As we remember the last riot in Los Angeles, the seeds of the next one are being sown.
Al Sharpton was in Los Angeles on Thursday, attending a church rally marking the two-month anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death. Why Los Angeles should be chosen as the venue for such an event may at first seem a mystery, but whatever one may think of him, Sharpton can be counted among the true masters at manipulating the media. And here in Los Angeles this week, much of the media has been consumed with observing the 20th anniversary of what is often referred to as the Rodney King riots. The not-so-subtle message Sharpton was here to convey is this: Listen to me, do as I say, or face the consequences.
Recall that on April 29, 1992, four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, who had led police on a high-speed pursuit through L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. When he finally pulled over, unlike his two passengers King refused to submit to arrest and was struck with batons, kicked, and shocked with a Taser, all of which was captured on that famous videotape by a man who lived nearby. The tape (edited portions of it, actually) was played on television in what seemed to be a continuous loop for months, and then was played again ad nauseam throughout the officers’ trial. It was that tape, and the careful but deceptive manner in which it was edited and shown, that led to the near-universal expectation that the accused officers would be convicted. When they weren’t, much of Los Angeles was put to the torch in days of rioting and looting.
By yoking himself to the memory of the Los Angeles riots, and to the coming trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Sharpton is implicitly threatening violence even as he explicitly denounces it. “I’ve fought for justice for Trayvon,” Sharpton wrote at the Huffington Post, “because I believe in America and I don’t believe we should burn it down. Let’s prove that we are in fact the United States of America, and let’s not miss another opportunity to show just how great we can be.”
And just how great can we be, Mr. Sharpton, if “justice for Trayvon” results in an acquittal of George Zimmerman?
Sharpton surely knows this is a real possibility. As pointed out by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, among others, the case against Zimmerman is feeble. But this is of little import to Sharpton, and indeed may even be to his advantage. The initial narrative of the Martin shooting – racist white guy shoots harmless black child – has come unraveled, leaving Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey in the unenviable position of pressing a murder case in which the only known eyewitness bolsters the defendant’s claim of self-defense. But expectations of a conviction have already been raised, not least by Sharpton himself, leaving him in the role of the man who will pour oil on the troubled waters. And, conveniently for Sharpton, the anniversary of the L.A. riots arrives to provide exactly the right platform for the type of self-promotion at which he is so adept.
Just as the details of George Zimmerman’s deadly encounter with Trayvon Martin have escaped the limits first placed on them by the media, so too did the actual facts of Rodney King’s arrest fly in the face of what had been presented to the public, leading to genuinely reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors who acquitted the four LAPD officers twenty years ago. But that hasn’t prevented some from trying to make history conform to long-discredited canards about the LAPD, one of which was recently trotted out in the Los Angeles Times.