The year was 1992, and I was living in Brooklyn.
One particularly spring-like evening, walking home from the subway after work, I stopped to pick up my dry cleaning. The date was Wednesday, April 29.
Although their grasp of English was limited, the Korean couple who owned the dry cleaning shop were extremely friendly, and we chatted briefly while waiting for my cleaning to roll along the conveyor chain with all of the other plastic-draped clothing. One of the couple's children was watching TV by the counter, and I glanced to see what was on.
This being the era before e-mail and the Internet, current events were measured by days, not seconds. I hadn't seen the evening news yet, nor read the day's newspaper. We'd had the radio on in the background at the office, but my coworkers usually had it set to an easy listening station.
I had no idea that during my subway ride home from Manhattan, a jury in California had reached a verdict in the case of four cops accused of beating motorist Rodney King.
So as I glanced at the television in the dry cleaners, and instead of seeing an animated cartoon or syndicated re-run, I saw the violent images of rioters running down a city street, I reacted with shock and confusion. Turning to the Korean parents, I exclaimed, "what kind of shows do you let your kids watch?"
Puzzled, their mother turned to the television, and gasped in horror. "What is that?!" she demanded.
"I don't know; it just came on during the middle of my program," her daughter explained.
So we tried a couple of different channels, and they all were showing live coverage of riots which had just been sparked in Los Angeles. New York television stations had pre-empted their usual programming to broadcast the unedited video feed coming from the City of Angels.
My clothes arrived on the conveyor chain, and the Korean dry cleaners and I looked at each other in perplexity.
"What is this world coming to?" we wondered aloud. About the only solace we had was that the riots weren't happening in our own backyard. It didn't dawn on any of us that the businesses which would be destroyed during those four days of terror in LA would mostly be Korean.
Twenty Years Ago Today
Twenty years ago today, four white police officers in Los Angeles were videotaped beating King, who is black, during a traffic stop. A little more than a year later, those four cops were put on trial for assault and using excessive force in their treatment of King, who had initially been pulled over for speeding and resisting arrest. On April 29 of 1992, the jury of 10 whites, one Asian, and one Hispanic returned a verdict which pretty much exonerated all of the defendants.
Enraged at what they considered to be blatant racial discrimination by the jurors, blacks in Los Angeles took to the streets. Literally.
They swarmed the shops lining the boulevards of their South Central neighborhood, looting whatever they could carry, and torching the rest. They raced past outnumberd cops, dragging white drivers out of their vehicles and beating them. One of the most gruesome of these attacks, broadcast live on TV, injured truck driver Reginald Denny so severely that he reportedly still suffers from his wounds even today. Although lawyers for the freelance reporter who initially shot the video of Denny's beating have been able to keep it offline, you can see some of it on this bootlegged copy.
Expectations, Civility, and Emotion
If you compare the two videos, first of the cops beating Rodney King, and then of the rioters attacking Reginald Denny and others, you can see two forms of rage. Of course, the debate that raged after this horrific episode has been whether any of it is justifiable. And of course, none of it is.
Shot by a resident in a nearby apartment complex, George Holliday, the video of King's beating doesn't portray the incidents that precipitated it, because the amateur videographer didn't realize what was happening until after the beating started. But still, the reasons cops gave for their violence, which included King's trying to evade arrest, his refusal to comply with the orders they gave him once he was outside of his vehicle, and their suspicion that he was under the influence of PCP (which blood tests proved he wasn't), simply don't add up to the use of what the video plainly depicts as excessive force.
That's one reason why people continue to argue about how the jury reached its inflammatory decision. And it's pretty difficult for even the most logical right-wing conservative to look at the videotape and then try to reconcile it with the verdict for the accused cops. Some pundits have tried to give the police the benefit of the doubt, saying that none of us were there at the very beginning of the altercation. However, although that is true, none of the cops on trial actually were involved in the initial traffic altercation, either. They arrived on the scene after King had been forced to stop by the first two arresting officers.
Let's face it: what started out as an unfortunately typical aggravated police stop in Los Angeles twenty years ago tonight laid bare to the world several ugly realities:
1. Big-city cops endure stress levels from their jobs that few of us can appreciate.
2. Repeat offenders get reprocessed through society at levels that make any traffic stop a potential nightmare for cops. Officers can never be sure of what - or who - they're going to encounter during one.
3. People who do not comply with orders from cops during traffic stops have nobody else to blame if cops interpret their disobedience as a threat to their safety.
4. Cops have been trained on how to professionally react in a variety of situations. They should not allow their gut feelings to dictate a response that is unwarranted in a particular situation. Especially when so many of them are on the scene at the same time, as they were during the King beating.
5. Accountability should be thick among police officers, so that even if one of them detects a threat by a suspect and takes protective action, other officers can contribute their expertise in analyzing the situation and providing a running evaluation of the threat levels and what their appropriate response should be. Repeatedly whaling on a suspect cowering in the fetal position on the pavement should have been recognized as excessive by multiple officers who were on the scene.
6. Let me repeat: people need to be held accountable for their actions. And one of the best ways to ensure this accountability is to act in manners above reproach yourself. By all accounts, cops had the right to pull King over and arrest him. They had the right to subdue him according to the level at which he resisted arrest. They should have been able to meet the level at which King resisted arrest with appropriate force, and no more. There weren't just two officers on the scene, there were many. The safety of individual officers was not significantly compromised by the lack of backup. However, by acting the way they did, the police blew their chance to maintain their integrity and the integrity of their case against King, which, lest we forget, they were supposed to be executing on behalf of all the residents of Los Angeles. Whatever King's level of disobedience to their commands was, King was being disrespectful not to the officers personally, but to society at large. For the police department to be able to command the respect of the people they're serving, they need to be as professional as possible and keep these incidents in perspective.
7. To the extent that all of us who aren't on the scene of a police incident in person can't speculate on individual motives, we need to withhold our personal opinions until all of the facts come out. And even if a jury does not interpret the facts the way we think we would have in the same courtroom, we cannot allow emotion to dictate our response at whatever level of disappointment we may feel. The response by the black community in Los Angeles to the verdict was completely barbaric, unjustified, and criminal. I have to wonder if there weren't figureheads in LA's black community fomenting an atmosphere of anarchy even before the jury's verdict. I understand that at some level, institutionalized racism plays a role in the disenfranchisement some impoverished blacks feel, but their response to a decision in a courtroom was completely unwarranted. Some blacks blamed their torching of local businesses on the repression they detected from Korean shopkeepers who treated their black customers like criminals and wouldn't hire them. To that I simply say that plenty of laws exist on the books to punish racism, and that it's hard to imagine business owners in such a low-margin neighborhood intentionally trying to discourage commerce with legitimate customers.
8. Just as the officers who were captured on video beating King remain responsible for their actions, each rioter remains responsible for how they conducted themselves in the moments and days following the verdict. The verdict itself may logically be interpreted as a travesty of justice, but it in no way can be justified as the catalyst for the lawless behavior perpetrated by people who seemed more intent on displaying their own hate and stealing personal electronics in broad daylight with impunity.
To Live and Die in LA
Twenty years later, the Los Angeles Police Department still considers itself under a microscope, thanks in part to a YouTube generation just itching for fame with another King-esque performance from them. So, have they learned their lesson? The jury's still out on that one.
LA's Korean shopkeepers, virtually the only people willing to attempt a go of capitalism in one of America's worst slums, found 2,280 of their businesses either looted, burned or damaged in the wake of the riots. They lost $400 million in four days. Fortunately, most of them managed to rebuild, and some have forged ethnic cooperative links with local black and Hispanic groups eager to try and find some redemptive value in what they've all suffered.
King himself has been in and out of trouble with the law for a variety of things since 1992, including domestic disputes and a bizarre incident where he was shot while riding a bike through a gang-infested neighborhood. He seems to have given up on his chance to parlay his incidental fame into a platform for positive change.
Roughly 50 people were killed during those four days of rioting that rocked LA. Some were innocent passengers in cars stuck in traffic as brazen thugs shot at anybody whose skin color wasn't as dark as theirs. At least one was an overweight neighborhood teenager who fell out of a moving vehicle as it tore wildly down a boulevard during the mayhem.
All in all, a miserable way to prove two wrongs don't make a right.