Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Rodney King

Ferguson, MO hosted a largely peaceful demonstration yesterday to commemorate the anniversary of Michael Brown's shooting by a police officer.   

After dark, things got worse.  

According to police, who never again will be afforded the benefit of the doubt, a man armed with a stolen handgun shot many times at an unmarked police car full of detectives and was himself shot in response.  

A newspaper reporter who was taking pictures and videos of people breaking into storefronts claims he was attacked from behind, thrown to the ground, his head kicked and beaten.  He now has a concussion and seems to have lost his wallet and cellphone in the melee.

People want to say this is a new low in racial harmony, but they forget history.  We saw this same story, only much worse, in the early 1990s in Los Angeles.

Rodney King

In  March 1991, a drunk parolee named Rodney King eluded police cars in a high-speed chase.   When he brought his car to a stop, he resisted arrest.  After tasing him, four Los Angeles police officers beat, kicked and clubbed him for several minutes.  

What made this significant was that the beating was photographed.  A man standing on his apartment balcony trained his new camcorder to record the police beatdown. A still from the videotape:

When the police department said it was not interested in the video, the man took it to a local TV station, which broadcast it on the news. You can find it today on youtube.  It is revolting, as is the police photograph, right, of King following the incident.

The next year, a jury in the next county over -- a less ethnically diverse county -- acquitted the police officers of using excessive force in the incident.  Afterward four jurors said they had held out for the conviction of the officer who had hit Rodney King most severely.  

This too was revolting, offensive to anybody who had seen the videotape.  By that point, everybody had seen the videotape, most several times.  

African Americans, not surprisingly, were particularly incensed.  What followed was five days of rage.


There were demonstrations against the jury verdict, but, more memorably, there was violence -- looting, burning and cold-blooded murder. 

The worst was in South Central Los Angeles and nearby Koreatown (particularly Koreatown; racial animus comes in several flavors), but the whole region was affected, as were several other California cities.

Parts of freeways were closed during the period, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was ordered in affected neighborhoods.  California National Guard Units were called to assist the police until tempers had cooled.

When it was over, 53 people, or possibly 55, had died, and more than 2,000 were injured. Twenty-two of the deaths, classified as murders, have never been solved.   

Some of the unsolved cases: 

     -- An Asian man visited his family's looted and burned store on Day 2 of the riots.  As 
        he drove home, a car carrying several African American men rammed his car, and 
        then pulled alongside it.  The Asian man died seconds later in a fusillade of bullets

     -- A Utah tile setter, part of a crew on a project 25 miles east of LA, left his motel
        room to help victims of a loud traffic crash.  After hearing popping sounds,
        his colleagues went to check on him.  They found him in the street, shot dead.
     -- A Latino cook at a Mexican restaurant was shot three times in a firefight near
        Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards.  An 18-year-old African American high 
        school athlete was shot by a stray bullet outside a swap meet.

     -- Four bodies were discovered later, by workers clearing the ashes of burned 

In one case, an angry crowd cheered when it heard that a man shot dead in his car was white; police towed the car with his body inside because the situation was so dangerous.  In another case, a suburban woman died of stab wounds after she tried to stop a group of youths who were harassing her son and his friend. 

Helicopter cameras photographed as a a trucker was pulled out of his cab and beaten so severely that his skull was fractured in 91 places and his speech and movement were permanently damaged; a black man, also a truck driver, saw the film on television, and ran from his house to drive the truck and victim to a hospital. 

As many as 1,000 buildings were torched or firebombed.  More than 3,000 businesses were affected. Estimates of property damage ran as high as $1 billion.  

Much later, the policemen who had beaten Rodney King were prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department for civil rights violations.  Two were given 30-month prison sentences.

Rodney King won a large monetary award that assured his comfort, but he continued to have issues with drugs and alcohol.  He was found dead three years ago, drowned in his home swimming pool.


What the police did to Rodney King and what the jury did not do to the police who beat him outraged virtually everybody in Los Angeles.

But five days later -- after the marauding, the riots, the fires and the killing -- people of the city remembered their own fears even more.  

The number of people who committed bad acts was certainly far smaller than the greater number who had been ready to have the difficult conversations about race and common cause.  But the rioters and killers demanded all the attention for themselves.  

An opportunity was lost.

The demonstrators in Missouri might want to keep this in mind.

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