The Rodney King Riots

Many modern day psychologists have warned about the dangers of bottling up anger. It’s an emotion that needs a valve. Supress anger long enough and its very likely to explode one day in a squall of spittle and sweat. The outcome can, in some instances, be extreme, and be directed at those who have nothing to do with anything – passers-by, stray cats, siblings. This was no more evident than over a six-day period in Los Angeles in 1992. The LA riots, or the Rodney King riots, were a frightening peek behind the curtain of what American society was really like; away from the distorted imagery of Hollywood and self-projected values of the fabled American dream. It was an ugly expose of a county riddled by racism and inequality. Issues that are, sadly, just as relevant then as they are now.

Rodney King was a taxi driver. He was also a convicted felon. In 1989 he had wacked a Korean shop owner over the head with a pole. That being a metal pole rather than a hard working builder. King made off with two hundred dollars, but was later caught, easily convicted and sent to have a long hard think about life in one of America’s many correctional facilities. He was out but a year later. Early on the morning of March 3rd then, King was gunning it along the Foothill Freeway in the San Fernando valley with a couple of friends, when he shot passed a husband and wife team of the Californian Highway Patrol quietly sipping coffee from a thermos flask in a concealed layby. The officers set off in hot pursuit. Rather than pullover, King did what men on parole are prone to do and floored it. The officers ground the gears in King’s dust and were shortly joined by several other units, in addition to the obligatory police helicopter. The race was on.

As many naughty fugitives have long since discovered, it’s hard to shake off a police helicopter and King eventually took a wrong turn on his smoking Pirellis and found himself trapped. The police cars screeched to halt soon after. “Step outside the vehicle with your hands up”, or words to that effect, duly followed. King’s passengers obliged but were brutally manhandled, kicked, stomped on and taunted. King, perhaps with good reason then, was reluctant to get out of the car. This it turned out was an ill-advised move given he was confronted with a coterie of cops wired on adrenalin. Throw in some suspicion, a bit of institutional racism, some fear and perhaps a lack of emotional IQ and the end result was bare knuckled hostility. King did though make it difficult for himself, supposedly giggling and waving at the police helicopter overhead when he did finally emerge. He then, given the circumstances, pulled the unusual stunt of making a grab for his own buttocks, a move that the twitchy officers took to mean a weapon, of some sort, was likely to appear very soon thereafter. King was, thus, tasered. Twice. He was then given a proper Glaswegian shoeing.

The problem for the officers was that standing on the balcony of his apartment in easy view of the assault was one George Holliday who, thinking that there was not much point calling the cops, decided to video the whole thing. The 12-minute footage showing King being beaten to a pulp was, as you might imagine, something of a media sensation. Four officers were later charged with assault and the use of excessive force. After seven days of deliberations the jury in the case sent back a verdict of not guilty and acquitted all four officers. The reason they did, was that there was a three second segment that had been cut by the TV stations which showed King making some sort of a run at the officers. The fact that he was then continuously beaten with batons for the next nineteen seconds didn’t seem to matter. News of the verdict quickly leaked out of the courthouse and lit a fuse amongst the disaffected, marginalised community of LA’s underclass.

The riots lasted six days. Fifty-five people were killed. As many as two thousand people were reportedly injured. Shops were looted, cars were burnt. It was like one of those computer games teenagers like to watch other teenagers play on obscure You Tube channels. The laws of the land were soaked in petrol and torched. Over a thousand buildings were destroyed and at one point, the fire brigade was receiving calls at a rate of one every minute. The damage and losses that were stacked up as a result of the mayhem amounted to over $1 billion. With the city on fire the local police finally called for Federal help after Michael Bolton cancelled a concert.

One of Michael Bolton’s few hits was Love is a wonderful thing, a message that was largely lost on the Korean community who were left hoping their shop insurance covered ‘looting by lawless mob’. The Koreans were targeted specifically due to a shop-owner having recently escaped jail time for shooting a black teenager who he thought was trying to make off with a carton of his orange juice. Anyway, two thousand infantry soldiers hit the streets and a curfew was imposed. In order to encourage the troublemakers to stay at home with an Eddie Murphy video and a box of popcorn the military operation was further bolstered by the arrival of one and half thousand marines – a group not known for asking that many questions. All in all, it took more than thirteen thousand soldiers to restore peace and good order.

The riots had obvious racial undertones, but the reality was that the South Central area of LA was a tinderbox waiting for someone to drop the metaphorical fag butt. The rioters weren’t just African American, they were Hispanic, they were White. They were men and women. The riots were about the escalating levels of poverty. The lack of opportunity. The stifling of a community’s collective American dream.

Two of the officers were later found guilty at a retrial a year later. King was awarded $3.8m in damages from the City of Los Angeles for the attack. He later drowned in his own swimming pool.

Nothing of any good to take from all that then. A bit soul sapping. Plenty to ponder, though, perhaps over a very large gin

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