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A Jarring Verdict, An Angry Spasm

4 minute read

RATTLED BY TWO SUBSTANTIAL EARTHQUAKES AND their rumbling aftershocks the previous weekend, Californians had reason to relax a little by last Wednesday. The ground had stopped shaking. And then, at midafternoon, came the seismic news: a Superior Court jury in Simi Valley, a bedroom community northwest of Los Angeles, had acquitted on all but one count — and deadlocked on that — the four white L.A. policemen on trial for beating and otherwise mistreating black motorist Rodney King.

The verdict prompted amazement and disbelief. The King case was not another garden-variety allegation of police brutality. Everyone in the world within eyeshot of a television set had seen the amateur videotape made by a witness on the night of March 3, 1991, when, after a high-speed chase, King was forced out of his car and encircled by police. The 81-second video recorded what happened next: a danse macabre of casual, almost studied, violence. King, writhing on the pavement, was kicked by his uniformed assailants, jolted with a stun gun and hit with nightsticks 56 times.

Yet seeing, for the jurors in the King trial, was not believing. Legal experts scrambled to explain the unexpected outcome. Some cited a lackluster prosecution, which did not call King to testify, did not raise the issue of racism until late in the 29 days of testimony and may have assumed that the stark video alone guaranteed convictions. Others pointed to a crucial decision last Nov. 26, when the judge granted a defense motion for a change of venue, on the grounds of harmful pretrial publicity, from Los Angeles County to neighboring and overwhelmingly white Ventura County. Before a jury of 10 whites, one Asian and one Hispanic, defense lawyers portrayed the accused policemen as the “thin blue line” between law-abiding citizens and the rebellious, intransigent forces embodied, so the argument implied, in Rodney King.

If the jury’s decision was influenced, however subconsciously, by stereotypical fears of black crime, events quickly conspired to intensify that dread. A crowd of protesters, mainly black, outraged by the acquittals, gathered before dusk at L.A. police headquarters. Some tried to storm the doors; others sheared off toward nearby city hall, where Mayor Tom Bradley had taken up a command post in the basement. A flag was set on fire; a booth in a parking lot sprouted flames. Under the night sky, patches of Los Angeles began to burn.

During the next 48 hours, fearsome anarchy spread along the streets and freeways of a city designed around the car and free mobility. Gangs attacked luckless drivers, beating and robbing and leaving them sprawled on the roadways. Hovering news helicopters captured several of these assaults; footage rivaling the King video in its wanton brutality was broadcast worldwide. L.A.’s 7,800-member police force, working on alternating 12-hour shifts, was overwhelmed by the scope of the violence. Wholesale looting went largely unchecked; many of the more than 3,700 fires started during the rioting raged out of control, since police protection was unavailable for those fighting the blazes. By Friday, some 4,000 members of the California National Guard took up positions in the city; President Bush announced that 6,500 federal forces, including fbi and swat units and contingents of the infantry and Marines, were prepared to help restore order. But the toll of deaths, injuries, property destroyed and hopes blasted mounted. And similar, though smaller, demonstrations and outbursts of violence hopscotched across the U.S.

As appalling as the carnage was, it seemed to signal something worse: a final loss of faith by black Americans in the fairness of the criminal-justice system and hence in the rule of law itself. It will be easier to clean up the rubble than to heal the mistrust and anger that caused it. (See cover stories beginning on page 18.)

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