The Riots & After: You Had to Be There

What the networks didn't show the world


During the days of rioting that followed the verdict in the trial of the police officers who beat Rodney King, I received telephone calls from friends and family in other parts of the country. After first asking if I was safe, they asked what was going on here in Los Angeles. I told them all I knew was what I saw on television—that I didn't know any more than they did. But as the conversations progressed, it quickly became apparent that what I was seeing on local television differed quite a bit from what they were seeing on ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN.

Repeatedly from them and from callers to talk shows on CNN and C-Span, I heard comments that made it clear that the national networks were playing catch-up, giving viewers reports and analysis that had little to do with what was actually occurring at the time in Los Angeles. On Wednesday and Thursday, after the riots had begun, the networks were still covering the trial, and callers were still ignorant of its particulars—from the makeup of the jury to the arguments of the defense and prosecution.

Once the networks finally turned to the riots themselves, they gave viewers little geographical or historical context. They didn't explain about ethnic relations within Los Angeles, about earlier cases with racial overtones, or about the role gangs play in the everyday violence that marks life in South-Central L.A. The networks' coverage was often overly simplistic and sometimes out-and-out wrong.

"What were your professional actions in the approval of an all-white jury who may have been culturally biased?" 
—Question for Rodney King's attorney, Steve Lerman, from a caller from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Larry King Live

Rodney King's attorney had no say in the conduct of what networks called "the Rodney King trial"—a criminal prosecution in which King did not even appear as a witness. Larry King reminded his viewers that Lerman "had nothing to do with this trial." Other network representatives were not so fastidious about the facts of the case.

Except for Court TV viewers, most people outside Los Angeles didn't follow the trial. After turning the King beating into a national story, the major networks dropped it. So on Wednesday and Thursday night, as Angelenos were watching their city go up in flames on local television, the networks were trying to explain to viewers in the rest of the country how the four men who beat Rodney King had gotten off.

During that time, I repeatedly heard the jury referred to as "all white" both by national network anchors and reporters and by average people from around the country. The truth is that the jury included one Latino and one Asian. The four blacks in the jury pool were dismissed because their answers to jury questionnaires showed that they seemed to have prejudged the officers and could not render an unbiased decision.

This isn't nitpicking. Having followed the trial on local television, I was surprised by the verdict but not shocked. I had seen the prosecutors try to argue that Rodney King had never acted in what could be perceived as a threatening manner on the night of his arrest, a point that even their own witnesses wouldn't back them up on.

The defense managed to focus much of the trial on those initial moments when Rodney King stepped out of the car and seemed to lunge at the officers, rather than that last minute when King was flailing about on the ground as the policemen continued to beat him. Even the two California Highway Patrol officers who testified against the four policemen said that Rodney King's initial actions frightened them.

I had watched as defense attorneys marched the jury through the infamous videotape again and again, arguing that it was impossible to tell if the policemen had deliberately struck King in the head (which would have been a violation of department policy) and that King's attempts to dodge the blows could be interpreted by frightened police officers as aggressive behavior. Yet none of the network reports that I saw mentioned that the law required the jurors to take into account the mental state of the four officers when rendering their verdict.

And most important, I had seen how the defense attorneys played on the tremendous fear that suburbanites of all colors have of crime. The change of venue from Los Angeles to Simi Valley was probably the turning point in the trial. Not because Simi Valley is "all white," as people kept saying, but because it is populated by people of all races who fled the city because of violent crime. Indeed, remarks made by jurors after the trial showed that they were more concerned about not handcuffing the police than about giving justice to Rodney King.

Further, eight of the 12 had served in the military. I didn't hear one network reporter mention this fact. But it's reasonable to assume that people with a military background would be sympathetic to police officers who claimed that they were just following department regulations.

The networks also overlooked the fact that the defense made what was in hindsight a brilliant gamble. It refused to allow the jury to consider lesser charges against the four policemen. They would have to vote on the most serious felony charges. The men and women on that jury might well have found the four guilty of offenses that carried a short sentence, but there was no way they would give eight years of hard time to four members of, in one defense attorney's words, "the thin blue line" that separates law-abiding people from the violence of the big city.

The networks did mention that the defense got lucky when the trial was moved to Simi Valley, but they didn't mention that Oakland had also been under consideration as the venue. While the prosecution had originally argued that if the trial were moved it should be to a venue that resembles Los Angeles demographically (such as Oakland), it did not oppose the decision to move the trial to Simi Valley.

"I think these riots that we've been experiencing the last couple of days might well be called the Willie Horton Memorial Riots, reflecting the ugly racism that was fostered by President Bush's campaign four years ago."
—Erwin Knoll, of The Progressive magazine, on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour

One of the ideas voiced frequently by left-wing pundits is that the beating was motivated simply by racism. If one only saw the videotape of a bunch of white police officers beating a black man, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the police were racists. And the remarks made over the police radio by defendant Laurence Powell, referring to an earlier case involving blacks as a "gorillas in the mist" situation, certainly raises suspicions about his racial prejudices.

But again, those of us here in Los Angeles saw a more complex picture. Profiles of Stacey Koon, the senior officer on trial, revealed that only a few months before the beating, he had leaped to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dying "black transvestite prostitute with open sores around his mouth" as other police officers looked on in shock and horror.

Nor do the police limit abuse to black suspects. After the King beating, a commission headed by Warren Christopher investigated police brutality within the LAPD. The commission found the police department regularly treats innocent people with incivility and often abuses them. While blacks and Latinos suffer the brunt of this abuse, whites are treated badly as well. The Operation Rescue protesters who were brutalized by Los Angeles policemen two years ago will testify to that. Even after adjusting for the large size of the city's population, Los Angeles leads all other major U.S. cities in attacks by police dogs and in awards in police-brutality suits.

The problem, the commission found, stems primarily from the police department's unwillingness to investigate and punish its own (the department simply sat on most excessive-force complaints); from the lack of civilian oversight of the department; and from the paramilitary attitude that has been promulgated within the department for several decades.

The LAPD takes the "war on crime" metaphor quite seriously. As other big-city police departments have turned to community-based policing and an increased emphasis on foot patrols, the LAPD has emphasized the swift use of force as a deterrent to crime. The people the department arrests are treated not as potentially innocent persons or citizens with rights; they are the enemy.

The national networks barely noticed the release of the Christopher Commission report, and by the time of the riots they seemed to have forgotten about it.

"Increasingly, people are saying that all of the violence had very little to do with Rodney King. Instead, it was the desperate call of a community fighting for change."
—ABC reporter Tom Foreman

The idea that the riots were an unfortunate expression of black America's rage against its mistreatment by white America's political system was voiced by a number of reporters and weekend talk-show pundits. But the pictures from Los Angeles told a different story.

Certainly, blacks were upset with the trial verdict. Only a relative few, however, took part in the looting. Street gangs were the shock troops of the riots. They were the ones who pulled Reginald Denny from the cab of his truck and beat and stomped him. Gang members committed most of the violence and the arson. Their victims were quite often black. Buildings that would have been spared during the more truly political Watts riots of 1965 were attacked. Libraries, the offices of black politicians, and the headquarters of community-action groups all went up in smoke.

And putting signs in the windows telling people that shops were black owned didn't spare the owners. The saddest part of the riot may have been watching black shop owners return to their burned out stores and ask reporters what was going to happen to them and to the people they employed. One wonders whether Ted Koppel had seen these pictures when he didn't challenge a gang member who told him, "We're renovating our neighborhood."

Following the gang members, scavengers moved in to loot the remains of stores. The pictures didn't show anger; they showed people—sometimes whole families—gleefully grabbing "free" goods. And these people weren't all black. About a third of those arrested were Latino; a substantial number were white.

That's only to be expected. The riots quickly spread out of areas populated by minorities into neighborhoods dominated by whites. And as the riots spread, the participants mirrored the populations of the new neighborhoods.

Part of the problem is that the networks didn't do a very good job of showing people what was happening where on the sprawling L.A. map. Some people I talked to thought the riots were occurring in Watts. Others thought the entire city was ablaze. Neither of those impressions was true.

The networks also didn't do a very good job of explaining the interethnic group violence that occurred during the riot. I'm sure that most Americans understood, or thought they understood, the black-on-white violence that occurred early on. But the black-against-Korean violence must have perplexed most TV viewers.

Here in Los Angeles, however, we are only too aware of the tensions that exist between Korean immigrants and blacks. Many of the shops in black neighborhoods are run by Koreans. Many blacks complain that the Koreans charge too much for the stuff they sell and treat their customers without respect. Some even believe that Koreans get special loans from the government to go into black neighborhoods and start businesses to keep blacks from owning their own businesses.

Koreans, on the other hand, complain of their losses from shoplifters and armed robbery, crimes in which blacks are usually the perpetrators. Several months ago, Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du shot in the back and killed Latasha Harlins, a 14-year-old black girl who had attacked her. Blacks in Los Angeles were outraged when the Korean woman received no jail time for the crime.

So it wasn't surprising when the violence took on an anti-Korean tone. Apparently, the very first business looted was liquor store targeted because the owners were Korean. And looters soon marched out of South-Central L.A. to Koreatown.

Television reported that Koreans were special targets for violence, but much of the audience was probably left wondering why. And when reporters did try to explore the "Korean angle," they left out inconvenient facts—for example, that many Koreans had purchased or leased their stores from black owners who had moved into more profitable businesses or that 30 percent or more of looted stores were owned by Latinos. On this story, as on so many other aspects of the riot, the networks left viewers with only a partial picture.

What caused the L.A. riots is a question that will be asked for a long time. But we can't figure out the answer unless we know what happened. And for that, Americans will have to depend on something other than national television.

Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.