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.
“LAPD goes from longtime oppressor to community partner,” read the headline over an April 22 column by Times columnist Sandy Banks. I’ll allow that Banks probably didn’t write the inflammatory headline, but while the piece itself is worth reading for the interview with three police officers who worked through the riots and are still patrolling South Central L.A., it repeats the most tired of tired clichés about how that area once was policed. The LAPD, writes Banks, was “an occupying army.”
Like the three officers interviewed in the Banks piece, I too was working in South Central L.A. on the day the riots began. In 1991, the LAPD had about 8,000 officers, or 2,000 fewer than it has today. But while in 2010 the city had a Part I crime rate of 273 per 10,000 residents, in 1991 that figure was a staggering 1,010. And in 1991, in the four police divisions that patrol South Central L.A., the department put no more than 80 cops on the street on a typical night, hardly anyone’s idea of an occupying army. And while the LAPD now investigates fewer than 300 murders each year, in 1991 it handled 1,025, the greatest share of which occurred in South Central L.A. On those infrequent occasions when the department did manage to muster a larger number of officers to patrol the area, it was in response to a level of violence that seems all but incomprehensible today.
And though there is much less violent crime in L.A. than there was twenty years ago, a disproportionate amount of it still occurs in those same neighborhoods. This is a fact evidently lost on Henry Watson, one of the central figures from the opening moments of the Rodney King riots. It was Watson and Damian “Football” Williams who were the primary culprits in the assault on Reginald Denny, who on April 29, 1992, was dragged from the cab of his big-rig dirt hauler and beaten nearly to death at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. In one part of a retrospective series on the riots produced by the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, Watson spoke of his anger on hearing that the four LAPD officers had been acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.
“Enough is enough,” Watson told KNBC. “And you know, history has a tendency to repeat itself, you understand? So it’s boiling. It’s hot right now with the [Trayvon Martin] issue in Florida. . . . You can’t keep killing black folks. We’re not going to allow it.”
He apparently prefers to leave the killing of black folks to other black folks, about whom he expressed no outrage in the interview. According to the Los Angeles Times, since Jan. 1, 2007, there have been 166 people killed within two miles of the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the great majority of them young black men killed by other young black men. And many of them, victims and killers alike, were members of the same street gang to which Watson and Williams once belonged. (To no one’s surprise, Damian Williams is serving a life sentence for killing a man in 2000.)
And I may have missed it, but I didn’t catch Al Sharpton commenting on L.A.’s black-on-black crime problem while he was here in town, either. How many more will be killed in the time it takes to get a resolution in the Zimmerman-Martin case?
Unless some previously undisclosed evidence emerges against George Zimmerman, he will not be convicted of any crime, and in any event I’m confident he will never be convicted of murder. When he is acquitted, or when a mistrial is declared with a hung jury, what will happen? When that day comes, the prudent citizen will avoid the intersection of Florence and Normandie.