April 29th marked the 25th Anniversary of the ’92 L.A. Riots, which officially ended May 4, 1992 when L.A. Mayer Tom Bradley lifted a dawn to dusk curfew. The CA National Guard; members of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division stationed in Fort Ord, CA; and the 1st Marine Division stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA were called to enforce the curfew and restore order. 55 people were killed and over a $ billion in property destroyed in the rioting, looting, arson, and chaos that followed the not guilty verdict of the four policemen, Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, who beat Rodney King. Producers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s award winning documentary, LA 92, aired on National Geographic, Sunday April 30, 2017, 9pm EST. As tragic as these events were, they are a mirror to what touched off the 1965 L.A. Riots, and are what the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is currently protesting. Are we a post-racial society? What has changed and what remains to be changed? The four policemen were charged with assault and excessive use of force. After deliberating for seven days, the jury acquitted all four officers and was hung on one charge of assault for one of the policemen. The three white officers and one Latino were tried by a jury of twelve Simi Valley, CA residents, one of which was Asian, one Hispanic, and one biracial male; the remaining nine jurors were white. Judge Stanley M. Weisberg moved the trial from LA County. At the time, both the defense and prosecution agreed that they could get a fair trail in Ventura County, though many legal experts questioned that decision in retrospect.
What made this case so remarkably different from other trials in which LA law enforcement was accused of excessive force was that this incident was recorded by an LA citizen unbeknownst to the officers. Footage of police beating Rodney King while he lay on the ground became an instant focus of media attention and a rallying point for activists in Los Angeles and around the United States. National media coverage was extensive; eight stories appeared on ABC News, and all of the other major News television media covered the story, including a sixty-minute special on Primetime Live. Upon watching the tape of the beating, LAPD chief of police Daryl Gates said: “I stared at the screen in disbelief. I played the one-minute-fifty-second tape again. Then again and again, until I had viewed it 25 times. And still I could not believe what I was looking at. To see my officers engage in what appeared to be excessive use of force, possibly criminally excessive, to see them beat a man with their batons 56 times, to see a sergeant on the scene who did nothing to seize control, was something I never dreamed I would witness.”
Under political pressure, President George H.W. Bush directed the U.S. Attorney to launch an investigation, which resulted in the conviction of two police officers to two and a half years in prison for beating Rodney G. King. The two men charged faced up to 10 years in Federal Prison. The Federal Judge issued his decision after the August 4, 1993 Civil Rights Trial. The judge stated he was being lenient because Mr. King provoked their violence and the officers had already suffered from widespread vilification and having to face repeated judicial proceedings. The two men, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officer Laurence M. Powell, were ordered to begin serving their sentences on Sept. 27, 1993. On April 20, 1994, the city of L.A. awarded King $3.8 million in compensatory damages.
I had the privilege of attending the Washington D.C. debut of LA 92 at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and I was struck by how little has changed regarding the underlying causes that sparked the '92 LA Riots, the ’65 LA Riots, and the current BLM movement. I am also stricken by the polarization that has gripped our nation. It wasn’t just Dr. King and his followers that brought about change in America, it was millions of men and women of all ethnic backgrounds—white, black, Asian, Jewish, Latino—who watched videos of dogs and fire hoses turned on fellow American citizens for peacefully protesting routine violations of their civil rights… for the right to vote, the right to walk in the front door of a restaurant, the right to ride on the front of a bus. Americans from diverse backgrounds said to themselves and their elected representatives, “no more! This is not the country I live in and this is not in keeping with American values.” It was this swell of a unified voice, reverberated through elected officials, that so moved L.B.J.—a career segregationist up to that point—to ask for and sign legislation to end segregation in the U.S.
If the United States is to remain relevant as the world’s model democratic society, we most get back to hearing one another, seeking to understand before we counter-man, and being moved by the plight of others even if we do not directly share that plight.