This week marks the 20th anniversary of L.A.’s riots. They were sparked by a mixed verdict in a racially-charged trial of four police officers accused of using excessive force against a suspect. His name was Rodney King. He had refused to cooperate in an arrest that was being videotaped which would be broadcast nationwide.
April 29, 1992, was a horrible day in Los Angeles. Within a week, 53 were killed, 2,000 were injured, $1 billion in property was lost and the city was looted and burned for days, while people and businesses were targeted for attack based on race until U.S. Armed Forces were dispatched and citywide curfews were imposed.
What caused the riots began to unfold on March 3, 1991, when 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. King was severely beaten by four non-black police officers that 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 uproar, King was soon released and, instead, the officers were charged with a crime (assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force, among other charges). A jury trial ensued and the 12-member jury came back with a not guilty verdict on all counts except one. Few who had followed the facts of the case were surprised. The prosecution had been required to show that the officers intended to violate King’s rights by beating him. Most trial reporters indicated that no such intent had been demonstrated.
So, what caused the worst American riot of the 20th century?
As the highly publicized case went to court, with biased reports, partial airings and frame-by-frame photographs of the video omitting relevant facts, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley 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 divided the city, raising the stakes and inhibiting the city’s ability to handle any crisis.
Mayor Bradley denounced the jury’s verdict before urging acceptance. The police chief obstinately refused to respond on the first day of rioting, issuing statements that police were responding despite reports to the contrary – in Koreatown, merchants under gunfire were forced into protracted battles to save their lives and property – while Chief Gates attended a fund-raiser. Most deserving of blame, however, is the president: George Herbert Walker Bush. Immediately after the verdict was announced, Bush 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 denounce a verdict in a case that had been given due process was bad enough. Bush’s comments challenged 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 was saved by a black man, as were other victims on that day of death and destruction).
Seeing Reginald Denny being assaulted and mutilated for the color of his skin on live television provided an unforgettable lesson in the politics of race-baiting: that jumping to conclusions may impair government from protecting the public and instead incur looting and killing. L.A.’s riots are a harsh reminder that replacing facts with feelings – which was done by city leaders, the president and a pack of journalists – is a matter of life and death.