Riots in Los Angeles - 1 May 1992

It was one of those evenings last Wednesday when you, when I, take a break from the world and its woes, go out to dinner with a friend and talk golf and tennis mostly and marvel at the news of that a 10-year-old shrimp of a Russian girl who has boggled the experience of the veteran Florida teachers, is aching to turn professional and go out and slaughter Seles and Capriati and any other young genius who thinks she's a prodigy.

And then home and, as I always do just before turning in, flip through 32 channels – it's now 50 – and light briefly on channel 24, which is Atlanta's CNN, the Cable News Network, the television news station that's most often there as the general said, bringing the firstest with the mostest. A helicopter shot of a street intersection and a stalled truck and it looks like a man sprawled on the ground, one or two other men running around, making gestures. They're all so tiny seen from the air. It's probably a random, shooting somewhere, most likely in Harlem or Los Angeles, maybe. We see at least one every night, something hurriedly spoken about a verdict. So to bed and read a new book which claims, and for once may be right, to be solved, after 104 years, the identity of Jack the Ripper. So to sleep.

Thursday morning and the first word I heard from an announcer in Los Angeles, was worse, much worse than Watts. Now because we can now see that Watts was historically the forerunner of dreadful things to come, two or three years later, we'd better look back to Watts. Some of you may remember it was that frowsy but not slummy suburb of Los Angeles where a white policeman's arresting of a black youth started a rumour that the black man had been shot. The rumour grew, he'd been wounded, no killed in cold blood. Within an hour a full scale riot was thriving in that black neighbourhood and within 24 hours the whole suburb was ablaze, loud with guns and happy looters, ransacking the stores, carting off television sets, radios, refrigerators, furniture and on and on.

There was a time when it appeared that the chaos might not be controlled by 10,000 men who had been ordered in by the governor of California, the National Guard. That is they civilian reserve militia which every state has on call and which can, in a war or other emergency, be mobilised as regular army under the regular military command. I try to clarify the function of the misleadingly-named National Guard because we'll come to look at their part in this week's riots.

At the end of that dreadful week in Watts in 1965, there was a large gutted suburb and it was mentioned the other night that after 27 years it is not wholly recovered or rebuilt. Well, if the horror of Watts was triggered by a tiny casual arrest and a ballooning false rumour, what triggered the rage of South Central Los Angeles. Let's go back as calmly as we can and look at what started it all.

The night of 3 March 1991, a black motorist was seen by a police car whizzing along a boulevard at a breakneck pace and the police pursued him. It took quite a time to catch up with him, by which time other police cars, many other policemen, had come to form almost an impromptu posse, 23 in all. When they did catch him, two other men in the car gave themselves up without resistance. They were handcuffed and taken off into custody.

The driver remained defiant and aggressive, so freewheeling with arms and legs that one of the policemen said later, he assumed the man was high on some drug. Anyway, what came next doubtless would have been curried in the police records, had it not been for a unique accident that made what happened on that night-time street something for all the world to see. A man who lived in an apartment overlooking what was now a scene on the street was aroused by the noise of the police siren and the following scuffle, picked up his motion picture camera, stood on his porch I imagine and cranked away. His film lasted for 81 seconds and horrified everybody who subsequently saw it and saw it and saw it on television.

Four police officers flailing their batons and flogging the driver, who was writhing and squirming on the ground. It's true he wasn't going to lie down and take it. He wriggled but his body also jerked in reflexes, of pain surely, from the beating he was taking. In 81 seconds, almost a minute and a half, 56 counted beatings. Eleven days later a Los Angeles grand jury indicted one police sergeant and three police officers, they pleaded not guilty. The attorney general of the United States responded by ordering an immediate review of complaints of brutality against the Los Angeles police. The review expanded to cover the whole nation, that was 13 months ago and the report has not yet been published. The mayor of Los Angeles, a black man, who has been in office for an unprecedented 20 years, appointed a commission to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department and there was for a time a wrangle over the chief of police, a white man, who was charged with insensitivity and condoning bad police behaviour. A month or two later he promised to retire this spring. He was still there this week.

A month or so after his beating, the driver, Rodney King, and his wife filed a Federal Civil Rights suit against the City of Los Angeles. Three weeks later Mr King was discovered in a parked car with a transvestite prostitute. He failed to get away but after two months, all charges were dropped. In the meantime, the grand jury brought no indictment against the 19 police officers who were bystanders but the four men who were seen to do the beating eventually, after many legal manoeuvres, came to trial a year to the day after the event.

By the way, on the motion of the defence which maintained that the four policemen could not get a fair trial in the black-dominated quarter where the incident took place, the trial was moved to another suburb which, it's important to remark, is almost entirely white and is called home by about 2,000 policemen and their families. Although one or two blacks were called for jury duty, they were quizzed and excused by the defence, which is its privilege. The sitting jury consisted of 10 whites, one Hispanic, one Asian. On 23 April the case went to the jury. We gather from the jurors themselves that their verdict was arrived at within an hour or two, an astonishing feat for an American jury which battle it out for days and weeks. But it took another three days to argue one point and the just was eventually hung on one count against one officer.

So it was this Wednesday evening when the stunning verdict came actually over the television, for the trial was televised throughout. The four had been found not guilty of brutality, of excessive force, that is going beyond the needs of the cause. In interviews after the result, the jurors willing to speak said, the amateur motion picture was crude. So it was, it was filming a very crude event. Did not express the physical threat that Mr King posed and that much of the flailing was done into the thin night air.

I think it's fair to say that a majority of the country, if not a vast majority, will refuse to believe a word of it. That first shot I saw. Of a stalled truck and a prone man and one or two running around was the beginning. It was a white truck driver who had been dragged to the pavement and beaten up by blacks and I'd better say at once that all the following burnings and lootings were done by blacks and poor whites who now had what everybody told them was just cause to vent their long-suppressed rage and disillusion in the equality that wasn't there and the jobs that weren't forthcoming.

Well in the beginning what we saw were the flaming suburbs by night and black people complaining it had taken the Fire Department 20 minutes to answer their call. On any night the average calls to the Los Angeles Fire Department are 10. Last Wednesday night over 120 fires blazed in Central and South Central Los Angeles and then beyond and the firemen were being attacked along with the police and the paramedics. Los Angeles, remember, is not a skyscraper city it's a huge collection, connection of 90 suburbs over 550 square miles. Sunset Boulevard alone runs for 22 miles through sections that could be in Hong Kong, in Mexico, Korea, in Kansas City.

On Thursday night, 40 fires well out beyond the Central section, up into the rich and by now, I should guess, the terrified habitat of the film and TV folk, the designers, the happy yuppies who mean no harm. By Friday noon the president had sent a light infantry battalion into a staging area near Los Angeles to be used if the National Guard and the police cannot control things. By Friday the worst we feared had happened. The rioting, looting contingent had spread to San Francisco, to Atlanta, to Seattle, in a smaller way to other towns thousands of miles apart. There were peaceable black demonstrations in Kansas City and on the campus of the college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Twenty-seven years ago, in Watts, before the end, there was the awful fear that 10,000 of the National Guard might not be enough. If the violence this time from the poor and from the hoodlum packs and the juvenile gangs takes over many of the cities, the president and his generals may have to worry if there'll be enough troops to contain what could become a race rebellion.

There's one discernible piece of good news in all this. Now that the state of California has exhausted its legal procedure – the verdict is the end – the federal government can now move in and it could institute a new trial, but not on the same grounds, that would run the risk of double jeopardy. The Justice Department through the attorney general has revived its criminal investigation into the incident of the beating, to see if the constitutional civil rights of Mr King were violated. It's the ground on which just a year ago, the Kings filed their suit against the City of Los Angeles.

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