Twenty Years On: Official Negligence, Rodney King, and the LA Riots

Even after twenty years, the Los Angeles riots that were precipitated as a reaction to the Rodney King trial divide rather than affirm positions.  So much in the pursuit of life’s answers lies in exposing errors rather than unearthing truths.  The King trial with its miscellany of violent reactions suggested how futile such searches are. The hunt for blame is irresistible, be it the disposition of King when he was chased by the police or the brutality of the police officers in question or be it the subsequent cascading of racial violence throughout the city and the anarchic convulsions the city was plunged into.

From the moment of the King car chase that led to the application of 50 directed blows, the round up of looters, the deaths of 53 people, and $1 billion worth of damage, law had been suspended.  In full retreat, juridical processes were regarded with suspicion, mocked, and abandoned.  The verdict of the jury in the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley on the officers beating of King was given a racial lacing. The law itself became the problem, the justification for its own violence.

The enthusiastic looters, in a sense, were liberated by the excuse of law’s absence.  If King’s rights could be violated, then damn well everybody else’s could be.  And they were.  Whether it was the near fatal attack on the white truck driver Reginald Denny, or the gun-bearing Koreans who, with vigilante-styled determination, protected their property against pillage, the legal authorities had been subverted.  To this day, 22 homicides remain unsolved, a permanent legal purgatory

There are still those who prefer to see the trial as a case where the four police officers were hard done by, maligned for doing their duty in a way that was only slightly ‘off.’  Then President George W H Bush himself stated that, ‘viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned.  And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids.’

What is easy to forget is that the LAPD has had various incarnations and identities.  Created on a reformist platform, the city was the product of white, middle class progressivism with an allergy towards party politics, a nirvana devised without such machinery.  The police forces were no exception.  The generation of August Vollmer, William Worton, and William H. Parker had much to recommend it, but the blight set in around 1923, when the Chief of police Louis Oak, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, oversaw a department that descended (some might say ascended) into bootlegging enthusiasm and corrupt delights.  To this day, the mayor remains weak while the chief remains independent, sometimes irritatingly so.

The veteran reporter Lou Cannon came up with a term to describe the bloody consequences of the King case: official negligence.  Mayor Bradley and Chief Gates took it upon themselves to abandon policing models with a focus on the community.  Could it be, speculated Canon, that such designs would have vested too much power with the police?

One of the responses to the riots was to bring in that curious beast of community policing, an imperfect and unsatisfactory system that has, nonetheless, seen a reduction of fatalities in certain parts of LA.  The 77th Street Division that covers Watts and Inglewood is taken as an example of how an improvement has been made, if one thinks that a drop from 143 homicides in 1992 to 32 homicides in 2011 is an improvement.  The LAPD doesn’t quite have the same taint to it, though dissatisfaction remains.  At the junction of Florence and Normandie avenues, a protest, albeit small, featured an assortment of irate commentary against the fuzz – ‘fuck the police’, exclaimed an unnamed female rapper.

Official negligence can creep in at any point in time, a type of institutional indifference that borders on recklessness.  The various groups who have trumpeted the line of unity, be it the Korean American Coalition, the Anti-Defamation League, or the LA Urban League show at least some awareness of it.  Even King himself had to concede that there was ‘always going to be some type of racism.’  Getting along remains a mystique and idyllic promise.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.