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.

Unknown to the police, 81 seconds of their beating of King had been videotaped by a resident in a nearby apartment, George Holliday. What Holliday did with the tape was momentous. He did not hand it over to the Police. Had he done so, there would have been an internal tribunal, and most likely some stern disciplinary action. There might also have been judicial control over the tape. Instead, Holliday sold his cassette for $500 to a local TV station, KTLA, who showed it next night on their ten o’clock news hour, and marketed it to television companies nation – and world-wide. The tape, which was played over and over, caused what the Los Angeles Times called ‘a collective national gasp of horror’. Editorialists were universally appalled. African Americans hailed it as confirmation of what they had always said about white policemen. President Bush declared himself ‘disgusted’ by the beating. Commentators and cartoonists drew the analogy to a pack of jackals, pulling down and dismembering their prey with animal efficiency. These were professionals who used their night-sticks with an almost showy panache. Anything less ‘out of control’ (a much parroted phrase in press reports) it would be hard to imagine.

The King tape brought a long-standing power-struggle in Los Angeles to its climax. Unlike other American cities, LA has a police chief who is independent of his political masters. He has the equivalent of academic tenure and cannot be dismissed (without extraordinary cause) by his boss, the Mayor. This is to prevent the Police being used for political ends. Chief Daryl F. Gates rose through the ranks to the highest position in the LAPD. He is a moral absolutist who believes drug dealers should be shot, and who disowned his own son when he was convicted of drug possession. Gates is white, and is commonly suspected of being hostile to minorities. Since he does not fear for his job, he does not watch his mouth. During the riot, for instance, Gates ironically congratulated the rioters for attacking the Los Angeles Times building: the Times is one of his severest critics. Gates’s officers idolise him as ‘their kind of cop’, and Gates is fanatically loyal to his men. Following its leader’s Dirty Harry style, the LAPD is remarkably uncorrupted (compared with the New York or Chicago force), but can be very high-handed and contemptuous of civilians – even white middle-class, rich or famous civilians. The Mayor of Los Angeles is black, and is also a former LAPD officer. Tom Bradley exudes flexibility, tolerance and a benign moral laxity. When his daughter was caught driving under the influence of PCP, she was forgiven. Bradley, who, at 74, is much older than he looks, belongs to the Martin Luther King ‘one race, the human race’ party. Unlike Gates, he has frequently been accused of condoning financial wrong-doing and cronyism in his administration. The LAPD may be incorruptible, but there is no question that some rooms in City Hall can be bought.

Taking advantage of the furore provoked by the King tape, Bradley set up a commission into LA policing which drove Gates into resignation, effective July 1992. In his place, the Mayor appointed a young black Chief from Philadelphia, Willie L. Williams. Williams is an outsider, and much given to pieties about ‘the healing process’. He likes hobnobbing with ‘community leaders’ – something Gates despises. Williams will, one suspects, be very much the Mayor’s man, especially if Amendment F, making the LAPD directly answerable to City Hall, is approved by the electorate this June.

Meanwhile the District Attorney, Ira Reiner, resolved to bring felony charges against the four officers who beat and arrested King, rather than let the internal processes of the LAPD take over. This was probably a mistake, but Reiner’s hand was forced by public reaction to the tape. The three videotaped assailants and the officer in charge, Koon, would be tried together. This was a promising tactic on Reiner’s part. One of the officers who had not actually beaten but merely kicked King was intending to break ranks and testify that his three baton-wielding colleagues were ‘out of control’. Since the tape had been so widely seen, and the assailants so extensively prejudged, they could not expect a fair trial anywhere in LA City or County. After much haggling, the site for the trial was eventually moved far north to Simi Valley in Ventura County. Ventura has a less than 2 per cent black population and the lowest crime rate in Southern California. It is a white flight enclave which coincidentally attracts many retired policemen. The Rodney King four would be tried by their peers – that much was certain.

The Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial had introduced cable subscribers to something called the ‘Court Channel’. This service gives non-stop live coverage to high-profile trials. Cameras were allowed into the King trial, and every minute of the daytime proceedings was covered (the trial was also covered during the day by one of the LA network stations). At night, three or four hours were devoted on Court Channel to ‘highlights’, with informed commentary on tactics and who was coming out ahead. It was addictive viewing. It was also perplexing to one’s initial conviction that these officers had been caught cold in an act of egregious brutality. Sergeant Koon was particularly effective in his own defence. Calmly, he declared that yes, he had been in charge of his men. He had been convinced that King was high on drugs and dangerous. Had he been allowed by LAPD policy to use the choke hold, he might have been able to disable King without beating him, but protest from African Americans has led to the choke hold being made illegal. So much the worse for them. His only options were deadly force (i.e. shooting King) or maximum physical force: ‘tasing’ and truncheon-whipping. All the blows had been directed away from vulnerable areas like the spine and the head. (The prosecution was never able to show that King’s head and face injuries were not caused by collision with the road surface, as the defendants claimed.) Calmly, Koon claimed that the beating was entirely in line with Police Department training and operational policy. If you had to subdue a 230-pound criminal suspect, it was no good playing pat-a-cake. In this, he was supported by expert witnesses in the LAPD. Koon’s counsel made the point that had the officers been hitting King wildly with baseball swings to the head, he would be a dead man. They had picked their shots judiciously. Most effectively, the defence talked Koon through the now famous tape, frame by frame, in slow motion – ‘deconstructing’ it, as they said. Looking at it through the policeman’s eyes, one could see that King did twist on the ground: but was it to avoid the blows or to get to his feet? The taser gun – guaranteed to reduce a man to jelly – had no effect on him at all. That was frightening. What was this guy on?

The prosecution was led by a black DA. (One of the first lessons one learns in America is not to react to strange-sounding names: but it was striking that the black DA should be called White and the principal white defendant Koon.) King himself did not take the stand. The prosecution calculated that the tape would do all their work for them. Moreover King would not look good to a Simi Valley jury. Inarticulate, with a criminal record as long as his arm, he was not a model citizen. He was also prone to panic. Once, holding up a store, King had lost his nerve, apologised to the storekeeper and run away (leaving his picture on the security video). Six weeks after his beating, King had been discovered in a parked car with a transvestite prostitute; he sped off, and nearly ran down a vice officer.

A lot of nonsense was written in editorial and spouted (by Mayor Bradley, among others) on 30 April about the wrongness of the verdict. Anyone watching the ‘deconstructed’ tape and the expert witnesses would have to allow the possibility of ‘reasonable doubt’ as to whether the officers were either out of control, or out of line with police policy when arresting potentially murderous suspects. That policy might be callously wrong, and the Police Department overdue for major overhaul (as Bradley’s Christopher Commission had asserted when it reported in July 1991). But the jurors were pronouncing on individual guilt, not city governance. Koon had offered a Nuremberg defence: he was merely following standard operating procedure. Of course, Nuremberg determined that the Nuremberg defence was no defence. But heck, these guys weren’t killing six million innocent people – they were just playing some hardball with a lowlife, cleaning up the city’s trash.

When the verdict was delivered at three o’clock on 29 April hell broke loose, but slowly and in the now predictable pattern of urban riot. Television bears a heavy responsibility for the violence that followed. Accompanying their reports of the verdict, local stations gave the ‘stunned reactions’ of local leaders (including Bradley’s – who mischievously instructed citizens to demonstrate their anger). They also played the tape of the King beating over and over. The impact of ‘innocent’, juxtaposed with 83 truncheon blows and the Mayor, no less, inciting the community to protest, was gasoline on the fire.

By five o’clock things were hotting up in the South Central area, where the Los Angeles black population (and its most ferocious gangs) are concentrated. Television and radio stations all have their helicopters over that area at that time, watching the evening rush hour. As a result, millions of viewers could now watch a riot unfold with clinical objectivity. Thanks to zoom lenses, they could also see arson, battery and murder in close-up. One particular episode took on iconic significance. At a crossroads in South Los Angeles, four young blacks dragged a white driver from his truck. They beat and stomped him mercilessly, and stole his wallet, while a flock of helicopters relayed the scene as it happened to early evening viewers. It was the flip side of the King beating – with the difference that these assailants were trying to kill their man. After brain surgery Reginald Denny remained in critical condition. The rioters, as viewers watched serenely from the sky, went on to loot a liquor store and torch the neighbourhood gas station. Hours passed, night fell; the Police didn’t come – why? TV commentators hinted that it was in reprisal against Los Angeles, the city that thinks police are ‘brutes’.

That evening on LA television was a unique viewing experience. Four stations, each with their helicopters covering different hotspots, competed for maximum viewership. There were no commercials. CNN offered a round-up of the most dramatic footage, as it came in. One could surf from channel to channel, watching a warehouse burn, or a supermarket lose its contents to roving bands of looters. ‘Doing some shopping’ was how they described their activity to reporters. Fires burned out of control because firefighters would not venture into South Central Los Angeles without heavy police escort. And the Police would apparently not go into SCLA without a full-blown military escort. A pattern of TV coverage emerged: front-line reporters (often young women) boldly went where the LAPD wouldn’t; at rear echelon, reporters commented on the trundling convoys of police vehicles (some of them now tanks) and speculated where they might be going – they certainly weren’t marching out to engage the enemy. Television continued to advertise Los Angeles as a city without defences. And at headquarters, the Mayor’s staff read their timid version of the riot act, without ever using the awful word ‘riot’ – knowing that the term would put them one step nearer their nightmare, race war. Channel 2 (motto ‘Live Action News’) came out best. Its reporters were most intrepid – venturing deep into gang territory. And it was Channel 2 that hit on the brilliant expedient of split-screening Tom Bradley (and Gates, and next day President Bush) mouthing their platitudes while on the other half of the screen one saw arson, looting and murder. All in all, it was a night that gave millions of viewers a taste of Nero’s pleasures.

Every living-room became a command post. Over the hours, once could see strategies emerge. The authorities took a Desert Storm approach. They methodically built up their strength, sucking in police and fire-fighting personnel from neighbouring communities and keeping them in reserve. The National Guard was mobilised. Army troops were alerted at Fort Ord. Only with clear superiority on the ground would the LAPD or the LAFS move in. The arsonist-looters had developed deadly skirmishing tactics. African American gang members using their new technology of fast cars, pagers and cellular phones would hit chosen targets: take high-priced items, then travel on, often arsonising as they left. Behind these skirmishes came waves of non-criminal multi-ethnic looters: whole families in expensive cars and pick-ups. These were not (as community leaders piously intoned) desperate people who had nothing: they were well-off people who wanted more, lots more.