I have never been to Los Angeles. I don’t know anyone who lives in Los Angeles. Everything I know about Los Angeles comes second-hand. Yet it was 20 years ago my first gig as a paid freelancer came when I wrote about the 1992 L.A. riots after the acquittal of the police officers who beat motorist Rodney King.
I can’t read that article now without wincing. It’s earnest and sincere, but it’s overwrought, poorly thought out and badly written. It’s not that I regret what I said when I was in my mid-Thirties, and I am not afraid of being angry, I’m not that angry young man anymore.
I’m gratified former Time magazine correspondent Sylvester Monroe who covered the uprising in L.A. wrote a remembrance of where he was 20 years ago and what has changed since then.
The 1992 Los Angeles riots were one of the biggest stories of my career and among the most personal. I wasn’t just a reporter covering the worst civil unrest in modern U.S. history. I was also an African-American man and father of an adolescent son ever mindful of close encounters of the worst kind with the police.
Reporting on the six days of deadly violence and vandalism following the acquittals of four white L.A. police officers tried for the brutal, videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King resonated with me even more than the trial itself. In nearly 10 years as a Los Angeles correspondent for Time magazine, I was never stopped by the LAPD. As a young teenager, my son, Jason, was ticketed once for jaywalking. We paid a $50 fine and that was the end of it. But we both were always wary.
Twenty years later, relations between the Los Angeles police and the city’s black citizens are light-years beyond the tinderbox atmosphere that once prevailed, thanks to extensive police reforms, including a much-touted commitment to community policing, increased external oversight and more enlightened department leadership. Many black Angelenos now believe there has been so much progress that what happened in 1992 could not happen again. At least not in the same way.
One reason is that despite some ongoing racial tension, the people of Los Angeles generally get along much better than they did at the time of King’s famously plaintive plea: “Can we all just get along?”
“I do not feel it could happen again because [the police] are now accountable to us and want to be,” says Lawrence Tolliver, also black, who owns a popular barbershop just blocks from the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues where white truck driver Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and almost beaten to death by young black men right after the King trial verdicts. “If something like [the King beating] did happen today, it would be a lot different than in 1992. They would investigate it, and the current police chief would not let it get to that point. We have a lot more impact on the department now.”
That may be true for L.A., but not for every city around the nation. As Los Angeles marks the 20th anniversary of its riotous past, national attention is now firmly fixed on yet another racially charged assault. In the Trayvon Martin case, the Sanford, Fla., police did not shoot the unarmed 17-year-old black teenager. But police handling or mishandling of the case and how it is resolved in court could make Trayvon this generation’s Rodney King. For what has not changed in two decades is continued excessive force against black males (and females) by law enforcement officers and others who claim they were afraid for their lives.
If George Zimmerman is exonerated and rioting does occur, that would be unjustified and unfortunate, but not wholly unexpected. When there is one standard of justice for Whites and a separate and unequal one for Blacks and it is shrugged off as no big thing it breeds the lack of respect for the American system of justice and all its representatives that is decried by its most ardent defenders. If peaceful civil disobedience is denigrated as rabble rousing and counter-productive, then once legitimate means of redress are choked off, violent reactions become inevitable.
Americans are not people who quietly suffer their lot in life with hand-wringing and hushed voices. They raise hell about everything from high taxation without representation, unjust wars, government that becomes too big, bloated and intrusive and for civil rights and equal protection under the law. Faith in, and compliance with the rules and laws of a civilized society can only be maintained as long as they are equally and fairly applied regardless of race, color, creed, orientation, power, influence or connection.
If no one should be considered above the law then no one should be considered below the law. That includes Trayvon Martin as much as it does George Zimmerman.
King was everything Martin wasn’t. A large Black man with a criminal record who was breaking the law and might have been stoned then. King was a victim of police brutality while Martin faced off with an overzealous vigilante-slash-police-wannabee and.though King was a victim, he wasn’t entirely innocent. .
No one else should be hurt or die due to what happened one night in Sanford, Florida. The hope is justice will prevail and everyone involved will be treated in a fair and equitable way. But if anyone believes what happened in 1992 can’t happen again they have not paid attention to the bitterly learned lessons of Los Angeles very well.