Monday, May 1, 2017

Lost In The Flames

Firefighters spray water on a burning building in South Los Angeles
Hello Everyone:

This past weekend Los Angeles marked the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.  The riots were violent manifestation of decades racism and poverty.  This was not the first time South Los Angeles went up in flames.  In 1965, the Watts riots, which raged for six days and caused more than forty million dollars in property damage.  This was the largest and most expensive urban riot of the Civil Rights era.  The riots were sparked when Marquette Fry, a young African American man, was pulled over and arrested by a Caucasian California Highway Patrol officer Lee W. Minkus, for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.  As onlookers gathered, tensions escalated, violence erupted leading to a large-scale riot. (; date accessed may 1, 2017).

Rodney King responding to the riots
 The world first came to know Rodney G. King on March 3, 1991 when a grainy video, shot by George Holliday, presented an African American man being relentlessly kicked and clubbed by four Los Angeles Police Officers during a traffic stop.  Rodney King's existed public stage on June 17, 2012, when he was found dead in a pool at the age of forty-seven. The autposy report concluded that his death was due to an alcohol and drug-induced delirium. Before his untimely demise, Mr. King had been cycling through rehab, he attributed to the trauma from the beating he suffered at the hands of the officers.  The coroner rule his death was accidental and self-inflicted, a typical ending for the concussed.

The infamous beating
Image captured by George Holliday
Brentin Mocks writes in his CityLab article, "What Was Lost in the Fires of the L.A. Riots," "Riots are also a common feature of communities that have been beaten down and traumatized by racism and poverty."  This was the case in South Central Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 when a jury returned a not guilty verdict in the criminal trial of the four officers accused of beating Mr. King.  This was despite the fact that the home video was shown on all the local and national news outlets; achieving pre-social media vitality.

A new movie, The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots, now airing on the Smithsonian Channel is attempt  to trace how the simmering frustrations led to the conflagration.  The nearly one hour documentary was pieced together from television news segments and never-before seen footage from a camera crew employed by the LAPD during the five-day riot.  The documentary calls itself an unfiltered story of the L.A. riots, this is the intended effect-there are some genuinely enlightening moments from the newly seen LAPD footage.  The documentary has four major takeaways.

Late LAPD Chief Daryl Gates
At first, LAPD Daryl Gates thought it was funny

Not long after the King beating video began making the local news rounds, the documentary includes footage of late LAPD Chief Daryl Gates (a disciple of late Chief William Parker) joking at a public forum,

...if it wasn't for our helicopters the lighting would've been horrible.

The audience was amused.  Move ahead a year to the not guilty verdict: "As flames consume South Central, Gates is in Brentwood, the wealthy L.A. neighborhood where O.J. Simpson lived at the time, raising money to fight reforms in the LAPD."  There is also footage of Chief Gates in 1980 taking the media and the public to task for criticizing the police and claiming that reports of police-involved shootings and killings were over blown.

Latasha Harlins
It wasn't just about Rodney King-or even just about police brutality

Frequently lost in the mix is the case of 15-year-year-old Latasha Harlins.  Latasha Harlins was an African American girl who was shot in the back of the head on March 16, 1991, by Korean American storeowner Soon-ja Du following a brief confrontation.  Ms. Du claimed self defense, despite the fact they were separated by the store counter and Ms. Harlins was unarmed.  Eventually, a jury convicted Ms. Du of voluntary manslaughter (but was not sentence to prison).  The killing came two weeks after the King video was made public; escalating lingering tensions between the African American and Asian American communities in South Central Los Angeles.

Office in tactical gear standing guard
Los Angeles, California
African Americans didn't just "destroy their own neighborhoods"

Brentin Mock writes, "A common refrain when unrest grips black communities is that black rioters are only hurting themselves by burning and looting businesses in their neighborhoods."  This was not the complete story in 1992, though.  Koreatown sustained most of the damage-1,700 business were destroyed, "compared to 2,800 Africa-American businesses elsewhere."  Koreans were specifically targeted because they owned the majority of real estate across South Central, "while African Americans felt they didn't have the same entrepreneurial opportunities."  The Harlins killing further highlighted the divide between the two communities.  Mr. Mock reports, "One Asian-American man captured in a news clip in the doc tries to make the connection, though, noting how no fire trucks were coming to Koreatown to put out the fires."  The  unidentified man said,

This is no longer about Rodney King...This is about the system against us, the minorities

Fire from riot
Los Angeles, California
African Americans weren't for most of the rioting

The arrest records tell a different story:  "The LAPD arrested 12, 111 people during the unrest.  On 36 percent were African Americans, according to the documentary, while 51 percent of the arrested were Latino Americans."  The documentary does not present context for the this statistic, or why the face of the rioter is generally seen as African American.  South Central L.A. had a sizable Latino population in 1992, "but it's worth exploring why they endured the brunt of law enforcement."

Straight Outta Compton album cover

In addition to not explaining why 51 percent of the rioters arrested were Latinos, Brentin Mock points out, "It's not the only thing left unsaid in the Smithsonian documentary, suggesting that maybe the footage-exclusive approach to storytelling here has its limitation."  More context is necessary for what happened in the spring of 1992.  One example is "there's probably no truer place to apply the oft-repeated Martin Luther King quote that riots are the language of the unheard than Los Angeles, where young black hip-hop artists had been sounding off for years."

The 1988 N.W.A. song "Fuck Tha Police" passed judgement on the LAPD.  Ice Cube predicted with absolute certainty that a riot was inevitable in his 1991 album Death Certificate-"particularly with the songs 'A Bird in the Hand,' 'Black Korea.' and 'I Wanna Kill Sam.'"  The loudest voices on the issues the precipitated the riots were L.A.'s African American youth.  In the Smithsonian documentary, Chief Gates is heard dismissing any possibilities of racial conflict as voices in the wilderness.  Months later, the riots broke out, metaphorically beating Chief Gates and Los Angeles in the head with the same brutality as the police beat Rodney King.

Florence and Normandie, then and now

In 1994, Congress passed Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, "which authorized the U.S. Justice Department to investigate local police departments when they exhibit evidence of excessive misconduct and deadly force."  The bill was a direct response to the findings of the Christopher Commission after the infamous video went public.

Brentin Mock writes, "Section 14141 also authorized the Justice Department to establish reforms within abusive police departments via consent decrees-an outcome of the riots that the documentary doesn't cover."  However, the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pushing back against these reforms, like late Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates.  Are we in for a repeat?

Personal Observation:  Blogger was living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles when the riot broke out.  It was a scary few days.  Yours truly could see and smell the smoke coming from the fires, a mere mile away.  Blogger was afraid to leave the house.  Traffic on the side streets was heavy.  By the weekend, things had calmed down enough so that it was safe to venture out during the day-a curfew was in place.  A year later, the four officers lost in civil court and the fear of riot renewed itself and once again after the not guilty verdict in the People v. O.J. Simpson.  The fear of another riot still permeates the City of Los Angeles, will it come to fruition?  Who knows.

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