Could it happen again? That is the taboo question on the 20th anniversary of Los Angeles’s murderous Rodney King riots, just as another racially charged prosecution—this time in Florida—captures headlines across the nation. Sadly, the answer is yes. As the Oakland riots in 2009 and 2010 following a transit officer’s fatal shooting of a parolee made clear, the threat of riots—what Fred Siegel has called “riot ideology”—still hangs over interracial incidents of violence when the victim is black. And just as the press cynically manipulated the facts in the Rodney King beating in order to increase racial tensions, it has done so again in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Florida.
The best hope for avoiding a repeat of the L.A. mayhem, should blacks not be satisfied with the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, is that police forces across the country have learned the lesson of the Rodney King riots: that outbreaks of civil anarchy must be immediately and unapologetically suppressed.
Anniversary coverage of the 1992 riots (or, as the New York Times is still willing to put it, “civil unrest”) has whitewashed the violence and imposed a predictable storyline: that the riots were caused by the Los Angeles Police Department, not by the individuals who viciously assaulted motorists and shot Korean storeowners. “The reason we had this riot was because we had the total emasculation and humiliation of an entire community,” civil rights attorney Connie Rice declared at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last Sunday. “It was kindling built on kindling built on kindling.” And not only did the LAPD’s alleged racism cause the violence, according to the official narrative, but its failure to practice community policing also prevented the department from anticipating the violence. Had police officers in South Los Angeles “been plugged into their neighborhoods,” writes Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks, “the city might have seen [the violence] coming.”
Actually, the LAPD (which, by 1992, was in fact enthusiastically engaged in community policing) did see the violence coming, but the department so feared provoking the “community” with visible riot preparations that it barely readied itself for the possible mayhem. And when the violence broke out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, police supervisors initially held their cops back from intervening, lest a forceful response be caught on videotape and circulated worldwide as yet more proof of a brutal LAPD. Such passivity allowed the anarchy to escalate and violated the department’s duty to protect the public—but it is an indication of how thoroughly the LAPD had been demoralized by the media treatment of the Rodney King beating that it would allow itself to fail the city at such a moment. (And indeed, its fears about a backlash were hardly irrational. Racial tensions escalated several days into the riots after a National Guard unit shot and killed a man who had tried several times to run over Guard members with his Datsun. The attacks on Korean store owners by rioters, of course, did not produce similar racial tensions.)
True, the LAPD had a troubled history with blacks in South Central Los Angeles. But the Rodney King beating was not a function of that history. In the 1950s and 1960s, LAPD Chief William Parker responded to the perennial problem of L.A. policing—too few cops, too much ground to cover—by cultivating an imperious command-and-control attitude in officers that sometimes merged into outright racism in the city’s high crime black areas. But by the 1980s, despite Parker’s earlier efforts to insulate the department from political interference, it was anti-cop politics, not the Centurion ideal, that most shaped the LAPD. The department lowered physical standards to meet hiring quotas for females and minorities; those lowered standards increased the risk that officers would resort to firearms and other instruments of lethal force to subdue recalcitrant suspects. A ban on the use of the chokehold likewise made use of the baton more likely.
The Rodney King beating was the outgrowth of these political pressures. Pumped up on alcohol and drugs, King led officers on a high-speed chase across L.A.’s freeways and residential streets far north of South Central. When the officers finally stopped him, they tried nonviolent means of arresting him—verbal commands, a group tackle, handcuffs, and, finally, a taser—but he fiercely fought all of them off. Only after King lunged at the officers did they resort to the baton. A civilian video captured much of the stop, but the media edited out the nonviolent prelude to the baton blows. The loop beamed around the world thousands of times appeared to show an unprovoked beating of King, agonizingly prolonged because the main protagonist, the diminutive Laurence Powell, was physically overmatched by King and incompetent in use of the baton. (King’s two passengers, by comparison, complied with the officers’ orders and were arrested without incident.)
Unlike most of the public, the jury that decided the excessive-force charges against the officers saw the full video. They acquitted the officers. By then, the media had disseminated the relentless message that the biggest threat facing blacks in L.A. was the cops, not the hundreds of gangs that murdered blacks every week with zero protest from racial advocates. The verdict itself, according to the advocates and their press allies, could only have been produced by a criminal-justice system stacked against blacks.
That interpretation was utterly false, as Lou Cannon showed in Official Negligence. But even if it were the case that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice, nothing could justify the violence that followed. Attributing grand political or social meaning to riots inevitably ends up justifying individual decisions to destroy lives and precious civil order.
Moreover, mob violence never conforms to the exculpatory script some give it. If LAPD oppression was both the cause and the target of that violence, why did the mobs assault the following civilians, among many others, in the first two hours of violence alone? There were the son of the Korean owner of Tom’s Liquor Store at Normandy and Florence, beaten by gangbangers while the store was being torched; the white driver of a gray Volvo, who was dragged from his car and kicked in the head by assailants yelling “It’s a black thing,” and who barely escaped in his car (minus his camera and briefcase, naturally); the white driver of a brown Jeep Wrangler who was hit by a rock thrown through the front windshield, then smashed in the face with a bottle when he got out of the jeep; a Latino driver who was pulled from his blue sedan and beaten; a Latino man, woman, and one-year-old child who were pelted with bottles; a 30-year-old woman who sustained numerous injuries to the head; a Guatemalan immigrant who was yanked from his truck, robbed, and bashed in the forehead with a car stereo while a rioter tried to saw off his ear; the driver of a white van who was beaten to the appreciative cheers of spectators, and to the taunt: “That’s how Rodney King felt, white boy”; and, of course, truck driver Reginald Denny, dragged from his big rig, stomped on, and beaten so ruthlessly with his truck’s fire extinguisher that his cranium was fractured in 91 places and his left eye dangled into his cheek cavity.
And if the LAPD was the cause of what Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez calls “those epic days,” why were two white males in Long Beach, California—far south of the LAPD’s jurisdiction—dragged from their motorcycle, beaten, robbed, and then, as they lay semi-conscious on the ground, shot multiple times—one fatally? Why was there rioting as far afield as Atlanta and Las Vegas? And what does the mindless property destruction, with its self-serving, maudlin justifications, have to do with the LAPD? “People can’t keep living like this. People are tired of this,” bathetically explained a looter carrying beer out of a South Central liquor store. Over 20,000 employees were put out of work because their places of employment had been burned to the ground or rendered uninhabitable; few if any were employed by the LAPD.
This fireball of racial hatred is being kept carefully offstage in the anniversary coverage, reduced to a few dry statistics: 54 dead, 2,328 hospitalizations, nearly $1 billion in property damage. Twenty years later, the media seems interested mainly in asking how Rodney King feels about things now and whether the LAPD has changed. The suggestion that individuals were accountable for the violence is absent, and the clear implication in the coverage is that society had it coming. No reporter or commentator has asked: what collapse of socialization could lead to such nihilistic violence? Or: Has anything improved in the black family or black culture to guard against such depravity in the future?
The same deflection of attention occurred in the immediate aftermath of the riots. After the usual genuflection to the “root causes” of the violence—racism, police brutality, and economic injustice—the subject was immediately changed to what government, corporations, and banks could do to rebuild South Central L.A. The media drew a curtain over the behavior that produced the need for that rebuilding in the first place, as if society could not look upon such savagery for too long without turning away.
The establishment answer to the question of whether the LAPD has changed is: Yes, sort of. Most important to liberals is the department’s racial composition. In 1992, the department was 59 percent white; today, whites make up only 37 percent of the force, former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Of course, such racial demographics are the least important thing about a department (and by 1992, racism was an insignificant problem in the department anyway). But though liberal elites remain clueless about what makes for good policing, the LAPD has changed. It is now intensely managed to fight crime with constantly evolving tactics and deployment. Thanks to Compstat, the data-analysis system brought to the Southland by former LAPD chief Bill Bratton, department commanders are unfailingly held accountable for the safety of their divisions. As a result of the Compstat revolution, the Los Angeles Police Department has saved hundreds of black males’ lives over the last decade, making it the only big-city competitor to the New York Police Department for the depth and length of its crime drop over the past decade.
L.A.’s professional cop critics, however, aren’t about to let go of their still-useful conceit of a racially biased LAPD. Press darling Rice complained at the L.A. Times Festival of Books that the police aren’t as committed as they should be to making every Los Angeles resident feel safe. Violence remains prevalent in certain neighborhoods, she griped, adding that the department’s ethos is still “You keep certain neighborhoods safe, you keep certain neighborhoods contained.” Her claim is 100 percent bogus. Compstat alone insures that the department focuses on the highest-crime neighborhoods; it is slanderous to accuse the force of slighting public safety in “certain neighborhoods.” And if violence is still prevalent in those neighborhoods, despite the tireless efforts of the police to protect residents, perhaps Rice should ask the parents of the gangbangers producing that violence why they aren’t controlling their kids.
The press could use the 1992 riots as an occasion for self-examination. Instead, history is repeating itself. The build-up around the Trayvon Martin shooting seems almost designed to provoke riots should the case not come out the way the race agitators and the media think it should. As with the King beating, the press has doctored evidence and suppressed relevant context. It is once again promoting falsehoods—that the criminal justice system is racist and that blacks are under assault from racist whites. (To the contrary, young black males are under assault from other young blacks, who commit homicide at ten times the rate of young white and Hispanic males combined. White-on-black killings are negligible compared with black-on-white killings and are a minute fraction of the over 6,000 blacks mowed down every year by other blacks. Blacks kill whites and Hispanics at two-and-a-half times the rate at which whites and Hispanics kill blacks, though blacks are only one-sixth of the combined white and Hispanic population.)
By now, media desperation to buttress its white-on-black violence theme has become outright comical, as the press scours the horizon for any remotely relevant story to fuel racial resentment. We have already been living with what appear to be small, rolling race riots for years now. But the possibility of something larger occurring if the Trayvon Martin prosecution is not satisfactorily concluded is being matter-of-factly contemplated by people who should know better—“There would’ve been a riot if they wouldn’t have arrested him,” the executive director of a Jacksonville nonprofit told the Wall Street Journal after Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was indicted—and eagerly contemplated by those who don’t know better.
It seems almost unimaginable that a jury would acquit Zimmerman after the intense campaign insisting on the symbolic racial status of the case. But should such an outcome come to pass, every police department in the country should be prepared to put down any ensuing violence at its first outbreak, in the name of justice for all. This much we should all have learned from the ugliness of 1992.