Here, historian Benjamin Houston investigates…
At around 12.30am on 3 March 1991, Los Angeles police began pursuit of a white Hyundai car that was being driven erratically. After a 10-minute chase, the driver pulled over at the junction of Osborne Street and Foothill Boulevard. Officers Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind were first responders, soon joined by Theodore Briseno and two others. In total, at least 23 police officers from various jurisdictions were involved in the pursuit and subsequent action, while a helicopter watched from above.
In keeping with standard procedure – a continual source of fury for African-American people and other minorities detained by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) – the two passengers were ordered out of the car, instructed to avert their eyes from the scene, handcuffed and guarded at gunpoint.
When the focus turned to the driver, Rodney King, the scene should have been more comical than dangerous. King had been drinking Olde English 800 malt liquor (a strong beer) with his friends, and his blood-alcohol level was twice the permitted limit for driving. In trying to get out of his car, King momentarily fumbled with the automatic seatbelt before exiting and positioning himself spread-eagled against his vehicle, as if to be searched. The problem was that the police were demanding instead that he got on his knees, with his hands raised. Once King understood them, he apparently responded with a little dance and by shaking his backside like a dog – though whether that was intentional, or merely alcohol-induced swaying, is unclear.
Despite having back-up from almost two dozen officers, the supervising officer, Sergeant Stacey Koon, was alarmed. He saw a large black man – King stood 190cm (six feet three inches) tall and weighed over 100kg – behaving oddly. After King reacted to having his arm twisted as he was handcuffed, Koon made good on his threat to use a taser. King later maintained that, throughout his ordeal, he consistently tried to follow police commands, despite them being contradictory and confusing, and that all his movements were protective rather than aggressive.
He also explained that when he yelled in response to the rough handcuffing, it startled the officers restraining him, and they backed away. Koon, in contrast, interpreted the moment as a superhuman feat in which King threw “800 pounds of officer off of his back”. Koon was convinced, as he later testified, that King’s “disoriented and unbalanced” behaviour indicated he was high on PCP, a hallucinogenic drug known as ‘angel dust’.
At around this time George Holliday, an amateur cameraman, was drawn to his apartment window by the fuss and began videotaping. He remembered hearing one officer yell: “We’re going to kill you, nigger. Run”. Perhaps that was one reason why King did not stay still, despite repeated blows from all angles from Briseno, Powell and Wind, who later testified that they thought King was confronting them or trying to escape.
Regardless, Holliday’s video clearly showed King continuing to move, albeit as a cowering supplicant, backing away from the blows and extending a beseeching hand. Once felled, he sustained more blows as he writhed in pain and tried to dodge the hits. At the trial of the police officers who administered the beating, the defence admitted that they were deliberately trying to break bones in his legs and ankles. Once King was still, Briseno stamped on his neck, and Powell continued using his baton. The beating lasted 81 seconds.
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In the police paperwork, King’s wounds are described as “several facial cuts due to contact with asphalt. Of a minor nature. A split upper lip. Suspect oblivious to pain”. This precis is in striking contrast with the final tally observed in video footage, which showed that King sustained at least seven kicks, four taser hits (at 50,000 volts each) and 56 strikes from police batons. After being subdued, King was hog-tied – his hands and feet bound together – and dragged across the asphalt, his own blood and saliva smeared all over him.
He was later diagnosed with nine skull fractures, a concussion, permanent kidney and brain damage, a broken cheekbone, a crushed eye socket, nerve damage and partial paralysis to his facial muscles, and other injuries. Medical experts testified that bones around the sinuses “were reduced to a very fine powder, like sand”. Perhaps more importantly, the concussion also explained some of the contradictory statements King made after his condition stabilised.
Inconsistencies and misinformation
Details that emerged about King seemed to support the view that the police had reason to be wary of him. An unemployed construction worker and taxi driver, he was a convicted felon and, at the time of his arrest, on parole having served a year in jail for robbery. Of course, this was not known to the officers at the time – nor was it relevant. Further misinformation that was produced similarly created false impressions. For example, King was reported as driving at 115 miles per hour. Evidence from later tests, however, suggested that King’s car was incapable of those speeds, that his driving had been merely erratic rather than dangerously fast, and that in fact he had been cautiously weaving through red lights.
More problematic still were the abundant inconsistencies in police versions of events. Though the police were supposedly fearful that King was armed, he was not patted down by any officer. And despite the suggestion that King’s behaviour could have been fuelled by PCP, none of the officers requested a drug test. A subsequent medical examination showed alcohol in King’s bloodstream, along with traces of marijuana.
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More damning still was ample evidence revealing the crude terms in which officers discussed the event. A subsequent release of records from internal messaging systems showed that, 20 minutes before the chase began, Powell had investigated a domestic dispute between an African-American couple, which he described as something “right out of Gorillas in the Mist”. After the King beating, Koon messaged to his station that “You just had a big time use of force… tased and beat the suspect of CHP [California Highway Patrol] pursuit, Big Time”. The response was: “Oh well… I’m sure the lizard didn’t deserve it”.
Powell also took King to the police station rather than the hospital, as if to parade his trophy as he re-enacted the encounter in front of fellow officers. King slumped in the back of the car as Wind filled out paperwork. Later, at the hospital, Powell continued the stand-up routine with baseball metaphors, joking around that “We played a little hardball” and “we hit a few home runs”.
On 4 March, Holliday rang the local police station, identifying himself as a witness to the King arrest. He was told: “Mind your own fucking business and don’t interfere with a police investigation”. Accordingly, he opted instead to sell the tape to television station KTLA for $500. Later picked up by CNN, the film soon went viral. The immediate effect of the recording, beyond nearly unanimous outrage and condemnation, was that charges against King were dropped, and formal investigations of the officers were launched. Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates was a notable exception to voices of opprobrium, calling the beating “an aberration”. (He also responded to complaints about choke-hold deaths by claiming that “in some blacks, when a [restraint] is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people”.)
During the 20th century, Los Angeles’ sunny, palm-tree-shaded environs had beckoned African-American and white people alike as the city became more industrialised and witnessed a land boom. Despite being locked into the service sector as a result of job discrimination, black people were able to buy homes here – a big draw for them. As the influx of African-American migrants continued, however, white neighbourhood boundaries stiffened in response. The use of restrictive covenants, enforced by the LAPD, banning the sale of houses to African-American people kept certain areas lily-white, barricaded by streets and interstates, even as other white people fled for the suburbs.
The result was that a number of black neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct character, became melded into one: South Central. Increasingly Latino as much as black, heterogeneous but hyper-segregated South Central was isolated geographically and economically. It also suffered the most as the LA economy reeled from the closure of the state aerospace industry, the relocation of several automotive plants and an overall reduction in military spending in the area after the end of the Cold War.
Those factors were exacerbated by state and local policies. The administration of Ronald Reagan, US president from 1981 to 1989, had cut a number of social services, including job training programmes. One study suggested that, between 1969 and 1989, South Central’s poverty rate had increased by 50 per cent.
That context underscores the crucial factor in the subsequent trial of the police officers involved in the King beating: the relocation of court proceedings to Simi Valley, a leafy, solidly middle-class suburb north-west of Los Angeles. Not only were the location’s demographics not comparable to LA – it was 66 per cent white and only 2 per cent African-American – but the neighbourhood was a popular residence for police officers. Accordingly, the people ultimately chosen for the trial jury (which comprised ten white people, one Latina and an Asian American) professed pro-police attitudes during their selection.
At the trial, in which the officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force, the defence attorneys made an unusual tactical choice: rather than shunning or discrediting the video of King’s arrest and beating, they embraced it. They showed it repeatedly to the jury in hope of numbing the effect. They dissected it second-by-second with experts, trying to show how each micro-event led to the following, and thus construed an argument that each blow responded to King’s actions. (They also had a fuller version of the video, the excerpt circulated by the media having been edited down.)
At 3.15pm on 29 April 1992, the jury delivered a verdict of ‘not guilty’. A count of excessive force against Powell resulted in a hung jury, but that was later deemed a mistrial. One juror, speaking for his colleagues, was quoted as being convinced that “Mr King was in full control of the whole situation at all times. He was not writhing in pain”.
At the time of King’s arrest, resentment was already in the air thanks to two powerfully symbolic events. One was the March 1991 murder of a 15-year-old black girl, honour-roll student Latasha Harlins, by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du. The trigger was an argument over the purchase of orange juice at the store, which prompted the assailant to pull the trigger as the girl left. Soon Ja Du’s sentence included a $500 fine, probation and 400 hours of community service. (Five days later, many noted another case in which a man was jailed for a month after beating a dog.) Meanwhile, in nearby Long Beach, videotape captured a black off-duty officer being pushed through a window during a ‘routine’ traffic stop. The subsequent trial, during the same month as the King beating, ultimately ended in a hung jury.
The impact of these specific events fuelled smouldering anger about police treatment of minorities. Between 1986 and 1990 alone, the city of LA had spent 20 million dollars in costs associated with more than 300 police brutality cases. An example of a LAPD-style show of force was Operation Hammer, a 1988 gang crackdown during which, in just one night, 1,453 youths were detained in jail and then released without explanation.
All told, there was a potent climate of rage when the King verdict arrived. At the courthouse, palpable anger manifested immediately: shouting and fistfights erupted, while attorneys and defendants pushed their way out. One African-American woman told a reporter: “You go through the system, and it screws you”. Another battleground was the Parker Center, at that time the LAPD headquarters, where increasingly emboldened protesters began overturning police cars and spraying graffiti while chanting “no justice, no peace”. One reporter juxtaposed the somewhat hollow exhortations of a hastily convened rally at the First African Methodist Episcopal with a small television simultaneously showing the flames engulfing parts of the city.
In response, the police department did nothing, waiting for cues from a demoralised political leadership and presumably willing to let the neighbourhoods they policed burn. Ground zero was the corner of Florence and Normandie boulevards, where African-American people attacked cars with rocks and sticks – actions that soon escalated, with drivers dragged from their vehicles and beaten. The televised savagery against Reginald Denny, a white truck driver with no knowledge of the trial’s verdict who was carrying gravel through the area, was another shock to the wider public, and an example that evoked uncomfortable parallels with Rodney King. Denny was beaten by several assailants with a brick, tyre iron and fire extinguisher before being rescued by a black bystander. He suffered lasting effects from the assault.
Over the next four days the destruction continued. More than 50 people died, and the cost of property damage approached one billion dollars. Areas such as Koreatown and Hollywood saw clashes extend even longer, mostly in the form of looting and arson. Sometimes the fury seemed wanton: a Salvadoran neighbourhood looted, an apartment building burned, corner-store windows smashed. In other instances, there were hints that rioters were calibrating their acts: most of the businesses torched were chainstores of national corporations, for example. One bystander explained that “they’re overpriced, and they are the white man’s businesses,” and that the rioters were “hitting the insurance companies, which are the white man’s, too”.
As the insurrection continued, the composition of those rioting became increasingly Latino; more than 1,000 would be reported to immigration services after the chaos quieted. Korean-American people were particularly targeted: some 2,300 businesses were ravaged, with an estimated business loss of $400 million. This, too, spoke to lingering resentments: such immigrants were regarded by some in LA as profiting at the expense of inner-city residents.
“Can we all get along?”
During the rest of May and into the summer, as the turmoil began to ebb and the National Guard clamped down, fallout from the affair was dramatic. Unrest flared in Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and San Francisco. Calls for Daryl Gates’s resignation caused political controversy for months before he finally stepped down in June 1992. Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American former policeman, in office since 1973, chose not to run for re-election in light of poor ratings from voters. Several investigative commissions issued reports highly critical of the ingrained racism conspicuous in the LAPD.
In August 1992, the four men who had beaten King were charged with violating his civil rights. A year later, Powell and Koon were found guilty, but further outrage resulted when the judge, John G Davies, shrank the sentence to 30 months in prison – well short of federal guidelines. The fact that each of the defendants had prior suspensions for beating suspects, and in one case lying about it in formal paperwork, was not admitted into court.
Subsequently, undercurrents of tension persisted, whether voiced or not. The LAPD, under new leadership, embraced a different model of ‘community policing’ in an attempt to heal the wounds, instituting new techniques for citizen engagement and use of force. Federal and private-sector initiatives to rebuild the area, announced with fanfare, mostly fizzled out, though pockets of entrepreneurship, often led by Latino immigrants, could be seen in South Central. But the sense of divide persisted. As one white citizen explained, the riot changed his perspective: “Yesterday I would have found [the officers] guilty. Today, I probably wouldn’t”.
And what of the man thrust into the spotlight in this incendiary moment in history? Rodney King continued to struggle with his demons, even as he wrote a memoir that made a case for forgiveness and appeared on reality TV shows. His famous words “Can we all get along?”, calling for calm during the third day of the riot, became variously a pop culture reference, a bitterly sardonic statement and a phrase of poignant simplicity for different Americans. He wrestled with addiction for the rest of his life and had several other brushes with law enforcement. On 17 June 2012 he was found drowned at the bottom of his swimming pool. A potent cocktail of drugs and alcohol had triggered cardiac arrest.
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Whatever else may be said about this incident in US history, it is impossible to claim that the outpouring of rage came as a surprise. Similar ‘discoveries’ of outright hatred for police were found in post-mortems of other domestic disturbances of the era, and subsequently ignored. What this particular instance of a ‘multi-ethnic riot’ underscored was the racial dimension of police brutality. The Latino and Asian dimensions of the riots also indicated that the plight of minority neighbourhoods is not exclusively a black/white issue. Nor should the way in which racial repercussions blur quickly into issues of class go unrecognised.
It is, in my opinion, especially wrong to relegate King’s legacy to just a story of a corrupt police department, noxious as daily practices in the LAPD were. The appalling litany of people murdered in acts of police brutality should underline that emphatically. What King’s case showed, among other things, is a pattern that holds true today: a complete disjuncture between inner-city neighbourhoods such as South Central and suburbs such as Simi Valley. In the former, minorities are constrained from opportunities in jobs and education as the economic bases of urban areas shift. Their neighbourhoods are starved by a lack of resources that are instead siphoned to suburban areas, their communities targeted with punitive and biased drug enforcement for the benefit of mass incarceration initiatives that both disenfranchise and profit from them.
The barricades between those two worlds are shored up in part by police officers, helped by the valourising notion that they maintain a ‘thin blue line’ keeping – as one attorney in the King case put it – “law-abiding citizens from the jungle”. There is a direct connection between Koon’s testimony about King’s “hulk-like strength” and the words of white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, recalling why, in 2014, he shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown, who looked like “a demon” and “was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him”. No matter the police department or city or African-American victim – indeed, no matter the era of African-American history – that story remains the same.
Benjamin Houston is senior lecturer in modern US history at Newcastle University