On Sunday, May 3, 1992, I was waiting in the checkout line at a supermarket in Lawndale, Calif. Standing in front of me, and behind, were soldiers from the National Guard decked out in full riot gear—camo uniforms and boots, bandoliers crisscrossing their chests fully stocked with some rather large, sinister-looking bullets, and assault weapons draped over their shoulders.
I was 33 years old at the time and these soldiers were younger than me. I stared in awe as these baby-faced, crewcut warriors paid for their purchases—mostly sodas, chips, and candy bars. I had been living in Los Angeles barely a year and had already seen more weird stuff in that time than in my previous 32 years combined.
The soldiers had been invited to town to help quell the Rodney King riots. Rodney King, for those of you who may not know or remember, was the young black man who led police on a dangerous high-speed chase through the suburbs of L.A. When he finally pulled over, he was taken from the car, tasered, and then four LAPD officers struck him dozens of times with side-handled batons, and kick-stomped him repeatedly before handcuffing him and hogtying his legs.
While this happened well before the advent of camera phones and the internet, the incident was captured with a video camera by someone who lived nearby. It was shown on the evening news ad nauseam for days and it was difficult to watch. The cops claimed King was on PCP, but subsequent drug tests revealed that not to be the case. King was no angel—he led police on a car chase that reached 115 mph—but most agreed he didn’t deserve to be beaten to within an inch of his life. And most also agreed that if Rodney King had been Caucasian, he would have been cuffed, placed in the back of the squad car and brought to jail. End of story. Just another routine arrest for the local gendarmes.
The DA subsequently charged the four officers with assault and use of excessive of force. The jury had no African American members.
After seven days of deliberations, the jury acquitted all four officers.
Then all hell broke loose. L.A. burned for six days. Fifty-five died, more than 2,000 were injured.
At that time, my cousin and I owned a wholesale frozen yogurt business. Our factory was in Lawndale, a little town about 2-square miles wedged between Hawthorne (where the Wilson brothers of Beach Boy fame grew up) and the South Bay (which includes the upscale beach communities of Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach). On the other side of Hawthorne you find south central L.A.—ground zero for the riots.
Looking north from the rooftop of our two-story factory in Lawndale, we had a chilling panoramic view of the devastation that was taking place. We were just four or five miles from the intersection of Florence and Normandy—the epicenter of much of the violence. And for six days and nights, the sounds of police and fire truck sirens pierced the smokey air. It was like a Mad Max movie come to life.
Our yogurt company lost nearly 25 percent of our accounts that week—some stores burnt to the ground, other proprietors just shuttered and quit. We were never able to bounce back from that. It took a couple of years, but Paradise Foods died a slow death. We ended up just selling off our assets—our trucks, freezers, yogurt machines, and what accounts we had left. I went back into journalism.
But the Rodney King incident was much different from what’s taken place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. King was beaten badly, but not killed. Those cops were rightly angry for the peril King caused with his reckless driving and that anger was exacerbated by their bigotry. The African American community’s response was immediate and convulsive. It was not a protest; it was not organized. It was an unadulterated visceral reaction to years of mistreatment by LAPD. The looting, the property damage, the loss of life—the city still bears those scars.
But unlike today, the King riots were limited to just Los Angeles. It’s been nearly 30 years since then and still the problem lingers like a chronic infection. The names and places have changed over the years, but the color of the skin remains the same.
A cop’s job may be one of the hardest jobs in the world, and they deserve all the credit and respect one can muster. But those who point out in the wake of the current protests that “not all cops are bad” are missing the point. Of course, not all cops are bad, just like not all plumbers or accountants are bad. But a bad cop makes life much more difficult for the good ones because like a cancer, their bad behavior can metastasize and cripple an entire department. It becomes systemic if that cancer is not removed. It will pollute the still-healthy parts of the body.
And that’s been the problem. We’ve been using Band-Aids to cover up the cancer, instead of employing the deeply invasive surgery needed to remove it.
So, when us white people sit on our couches watching the news while scratching our heads and wondering why the violence, why the destruction? Well, years of oppression will do that. And until you know what it’s like to be shot while eating ice cream alone in your own living room, or jogging in a white neighborhood, you won’t relate.
You may not know this but getting killed by a cop has now become the leading cause of death for young black men in America. According to the Los Angeles Times, about one in 1,000 black men/boys can expect to die at the hands of police. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men/boys to die during an encounter with cops. No wonder they want to break stuff.
Two years after the Rodney King riots, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her friend, although the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. But that jury, nine of whom were African American and one Hispanic, was never going to convict him even if the DA had a high-resolution video of O.J. committing the crime. It was simply payback time.
Now, all these years later, that high-profile trial has resulted in America having to endure the stunningly banal adventures of the insipid Kardashian clan, whose late patriarch was one of Simpson’s lawyers.
The suffering never ends.