What Have We Learned 25 Years After LA Rioted Over Rodney King?
At some point during the five days of America’s most destructive riot (over 1000 buildings destroyed by fire, thousands injured, & 53 deaths), a pretty blonde local news anchor stands in front of 28 armed men in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The camera pans to the roof, and a man with the Uzi walking back and forth. The news desk asks, “Do you think those guns are registered?”
Gun Store Manager David Joo told A&E he felt relieved seeing cop cars outside the shop he worked at. But, “As soon as the gunfighting started, they ran away,” he recounts, laughing.
“This has to be a disturbing sight to LAPD and to the National Guard out there as well,” the anchor at the news desk says solemnly. “The troops have to be very concerned about this scene.” The pretty blonde responds, “Absolutely.”
No one in the news broadcast says the word “protest” or “riot.” The only word is “looters.”
Hugo Schwyzer was in graduate school at UCLA during the riots. “Classes were cancelled, and we had a curfew during the riots, dawn to dusk, so we hung out in the few open coffee shops during the day, stocked up on food, and then spent three nights playing cards and talking and listening to sirens and gunshots.”
“The third day the National Guard came,” Schwyzer told me. “It was so stunning for middle-class Americans to see humvees everywhere and Guardsmen and women with rifles on corners.”
“I have such happy memories of the bonding we did,” Schwyzer said. “We were far enough away from tragedy to not be directly affected, but close enough to have our lives momentarily altered by the sheer enormity of it. For kids in their teens and 20s, it was so incredibly exciting!”
I reached out to Dr. Amos C. Brown, President of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, who was on the Bay Bridge when the verdict came down. “We were stuck on that bridge for hours,” he said.
After Rodney King was hit more than 50 times with police batons. After he suffered 11 fractures. After it came out that he was arrested for not pulling over for police. After it came out that he was never charged with a crime. After the only four officers to stand trial after were acquitted despite a videotape showing them hitting a mostly prone King. After all that, LA had had enough.
“The Rodney King verdict is another instance in my life, when I was reminded that America was living a lie of being a nation, one nation, under God, indivisible, with justice for all,” Brown said.
Schwyzer mistress baked oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies for the National Guard.
The National Guard was there because the LAPD literally ran out of the city scared, leaving the citizens of LA defenseless, save for their own shotguns and Uzis, in the wake of the backlash to their own scandal. The local news anchors, all white, showed more concern for the LAPD than the citizens they abandoned. And white girls baked cookies for the Guard while their city burned.
“White America is more afraid of the riots that happened after the Rodney King beating than they are ashamed of the beating itself,” my friend Lonex Louisdor told me.
In another video, this one from after the riots ended, a reporter with a blonde mullet asks Tupac Shakur for his thoughts on the same events. “I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so,” Shakur says, adding he is glad to see black Los Angelians coming together to fight back, but, “I was worried that we were gonna lose a lot of people.”
Shakur was afraid he would see more black people beaten and killed by police. The reporter follows up by asking, “Is it time for Hollywood to examine the images that it presents of black people and other minorities?”
Shakur responds calmly, but without hesitation. “No. This is a time for America to look at how they look at minorities.”
Echoing Shakur, Brown calls the Rodney King beating “a mirror to America.”
“We’re still reflecting that ugly mirror.”
Citing the officers who threatened at Harvard Professor for trying to enter his own home, Louisdor put it bluntly, “The perception of black criminality continues to exist.”
“America still has not dealt with this birth defect,” Brown said. “Has not taken its therapy. That sickness is race. And rendering black people as being an invisible people.”
“San Francisco pretends to be nice,” Brown said. “But racism has blacks, only 53% are employed, 93% for whites. Mean income for blacks is $29,000, whites is $101,000.”
Brown continued. “Blacks represent more than half of explus and suspensions,” he said. Only eight percent of the SF public school student population is black. “Wallenberg High School, named for a Jewish brother, injustice is being perpetrated against black students there. Eleven or twelve black students have been put out.”
“Why is it that everyone else is gaining or holding their own, including the Fillmore area, which used to be the Harlem of the West?” Brown asked. “That whole area has now become gentrified. It’s just not fair. San Francisco mirrors America, and its racist attitudes and practices.”
“It seems as if no matter where we go, how far we reach, the agents of the state will be there to tear us down and kill the strongest among us,” Louisdor said. “Everything that happened during the Rodney King beating is still happening today: increase of police powers, little-to-no accountability, police treating black people like animals and not human.”
When I asked Brown what we’d learned from Rodney King, he brought up the fact that we recently elected “that man of incivility, incompetency, and misogynistic behavior.”
Three years before Rodney King, Matias Reyes raped Trisha Meili in Central Park and then beat her into a coma. Police arrested five teenagers, four black and one Latino and tortured them into confessing to a crime DNA evidence would later prove they did not commit.
During the trial, Donald Trump paid for full-page ads in all the major New York daily papers. ”I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” said one ad. ”They should be forced to suffer and when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
“Trump’s public call for the supposed perpetrators’ hides, no matter the proof of guilt or innocence, mimics the rituals of Southern lynchings,” writes Rick Perlstein for the New York Times.
Brown became involved with the NAACP when he was 14 years old and saw an article in Jet magazine about Emmett Till, who was lynched at the same age.
“Even when the lady admitted that she lied on Emmett Till 61 years ago, you didn’t hear a peep about it from Donald Trump,” Brown said. He sounded hurt. “We extend our prayers to the family of Emmett Till.”
Today Trump continues to insist the five teenagers whose executions he called for are guilty.
Some say riots don’t accomplish anything. That they damage the protesters’ credibility. Few empathize with the desperation felt by people with boots on their necks. White people earnestly ask why protests aren’t peaceful because they’ve chosen to ignore the fact that peaceful black Americans get tear gassed, and worse, when they protest police brutality.
People ignore that it wasn’t protesters looting in Koreatown. It was mostly, according to Joo, Mexican-American gang members. People ignore that once black Los Angeles forced the rest of Los Angeles to taste of the kind of fear that is part of what it is to be black in America, they could not control who else unleashed their own hell. People ignore that the only way to get white America’s attention is to make us feel a small fraction of the fear black America feels every single day.
Rodney King was right, but he could not afford to take out ads in every LA newspaper calling for justice.
It cost LA a billion dollars of property damage to get Rodney King his lawsuit, which he won, along with 30 months in prison for the four officers, because there was no other way for Rodney King to get his lawsuit that was actually available to Rodney King.
According to Schwyzer, the riots started “a lot of conversations about race we hadn’t had. And it absolutely transformed the LAPD in a way that is still stunning to me. I can’t remember the last time I saw two white male cops patrolling together. It just doesn’t happen anymore.”
What sparked the LA riots isn’t the savage beating of Rodney King. A juror in the trial is on record saying that she knew that stuff happened. Everyone knew. What sparked the LA riots was the videotape, unheard of at the time. Just like it wasn’t the lynching of Emmett Till that sparked the Civil Rights Movement, but the open-casket funeral and the men with guns who protected the family who dared to make a stink about it.
The hope to cling to is that white people are slowly becoming as afraid of corrupt, unaccountable police as they always have been are of black protesters.
Over the last 25 years, the ubiquity of mobile recording devices means Americans have watched many unarmed black men die at the hands of police. “Twenty-five years later and the overuse of police force and lack of accountability has not changed,” Louisdor said. “The only thing that has changed is the fact that middle America is now being impacted by the aggressive nature of the American police force.”
“If this abuse of power stayed in the ghetto, where it would only hurt those of less social power, we would not be speaking about this today,” Louisdor said.
Shakur ends his statement to the reporter with a challenge that sounds straight out of Black Lives Matter. A challenge to white America to be more intolerant of injustice than afraid of our fellow citizens. One we have yet to meet.
“Either you change, or we all fall.”