The Fire This Time

John Sutherland

Future historians looking back at the Rodney King insurrection in South Central Los Angeles will not see (or not just see) another in the line of racial explosions which go back through Watts, the Zoot Suit riots, to the ‘Yellow Peril’ pogroms of the early 20th century. What distinguishes this particular affray by (and against) a Californian ethnic minority is that it was the first such to be entirely and comprehensively covered by television.

At just after midnight on 3 March 1991, a black motorist in a clapped-out station wagon failed to stop on the 210 Freeway when ordered over by the California Highway Patrol. According to subsequent police reports, Rodney King’s 1988 Hyundai reached speeds of over 115 mph: an allegation which caused some merriment among local used-car dealers. King and two low-life companions were cornered by a posse of LAPD officers loosely under the command of a Sergeant Stacey Koon, from the local Foothill Division. Koon is white, as were all the twenty-five or so LAPD men who had also been drawn into the pursuit and who stood around to watch what would happen. The CHP officers, whose jurisdiction is limited to the freeways, were sidelined while four of their comrades in blue apprehended the driver of the suspect car and its passengers. The passengers came quietly, were quickly ‘proned out’ and handcuffed. The driver, Rodney King, reacted bizarrely. He gibbered and refused to obey police orders. King is physically massive and muscular. Officers presumed that he had served time and spent it working out, as do many African American prisoners. They were right. King was a convicted felon, and had broken his parole by drinking – which was probably why he was fleeing the police. On the basis of his bizarre behaviour the arresting officers further assumed that King was ‘dusted’ – high on PCP (‘angel dust’), a drug which is famous for making users psychotic, indifferent to pain and extremely violent. But as hospital tests revealed, King, though legally drunk, was clean as regards illicit drugs, apart from some traces of marijuana.

A decision was made to use force to arrest King. This meant two high-voltage taser darts (from electrical stun-guns), 83 baton blows and several kicks from three of the arresting officers (the fourth, Sergeant Koon, was in command and did not physically assault King). King either writhed in pain under this barrage, or, as the officers saw it, made repeated attempts to get up and fight. Their massive application of force was anything but furtive. King was beaten in a methodical fashion under a helicopter spotlight, while passing civilian cars slowed down to watch, and in full view of apartment houses. As the police novelist Joseph Wambaugh put it, this was not brutalisation, it was street theatre.

Finally, after at least two minutes of beating, electrocution, kicks and, as he claimed, ‘racial slurs’, King was handcuffed and bundled into a police cruiser. On their way home the officers tapped in some racially offensive comments to their control room via their squad-car computers. The subsequent police report of the incident impudently claimed that only ‘minor’ damage had been done to King, who had suffered a split lip and nothing else. He was, in fact, a mass of bruises. In the hospital where he was taken after booking, one officer joked with his victim about the ‘hardball’ they had played.

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