day and, fundamentally, what I think caused – at least partially – what’s become known as the Los Angeles riots.
First, the legal context. On March 3, 1991, paroled felon Rodney King, who is black, led police on a high speed chase through streets and freeways, ending in an arrest that the 6-foot, 3-inch King resisted while intoxicated. He was severely beaten by four non-black police officers who were being filmed on amateur video without their knowledge. The video was released to the press, causing charges of police brutality and racism in a police department with a track record of racism. Amid the furor, King was released on March 15 and, instead, the officers were charged with a crime (assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force and/or other crimes). A jury trial ensued in Simi Valley, California, and the 12-member jury came back on April 29, 1992, with a not guilty verdict on all counts except one, which ended in a hung jury. As I recall, few experts who followed the facts of the case, as against the controversy and speculation, were surprised. Legally, the prosecution was required to show that the officers intended to violate King’s rights by beating him and most trial reporters had indicated that no intent had been demonstrated at trial. Nevertheless, its aftermath was the worst American riot of the 20th century.
Why? In my opinion, the question brings us to the socio-political context. As the highly publicized case went to court, with biased reports, partial airings and frame-by-frame photographs of the arrest and beating inflaming both sides, especially an extremely misleading frame-by-frame report in Newsweek, which omitted relevant frames, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley – at first privately, then publicly – urged Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates to resign. Chief Gates in turn refused to quit and launched a public campaign to keep his job. Both did this while the case was being adjudicated. Their public battle, which included commissions, maneuvers and political infighting and grandstanding, divided the city of Los Angeles, raising the stakes and inhibiting the city’s ability to handle any crisis.
Mayor Bradley had denounced the verdict before he urged calm and acceptance of the jury’s verdict. The police chief, Darryl Gates, petulantly and obstinately refused to respond on that first day of rioting, as if he was showing the city what happens without law enforcement, issuing statements for hours that police were responding despite reports to the contrary – in Koreatown, merchants under gunfire were forced into protracted battles to save their lives and fortunes – while Chief Gates attended a fund-raiser. The most deserving of blame, however, because he had the highest moral and legal authority, is the president of the United States: George Herbert Walker Bush. Immediately after the verdict was announced, Bush, apparently eager to say or do anything to win an election, issued the following denunciation of the verdict:
“… viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids.”
For an American president to publicly denounce a verdict in a case that had been given due process – and in such alarmingly racial and personal terms – was bad enough. Bush questioned the legitimacy of a proper legal ruling. The media, which had half-reported on the case without regard to crucial facts, shares blame, but the first ex-President Bush is at least partly responsible for the blood spilled in Los Angeles.
In fact, by the time news of the verdict spread, the people of Los Angeles had essentially been bombarded with the message from the media, the mayor and the president that Rodney King (who has since been arrested 11 times) was a victim of a racist police conspiracy and that any claim to the contrary was either outrageous or itself evidence of racism. So it was not surprising when white truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled out of his truck and nearly beaten to death by a gang of predominantly black thugs (Denny, incidentally, was saved by a black man, as were other victims on that day of death and destruction). The bloodshed was practically the afterthought to a president’s public rejection of a legally rendered jury verdict.
On a personal note, the blood might have been mine. I was in a Chinese restaurant in Pasadena, California, when the late-afternoon verdict came over the newsradio. Everyone in the racially diverse establishment, including the proprietor, stopped, listened and we all acknowledged the news and went about our business. I was a young man 20 years ago, new to California, and my response to the verdict was “that’s that, now I hope we can all move on.” But as a victim of racism – being pre-judged, hated and physically assaulted for being white – I should have known better. Not more than an hour later, while listening to the radio in a Chevrolet stopped at a traffic light near Pasadena, hearing reports of citywide looting and rioting, a gang of black men came toward me through the intersection and stopped when one of the men pointed to my car and yelled: “Get him!” I hit the gas pedal, ran the red light and drove home, where I could see Los Angeles burning from my window.
I had already been targeted for being white, so that was no big deal (and I know I’m not alone but it isn’t fashionable to discuss black on white crime). Still, an assault had never been launched so blatantly, so publicly, in such an orchestrated manner, and I was suddenly more aware of the influence of politics and the press. That night, I could hear an endless loop of sirens as new columns of thick black smoke rose from the city’s skyline. As the sun went down, L.A. turned into something like a war zone, glowing orange and red on the horizon. Seeing Reginald Denny being assaulted and mutilated for the color of his skin live on television – and knowing that it could have been me – was the perfect preparation for understanding how to face what was to come in my new life in Los Angeles: earthquakes, fires, floods and the race-baiting politics of what would be the outrage of O.J. Simpson. The Los Angeles riots provide several lessons – that government could be totally immobilized in its primary role to protect the public and instead all but incur looting and killing – and a harsh reminder that replacing facts with feelings – which was done by city leaders, a pragmatic president and packs of mindless journalists – is a matter of life and death.