When What Happened to Rodney King Changed Everything
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
You can fool some of the people some of the time, but on April 29, 1992, when four cops accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted, the foolery had stopped.
The video had laid it all out. Before social media, it was a hand-to-hand world, so even if you hadn’t seen it on TV screens at the gym or in appliance stores as you strolled by the television display, people were talking about it. Americans were talking about it. Non-Americans were talking about it. And the “it” that they were talking about was a news clip of a collection of cops surrounding and alternatively using a Taser and beating a single motorist.
“It’s terrible what’s happening in America,” a German journalist friend of mine said to me at the time. “What they do just for driving.”
The motorist, though, was named Rodney King, and the cops who used a Taser on him and then beat him with their batons were named Theodore Briseño, Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Rolando Solano and Timothy Wind. They beat him dozens of times while he lay on the ground or struggled to get off the ground. Twelve minutes of this was caught on video — having video cameras handy was a relatively recent thing then — by a nearby apartment dweller named George Holliday.
Later it was reported that King had suffered a fractured facial bone, a broken ankle, bruises and lacerations. King went on to claim more specifically that he had brain damage, broken bones and teeth, 11 skull fractures, kidney failure and, unsurprisingly, trauma.
The video of the beating aired repeatedly on news shows, and newspaper coverage tallies showed 43 articles about it in the Los Angeles Times, 17 in The New York Times and 11 in the Chicago Tribune.
The rioting was in full effect … French Revolution–style. I packed all the guns and ammo away in a gun safe, save one, and left the house with the one.
And certain portions of the worldwide viewing audience breathed a sigh of relief after saying some version of “finally” when the video went global and the cops were arrested.
See, if you were Black, Latino, poor and White, poor and a woman, gay or a punk rocker, you had some idea that cops on the street weren’t like cops on TV shows. They were also not civic functionaries like the folks at the Department of Motor Vehicles. They were typically the front line of most of us having a bad day — unless we were in desperate need of a cop, and there’s a paradox for you — and in the best case, you were walking away with a ticket. In the worst case? You, like King, were not walking away at all.
Richard Pryor had once done a stand-up bit that had as its refrain, “Cops really put a hurting on your ass.” And for large portions of America, it had just been that: a stand-up bit. But for those on the business end of beatings — particularly noteworthy for “excesses” were police forces under Daryl Gates in Los Angeles and Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia — it was no joke.
But after the video hit and the cops were identified and a trial was held, there was a widely held sense that justice would be served and the overstepping cops would be called to account. At 3:15 pm, when the four cops were acquitted after seven days of jury deliberations, it took precisely 30 minutes for a crowd of about 300 to amass at the L.A. County Courthouse to protest, and by 4:15 pm, cognitive dissonance claimed the streets in South Central Los Angeles, and everyone lost their minds.
I was standing in a room surrounded by about $10,000 worth of guns and ammo, all on account of having been a holder of a Federal Firearms License. I was doing inventory and living seven hours north of South Central, but I shook my head at the television buzzing in the corner. The prosecutor figured that everyone on the jury had seen the video so many times that they had gotten desensitized to it. But everyone else hadn’t, and when the jury of nine white folks, one Asian, one Latino and one biracial person didn’t find any one of the cops guilty of anything, that rankled.
I felt something happening that seems particular to riots: All hope or sense of tomorrow as a destination or a possibility disappeared.
So much so that by 6 pm the rioting was in full effect. And not just in Los Angeles. Cities all over had started up too — French Revolution–style. I packed all the guns and ammo away in a gun safe, save one, and left the house with the one. In San Francisco and Oakland, people were also losing their minds, and unlike Los Angeles, where the rioters/protesters were mostly Black and Latino, as it filtered north and into other cities it was more multicultural. But everyone, even those who were somehow cop-aligned, was outraged.
These weren’t the first riots I’d been in. I had been in the New York blackout and no fewer than two punk rock riots, though these were the first I waded into while armed. The first showed how flimsy our civilized veneer is and seemed more about poverty and the latter ones could have been chalked up to youth. But this was different. This was existential and ideological — and those tend to have weight. Especially as they dipped deeply into chaos and the true power of the mob, which sits outside of the law that’s so badly served it.
But I wasn’t there to protest, it felt like. I wasn’t angry enough to protest. I was sad. For us all, a sentiment that Rodney King himself voiced days later when he issued a public plea for peace with the words, “Can’t we all just get along?” I was there in the midst of the cracked glass, graffitied banks and buildings to … witness. While cars were set aflame, fights broke out, cops and citizens were casualties, I wove my motorcycle through downtown San Francisco and felt something happening that seems particular to riots: All hope or sense of tomorrow as a destination or a possibility disappeared.
Or seemed to. The last National Guardsmen didn’t leave Los Angeles until May 27, and the eventual misery tally was high: Fifty-three people were dead, 11,000 had been arrested, 3,767 buildings were burned to the ground and damages were estimated at over $1 billion. Police Chief Daryl Gates had been forced out, the same cops would be charged under federal statutes and subsequently convicted, and Rodney King won a large civil judgment against the city and used the money to start his own construction business. He died from an accidental drowning years later.
Twenty-seven years later, though, post-April 29, post-Ferguson, while the claim could comfortably be made that things are not any better, what’s much truer than ever after that first night of rioting is that there is tomorrow. And if we’re going to live in it, we better make better plans to live in it.