Tuesday, April 24, 2012 / 4:37 pm

Rodney King for a Day

Will there be fire next time?

by Jim Washburn

Rodney King beating video

What would it take to get you to beat the crap out of someone who was already lying beaten on the ground? An imminent threat to your life? The knowledge that person had done something cruel and horrible to someone you loved? How about if the person just drove fast and didn’t obey your commands with the deference you were accustomed to? How many kicks, taser shots and baton blows would you have to deliver before you felt good about yourself again?

Back on March 3, 1991, it took a taser shot, 56 baton blows, and seven good kicks (resulting in fractured face bones, a broken ankle and a quilt of bruises and lacerations) before LAPD officers felt they’d made their point to Rodney King. King was not a model citizen: He’d attracted authorities’ attention because he was driving drunk at high speed, and he didn’t heed their sirens because the drunk driving would have violated his parole for a previous robbery conviction.

Once stopped, he was initially slow to obey the cops’ commands. It’s a drinky thing. Once the blows started raining, he resisted the orders to lie still, most likely because when you’re already getting hit for lying still, the natural impulse, drunk or sober, is to haul ass.

Twenty years after the riots that followed the insanely unjust acquittal of the cops who had beat the helpless King, my thoughts are pretty much what they were on the tenth anniversary of those smoke and blood-choked nights (which you can read here, in my OC Weekly column of the time): that King was an asshole who deserved to be brought to justice, but that what he got on the ground that night was nothing like justice, merely more of the injustice that had been visited on blacks since they arrived here at Congo Square and the other auction blocks of old. Hung from a sycamore tree, eyes pushed from sockets from the force of a fire hose, infected with syphilis by doctors, firebombed by police helicopters in Philadelphia: Black America had seen it all, and the King beating certainly came as no great surprise.

It was a surprise to much of America, though. Times had supposedly changed. A black man was mayor of Los Angeles; one had run for president; you’d see people of color in commercials, fretting over their dingy laundry and busy bladders just like everyone else.

But here came this horrific video, of a guy being treated a whole lot differently than when Gary Busey would get pulled over, and there was a nagging suspicion that maybe something like this happened to black folk a lot of other times when a camera wasn’t rolling.

You couldn’t fudge about it, couldn’t say it was just King’s word against theirs. It all was on tape and it was revolting. How could anyone watch it and not see what was happening?

Evidently a bunch of jurors in the white-flight reaches of Simi Valley could. Maybe they were benumbed by the countless viewings of the beatings. Whatever their reasoning or lack thereof, it was such a blatant injustice that even then-President George HW Bush declared it as such.

And those with reason to take the verdict more personally than Bush rioted in Los Angeles and several other cities. I was in New Orleans at the time, for the Jazz & Heritage Festival, and it took an awful lot of jazz and heritage to keep that town from exploding. Despite the Crescent City’s “let the good times roll” motto, there was still a ton of racism and seething resentment there, and a clear racial skew to the city’s haves and have-nots. That was the first time that I noticed, walking through the projects to get to some club or another, the glares of the people on their porches; they didn’t know me, but my color was enough to assure they didn’t like me. At the fest, even Cyril Neville of the peace ’n’ love Neville Brothers was channeling James Baldwin on stage, declaiming that maybe this time they’d keep it cool, but “next time, the fiyah!”

At the end of five days in LA: 53 people dead (nearly one for each baton blow King had received), over 2,000 injured, thousands of fires and over $1 billion in damage. Can’t say it made anything better. Rather, it only seemed to further entrench racial fears and divisions. Lots of white folks would look at the brutal violence mobs had practiced upon truck drivers Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez, and it only confirmed their prejudice that blacks were beasts, ignoring that it was also courageous blacks in both cases who rescued those two from the mobs.

Meanwhile, blacks, Koreans and everyone else noticed that the cops all but vanished from the streets when the bricks began to fly, leaving neighborhoods to burn. I caught some crap a decade ago for my claim in the OC Weekly piece that the thing most responsible for the US boom in SUV sales was the King verdict riots. I still think so. Nine out of ten buyers had no use whatever in their daily lives for SUVs’ four-wheel drive, raised suspensions and tank-like construction. They bought them as their escape-from-negroes-mobiles, ready at the first spark of riot to jump the curb, climb the embankment and not stop until they reached St. George, Utah.

Will there be a next time? Who knows? We have a black president now, but that’s like being able to boast that we’ve landed a man on the Moon when most of humanity is still back here, most living in poverty.

Batons still land disproportionately on people of color, as does the presumption of guilt, and the fact that there is very often video of the injustices has done little to stop them. 

Time will tell, or won’t, whether the shooting of Trayvon Martin was racially motivated, but the dismissive attitude of the police investigating it sure looks to be. If a black guy had shot a white kid, you know that the cops would have had Dexter on the spot within minutes to read the blood splatter patterns, not let the case go colder than that poor kid’s body.

Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.


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