The Rodney King Riots: Individuality
How a city descends into madness.
Posted Apr 29, 2010
Seeing ought to be believing - so what are we to believe, watching this videotape: eleven police officers standing around while three kick and beat, for nearly two minutes, a man struggling on the ground? Are we to believe, as Sgt. Stacey Koon insisted, that this was the controlled application of "power strokes" to subdue a violent, possibly drugged suspect who was resisting arrest? Are we to believe, with Jerome Skolnick, professor of sociology, that this is "the defining incident in police brutality?" Or are we to believe, as many claimed at the time, that this was just another routine episode in the poisoned relationship between law enforcement and impoverished black people in Los Angeles?
Rodney King was and is, as his parole officer put it, "basically a decent guy whose problem was alcoholism." He had few choices in life and made those few badly. Continuing to speed, drunk, though residential neighborhoods because he feared that being caught would send him back to jail was one of those poor choices, to which the LA police department's reputation for selective rigor must have contributed. The LAPD had a tendency to see itself as a thin blue line between the respectable, "family" sections of the megalopolis and its chaotic sinks; its job was the forceful imposition of compliance. That's what voters and property owners usually want police to do, forgetting that it is ultimately an impossible task. The police are not the source but the agents of society's shared belief in peace and justice; once mutual trust is gone, no number of "power strokes" will ensure order.
Now there was this videotape; a chance, it seemed, to rectify deep resentments and establish in court the limits to acceptable force. But this forgets what a trial is for: measuring evidence against law, not meting out social justice. Through seven days of deliberation, the jurors examined the tape frame by frame (thus perhaps deadening its initial shock), concentrating on Rodney King's actions: was he trying to fight back or trying to get up and flee? In the end, they decided there was not enough evidence to convict the officers of assault or even of excessive force. In the little jury room, this may have seemed the right decision; in the larger world, it was disastrous; the riots that began on this date in 1992 killed 53 people, injured more than 2,000 others, destroyed more than 3,000 businesses, and cost more than a billion dollars.
In another videotape, four black men drag Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, from his cab and beat him so badly that to this day he does not speak or walk properly; a Guatemalan immigrant, Fidel Lopez, receives equally brutal treatment. Both men were rescued from certain death by Bobby Green and the Rev. Bennie Newton - unarmed African-American neighbors of the assailants - in acts of humane bravery that deserve to be remembered. They saw, when all around were blinded by abstract, impersonal emotions, the face and humanity of the victim.
On the third day of rioting, Rodney King appeared on television, pleading: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?... I mean, we're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out. Let's try to beat it. Let's try to beat it. Let's try to work it out." It was confused, repetitive, without much hope - much like the events themselves. In the end, things didn't so much cool down as burn out.
Reginald Denny's attackers were brought to trial and, against the evidence, acquitted of almost all charges: society, as so often, attempting to atone for one injustice with another. But at the verdict, a surprising thing happened: Denny himself joined the celebrating families and hugged the mother of the man who had ruined his life. Another attacker, Henry Watson, later apologized, saying, "he got caught up in the moment, just like everyone else."
A neuroimaging study reported by Alexandra Golby confirms the bad old joke: people from other races all look alike. We are better at distinguishing unknown faces from our own race; specifically, we are more likely to activate the fusiform face area, a part of the fusiform gyrus that plays an essential part in recognizing individuals. Add the clues of wealth or poverty, uniforms or gang colors, and this anonymity extends to the point where the other becomes an object: a thing you punish for insults suffered at another time in another place. In LA in 1992, a few at least saw through those general tags to the one truth worth believing in: the individual. It's a pity that so much had to be destroyed to achieve that recognition.