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Rodney King: an imperfect hero


“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”                   –Rodney King, May 1, 1992

The image of the Los Angeles Police Department got a dramatic makeover on March 2, 1992. Previously heralded as the paragon of police professionalism, its persona was regularly burnished by a succession of crime dramas, starting with the “Dragnet” television series. But the LAPD’s real face was permanently revealed courtesy of an amateur videographer who in turn spawned a new era in which the man on the street became an active participant in the newsmaking process.

On the surface, the tape looked like a cut and dried scenario culled from one of the myriad unscripted reality TV shows. A large, 20-something Black man who later turned out to have an extensive criminal record, including one conviction for second degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon (a tire iron)–was apprehended after a car chase allegedly at speeds reaching 110 plus miles per hour. He was then subdued via a Taser electroshock weapon and a combination of baton blows and kicks after failing to comply with the instructions of the California Highway Patrol and LAPD officers who arrested him.

Officer-in-charge Sgt. Stacey Koon later recorded his recollections in an unpublished memoir, recounting the moment when the female CHP officer Melanie Singer approached the intoxicated King, handgun drawn. “He grabbed his butt with both hands and began to shake and gyrate his fanny in a sexually suggestive fashion. As King sexually gyrated, a mixture of fear and offense overcame Melanie. The fear was of a Mandingo sexual encounter.”

“I started practicing in 1974. I noticed that there was a certain ‘us versus them’ attitude about the police. It’s almost a Gestapo kind of approach–something totally different from the Midwest, where I went to school and was raised. That was the first thing that caught my attention about the LAPD. . . .”             –Civil Rights Attorney Gregory Yates

To scores of Southern Californians of color, however, this episode struck a chord of remembrance regarding their own previous interactions with law enforcement. The cops claimed that the behavior of the subject, later known to the world as Rodney Glen King, led them to believe that the 6-foot-3 Pasadena native might be under the influence of phencyclidine (PCP).  This anesthetic, known to imbue in users an aura of strength, power, and invulnerability, in the officers’ view made him an eminent threat, and thus deserving of the methods utilized to suppress him. (King, on parole at the time, had consumed copious amounts of Olde English 880 malt liquor, but came up negative for traces of PCP).

For the uninitiated outside the confines of the inner city, the recorded approach they took served as an eye-opener on how the other side lived, and perhaps forced them to accept that an uneven playing field did exist.

The focal point of all this attention, King, was no holier-than-thou beacon of virtue on the order of, say, Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks. Before being thrust into the spotlight he’d led a checkered life of substance abuse and domestic violence. Assuming the mantle of public figure only exacerbated his involvement with the criminal justice system. To his credit, King never presumed to be anything other than what he was, as evidenced by the documentation of his many flaws in his recently published and aptly titled autobiography, “The Riot Within.”

With all his failings, King served as an icon with which the man on the street (or lumpenproletariat as political rabble-rousers labeled them) could identify–one of the powerless masses at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent authority. The difference here was that their cruelty had been caught on tape and lawmen would be the defendants standing on trial.

“I was thinking, ‘What did the guy do to deserve this beating?’ I came from a different culture, where people would get disappeared with no due process. Police would pick people up on suspicion. I didn’t expect this in the U.S.”

–Plumber-turned-news-cameraman George Holliday.

Indeed, in informal bull sessions afterwards, those sworn to “protect and serve” acknowledged, off the record, that these tactics were pretty much a given whenever a suspect forced a car chase of this sort. For others, especially the inhabitants of South Los Angeles, this was merely a scenario that had been replicated countless times before, the difference being that a White plumber named George Holliday, using a relatively new consumer product called a camcorder captured the images later to be broadcast around the world.

Holliday, an Englishman brought up in repressive Argentina, later expressed surprise that such an incident could happen in his adopted country. Nevertheless, he ushered in democratic journalism and “sousveillance,” or inverse surveillance, and arguably may be considered a precursor to social media, YouTube, and a plethora of user-generated content.

“Just because you have a camera in the right place doesn’t mean you’re telling the whole story.”                –Brian Lowry of Variety magazine.

The incident itself was endlessly scrutinized from every imaginable angle (some automobile enthusiasts were adamant that the 1988 Hyundai Excel King drove had a theoretical maximum of 101 mph, a bit short of the 110 mph claimed). Others claim that the version KTLA aired was edited to provide a slanted take on the events, leaving out an entire sequence in which the officers attempted, verbally, then by using a “swarm” technique, where they endeavored to gang tackle King, and subdue him without causing physical harm.

But for longtime residents of South L.A., the footage served as a vindication of the treatment they’d long accepted as a given by the various Southland law entities. Scuttlebutt among those on the receiving end of such treatment often devolved into arguments about the comparative levels of abuse by the cadre of the 77th and “shootin’” Newton divisions of the LAPD, and deputies at the Firestone Sheriff’s Station. Getting worked over by “Whitey beast” (street slang for the police) was considered a ghetto “rite of passage.”

Today, 20 years after the case and capture, details of the events that transpired are confused and contradicted by conflicting narratives given by law enforcers, criminals, and those in the middle, with the only possible universally accepted truth being the abrasive treatment that triggered the response.

The real festivities, of course, gained momentum as the trial progressed and the officers were found not guilty. Various community leaders, gang interventionists, and street-level cops insist that tensions had been brewing for years, consequently an eruption was inevitable. The not-guilty judgment was merely a pretext for the mayhem that followed.

Among the contributing factors were the generational friction between Blacks and Hispanics, ever-present inter-gang rivalry, subversive agitation by political factions with their own agendas, and perhaps most prominently, criminal “shot-callers,” gang affiliated and otherwise, eager to exploit the vulnerable conditions around them, primarily for financial gain.

Richard Valdemar, a retired sheriff’s deputy who specialized in gang intelligence, recalls area hooligans stockpiling weapons and munitions during the period prior to the verdict. He pinpoints particularly a construction-site burglary in mid-April which netted a cache of explosives, including dynamite and a specialized flexible tubular substance called Primacord, regularly used by Navy Seals. During this same period, some 1,500 plus firearms were stolen, along with ammo, presumably by Eight-Trey Gangster Crips or Main Street Crips, from the Western Surplus at 85th and Western Avenue. Other weaponry was taken from pawn shops and other small businesses in the area.

Informal reports had shot-callers from various Crip and Blood factions meeting throughout the six-day span of the riots to maintain a truce and coordinate illicit commerce to take advantage of the chaos that engulfed the city.

Much has been made of Chief Darryl Gates’ decision to attend a Brentwood fundraiser instead of personally overseeing his department’s response to the rioting. Rumors persist that those on duty were actually ordered to “stand down” while the city burned. After the riot, one anonymous member of the top brass at an unnamed police agency, however, recalls the order actually given that the preservation of property was top priority, and officers were instructed to avoid writing citations for traffic and minor infractions. In some circles, this is known as the “brown-bag theory” of policing, where, for instance, an offender might escape being cited for consuming alcohol in public provided they conceal the beverage in a paper sack.

The rationale behind this tactic was that, even with the National Guard being mobilized, the various law-enforcement entities were stretched thin, and authorities wished to avoid escalating the bedlam at all costs. In theory, they could concentrate on serious crime, and not being bogged down by the pursuit of misdemeanors.

“It’s about time somebody caught them bitches on film, and it’s a damn shame they didn’t catch ’em when they stole our dope money!”

–Steve Roberson of the infamous criminal venture, Whitey Enterprises

This lax approach was quickly noticed and taken advantage of by those at the grass-roots level. While the dust settled in the aftermath of the riots, a group of low-level homeboys gathered at a house on 54th Street and Avalon Boulevard three weeks later. The house was regularly used to cook crack, serve as a way station for the distribution of stolen property and so forth. During the course of transacting business, the cohorts discussed recent events, and the comparatively lax approach the law displayed on the street. The transaction of commerce in the underground economy was running smoothly.

Although there was genuine disappointment over the not-guilty decision, there was a festive atmosphere throughout the community bolstered by retribution in the form of the rioting. In turn, numerous impromptu parties popped up in celebration. Dave Roberts had his own rite of passage at age 17 in 1974, when Newton Division cops used their batons to “beat a smile into his face.” To commemorate the law’s own comeuppance, he used white liquid shoe polish to scrawl “LAPD stepped in a ‘Powell’ of s–t,” in the back window of his pickup truck, referring to Laurence Powell, one of the offending officers.

The post-riot gang truce facilitated uninhibited distribution of narcotics; the contribution of stolen property from looters during the rioting ensured the availability of marketable commodities, and, in turn, cash flow. Life was good for those engaged in the pursuit of a dishonest buck.

With the nation and the globe’s attention riveted on Los Angeles and King, both became fodder for pop culture references throughout the media. The riot figured prominently as a plot device for scores of films including “Malcolm X” (1992), “American History X” (1998), and “Dark Blue” (2003); individual episodes of television shows–“A Different World,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Family Guy.” A fictionalized version of the riots is central to the storyline in the best-selling video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Numerous songs spanning the musical spectrum from Rap to Rhythm & Blues to Country & Western contain references to the riots.

King has served as the pivotal point for legions of jokes on late-night television. David Alan Grier portrayed him in a memorial skit from the comedy show “In Living Color,” alongside Jim Carrey as Reginald Denny (the White truck driver whose beating was caught on a videotape during the riots). Still haunted by substance abuse, he made frequent appearances on shows like “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sober House.”

Emotions remained high in both liberal and conservative ranks. A group of youthful White supremacists in Orange County hatched a plot to kill King and other prominent Blacks before being arrested for an illegal firearms sale to undercover FBI agents in 1993.

Stacey Koon, the ranking officer on that faithful night in March, escaped conviction in the local trial, but a year later was found guilty in federal court, this time for violating King’s civil rights and given 30 months. He was later sent to a Riverside County halfway house. Incensed by the presence of a convicted abusive cop in a Black neighborhood, a local man entered the home, loaded on PCP and armed with a handgun, with the intention of killing the former policeman. Finding Koon away on a furlough, he took several hostages, killing one before his own death by police.

“I know I shouldn’t have been drinking and driving, but two wrongs don’t make a right.”–Rodney King

Rodney Glen King’s death by drowning on Father’s Day did not end the controversy that marked his life. As his body lay in the coroner’s office awaiting autopsy and toxicology tests, friends and acquaintances questioned his fiancée’s account of his demise. Former girlfriend Carmen Simpson mentioned a life insurance policy that had recently been purchased while others spoke of the deed to the house where he died having just been signed over to the fiancée.

San Bernardino Sheriffs are withholding the cause of death until tissue sample and toxicology reports are completed within the next four to six weeks.

Preliminary plans are being discussed for a statute of the construction worker who suffered under the glare from the spotlight he’d neither asked for nor enjoyed. To be fashioned by noted sculptor Nijel Binns (see his work at, the piece is tentatively to be installed at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the epicenter of the maelstrom that captured the world’s attention two decades ago.