Controversy over Rodney King Beating and L.A. Riots Reignites

My most recent column here on Pajamas Media concerned former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates, more specifically the editorial published in the Los Angeles Times on the occasion of his death last Friday. Gates was, to understate the matter considerably, a controversial figure here in Los Angeles, and no aspect of his 42-year career with the LAPD was more controversial than his role in the Rodney King affair, to which the Times devoted fully a third of the editorial. Though they offered some backhanded compliments, the editors made it clear they regarded Daryl Gates as a villain, not least for his role in the Rodney King affair.

On this there is vehement disagreement with most LAPD officers, not only those who were on the job during the Rodney King saga, but even those who joined the department in the years since.  Daryl Gates remained a respected and beloved figure to most in the LAPD, and I suspect there will be no little grumbling and gnashing of teeth in the Los Angeles Times offices on Tuesday when traffic in downtown Los Angeles is snarled by what will surely be a massive tribute as his funeral Mass is held in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Recall that it was Rodney King who, at the end of a high-speed car chase, was violently subdued by LAPD officers on March 3, 1991, an incident that was captured on videotape by a resident in a nearby apartment building. Three police officers and a sergeant were charged in state court with a total of eleven counts, and when their trial concluded on April 29, 1992, they were acquitted of all but one of them, on which the jury voted 8-4 in favor of acquitting the accused officer.

Later that Wednesday afternoon, Los Angeles broke out in rioting that wasn’t quelled until Saturday. Sporadic violence continued until the following Monday, and when the curfew at last was lifted, fifty-three people were dead and large swaths of the city’s commercial districts had been looted and reduced to ashes.

The city was then consumed by the non-violent but no less contentious spectacle of the battle between Daryl Gates and his supporters on one side and those who sought to blame him both for the Rodney King beating itself and the riots it engendered on the other. The police chief’s foes included then-Mayor Tom Bradley, many members of the city council, and nearly the entire Los Angeles media establishment, most especially the Los Angeles Times. Gates resisted the effort to oust him, but he ultimately yielded and retired on June 28, 1992.

Gates’s death has to some extent revived the controversy over the Rodney King beating and its aftermath. Even today, in neighborhoods across South Central Los Angeles, there are visible  scars from the riots in the form of vacant lots where businesses once stood, and now as the LAPD prepares to honor its former chief at his funeral, people ask how the riots might have been prevented or, failing that, diminished in scope.

As I noted in the previous column, former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon wrote an exhaustive book on the Rodney King affair, Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. The book is more than 700 pages long, including its endnotes and bibliography, and needless to say, it explores the incident in far greater detail than I am able to here. But among Cannon’s conclusions was that the jury’s verdict was not, as was widely believed, an inexplicable conclusion based on racial prejudice or other biases, but rather a logical and even predictable result of a poorly presented prosecution case coupled with a vigorous and skillful defense, one that revealed the entire videotape of the beating, not just the inflammatory portion that was endlessly shown on television.

I present all this history as background to examine what became, in the comments to my earlier column, a debate on who should bear culpability for the LAPD’s failure to put down the riots in those first hours after the verdicts were announced. In considering what follows, one must remember that in commenting on an Internet site such as this one, a reader may use any name he chooses, and he may also claim a level of knowledge or expertise that of course cannot be verified.

That said, one commenter identified himself as Michael N. Moulin, a retired LAPD lieutenant who played a pivotal role in the first moments of the riots. Given that his comments comport with what Moulin has said in published and broadcast interviews, and that a check of computer IP addresses indicates the comments were posted from Mexico, where Moulin is known to reside, I proceed here in the presumption that the man is in fact who he claims to be. Also, when Moulin submitted his comments he provided an e-mail address which also indicated an origin in Mexico. I sent an e-mail to that address three days ago asking Moulin for some additional information, but as I write this I have yet to receive a reply.