Rodney King and the riot next time

It was a very L.A. kind of riot. The sky seemed especially gray the evening I drove up from San Diego in 1992 to join a team covering the outbreak of violence after the acquittal of the police officers who’d been filmed beating a black man named Rodney King. But there was a ballroom dance competition proceeding as scheduled at the LAX Hilton when I got there and the lobby was filled with Latin dance division competitors, as vivid as parrots. Often, in the smoldering aftermath of the violence, there were similar splashes of color amid the gloom.

The manner of Rodney King’s passing, in a swimming pool on a Sunday morning, insures his place as one of history’s quintessentially California characters. But as he was himself all too aware, the violence which bore his name was only incidentally about him.

It was really several riots, but the verdict freeing the officers who beat him senseless was the signal for the commencement of all of them.

Some of the sharpest violence was sparked by anger over the probationary sentence given a Korean storekeeper in the shooting death of a 15-year-old black girl, Natasha Harlins, a case which had proceeded almost in parallel with the Rodney King story but received less national attention. Another image I won’t forget from those days is Pat Buchanan standing face-to-face with a Korean barber shop owner who had armed himself and defended his shop from the roof during the riots. They could have been brothers, separated at birth.

There were stories of gangs from other cities swooping in to take advantage of the distraction, starting fires in strip malls and knocking off jewelry and gun stores a couple of miles down the road. Whether it was that organized, there was certainly a degree of opportunism. There was senseless brutality, like the thugs who pulled Reginald Denny out of his truck and beat him nearly to death, but among the 53 deaths, 7,000 fires and 12,000 arrests arising from the unrest, there were some old scores settled as well.

One reason we were there covering it was that smaller riots had broken out after the verdict in Atlanta and other cities. Although there have been several riots over the two decades since then, often arising out of circumstances much like those in Los Angeles, there has been nothing on this scale.

To a student of American race riots, this is not very comforting, especially with the tensions of the Treyvon Martin case hanging in the air. King’s death marks a worthy time to reflect on what the next really big riot might be like, and what might be done to avoid it.

The violence following the verdict in the Rodney King case marked a cultural turning point best understood by comparison with the 1965 Watts riots in the same vicinity. That unexpected eruption grabbed the nation’s attention, but the cameras caught only the flames beyond the police lines.

The media was on the edge then, but by the ‘90s it was in the middle. If it’s Rodney King’s name we remember, it’s a plumber named George Holliday who gave this story its groundbreaking character. When he pulled out his video camera and filmed the police beating, Holliday became the forerunner of everyone since then who’s used a phone cam to document an outrage. Later, when Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten, the act was filmed by both a news chopper crew and a bystander.

We don’t know exactly what the next great conflagration will be like, but it will be more like the Rodney King riots than like Watts: more complicated in its racial and ethnic tensions and more driven by the media, whatever that has become by then.

Denny had several operations, forgave his attackers and settled in Arizona, where he has refused interviews about his experience. Holliday, profiled in a 2006 Los Angeles Times piece,  ended up more embittered with the media he’d so profoundly affected than the police.

If the police had merely wrestled King to the ground that night, he might well have re-entered the California prison system and spent the rest of his life there. He was out on parole from a robbery conviction, he was driving 100 miles per hour and he tried to escape after he stopped. He never tried to pretend he was Martin Luther King. It was just those few words, “Can we all get along?” that made him anything other than an incidental flashpoint in the history books.

He got a modest settlement by California standards, of $1.5 million, which he claimed to have spent before his death, and was engaged to a juror from the police trial. Arguably he had it better than many of the others caught up in the violence, but he struggled with substance abuse, traumatic memories of the beating and discomfort with his fame. Ultimately, King came to believe he had been the instrument, however circumstantially, of a positive change in the world, through the enforcement of more humane police practices.

Let’s hope so. And let’s hope that when the tinder gets piled as high as it was two decades ago, there won’t be a spark to light it.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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