Taking It to the Streets


Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD, by Lou Cannon, New York: Times Books, 698 pages, $35.00

A decade ago, an African-American teenager named Tawana Brawley captured national attention by claiming she had been raped by a gang of whites, including a prosecutor and law enforcement officers. The story turned out to be a hoax, reversing the KKK myth of a virtuous white woman defiled by black men.

In a classic example of what used to be called racist and is now called multicultural thinking, the truth or falsity of Brawley's claims was beside the point for some. As the famed left-wing lawyer William Kunstler explained, "It makes no difference anymore whether the attack on Tawana really happened. It doesn't disguise the fact that a lot of young black women are treated the way she said she was treated."

But it made a big difference to Stephen Pagones, the young assistant district attorney falsely accused of taking part in the rape. He is suing the Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped broadcast Brawley's allegations, for libel. To this day Sharpton insists, à la Kunstler, that the facts about a particular individual are unimportant. Sharpton also insists he believes Brawley–that's the defense he's using in the libel case.

The same pernicious displacement of individual accountability by group identity stands behind the disastrous policies that helped detonate the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Lou Cannon's book Official Negligence will be read by many as a revisionist account of the Rodney King affair and the L.A. riots. Parts of the book, particularly the story of how Police Chief Daryl Gates left his post at the onset of the riots, are familiar. But the bulk of the book's painstaking 600 pages of main text is devoted to a detailed account of the Rodney King trials that will force readers to revise their old assumptions about the case.

Still, the book offers much more than a provocative take on the King episode. For Cannon, a longtime Los Angeles correspondent for The Washington Post, a respect for the individual and a respect for the evidence go hand in hand. Official Negligence, which deserves the widest possible readership, is a small monument to the ideal of objectivity on the topic of race, where empiricism has long since given way to tribal versions of truth.

Media coverage of the Rodney King case depicted an incident in which a group of racist cops had beaten an innocent black man without provocation and joked about what they had done. For many journalists, the story–or at least the portion of the videotape repeatedly shown on TV–fit an old script, with the LAPD in the role of Bull Connor and Rodney King in the role of a peaceful civil rights marcher.

Most reporters, together with the general public, saw only the edited, 68-second version of the video, which left the impression that Rodney King had been beaten for no reason other than the color of his skin. When the case came to trial in the virtually all-white Simi Valley, jurors discovered there was another section of the tape which had not been shown on TV because of its poor quality. The previously unseen 13 seconds helped frame the case for Simi Valley's conservative jurors, who were already inclined to be suspicious of the media. The restored footage placed the case in a very different context by showing Rodney King charging at Laurence Powell, one of the cops at the scene.

In the five minutes before the tape was shot, Sgt. Stacey Koon of the LAPD had taken charge of the case, in part because he feared that Melanie Singer, the California Highway Patrol officer who was the first to confront the drunken King after a high-speed chase, might use the gun she had drawn. Koon, unlike Laurence Powell, was anything but a racist. A stiff-necked man with a strong sense of his own rectitude, Koon had saved the life of a black transvestite with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he had also pursued, on his own time, a white cop who had abused two black homeless men.

Taking over from Singer, Koon found that his commands were ignored by the muscular, six-foot-one-inch, 250-pound King, who tossed two cops off his back and took two shots from an electronic stun gun, only to keep coming. It was then that the police, barred from using a choke hold and fearful that King was hopped up on PCP, subdued him with the numerous blows from metal batons that were recorded on the tape.

Reviewing all the evidence, Cannon concludes that the Simi Valley verdict of innocence for three of the cops, while a very close call, was probably justified. He notes that in the case of Laurence Powell, the one cop whose behavior probably was criminal, there was a hung jury, so he would have had to be retried. (He was ultimately convicted in federal court.) But these shades of gray would not mean much after the innocent verdicts helped trigger the riots.

If Koon was probably innocent and Powell probably guilty, no such mixed judgment was possible regarding the LAPD, which failed to treat the city's African Americans as individuals, with corrosive consequences. The problem with the LAPD was not a lack of minority officers; in fact, there was a higher percentage of African Americans on the force than in the general population. Rather, it was the department's paramilitary, "kiss the concrete" style of operation, which indiscriminately treated civilians, particularly in South Central L.A., as suspects to be confronted rather than citizens to be served.

The LAPD–which, under Gates, pioneered the use of SWAT teams–invested a great deal in high-tech helicopters and very little in community relations. Under the leadership of the legendary William Parker, chief from 1950-1966, the officers were trained to keep their distance from the people they were supposed to protect, on the ground that contact could only lead to corruption. This distance, combined with large-scale sweeps that drew the innocent as well as the guilty into police dragnets, meant that in South Central the old saw about the police as an army of occupation carried more than just a ring of truth.

Part of the problem lay in L.A.'s unique version of the two-party system dating back to the 1950s, under which the police chief, given virtual autonomy by the city charter, was inevitably seen as the mayor's political rival. In the early 1970s, when Parker's successor, Ed Davis, tried to bring police into closer contact with residents through the kind of community policing that has been so successful in Rudy Giuliani's New York, he was rebuffed by Mayor Tom Bradley, who emerges as one of the villains in Cannon's book. In a city without a civic life to speak of, Bradley was afraid that the community relations officers, all 17 of them, might be influential enough to serve as the basis for a political machine operating on behalf of Davis, who was talking about running for mayor. It was a fateful decision, since it meant that, as with the 1965 Watts riots, hostility toward the authorities was left to smolder.

If the Rodney King experience wasn't bad enough, the black population's suspicions of the police and the legal system were stoked by the Latasha Harlins case. The Empire Liquor Market Deli in South Central had been repeatedly robbed and sometimes terrorized by black gang members, explains Cannon, so when Harlins, a teenager with no criminal record, entered the store in March 1991, owner Soon Ja Du "expected the worst from the black girl." Baseless accusations of shoplifting led to a fight, and the storekeeper fired a bullet into the back of Harlins's head as she was leaving the store. The incident was bad enough; what made it worse was the conduct of Judge Joyce Karlin, who let Du off with probation on the ground that her actions resulted from social conditions which left her justifiably fearful. Once again, individual accountability was sacrificed at the altar of group identity, and the murderer of a black girl got off lightly–as would the African Americans who beat truck driver Reginald Denny nearly to death during the riots.

The lesson of Cannon's book can be summed up by an exchange between William Graham Sumner, a Reconstruction-era senator who wanted to punish the South, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sumner is supposed to have told Emerson that "in my zeal for the cause, I have risen above consideration for mere individuals." Emerson is said to have replied, "My dear sir, I hadn't realized that even God had reached that stage."

Fred Siegel (, a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute and a professor of history at Cooper Union College, is the author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, L.A., D.C., and the Fate of America's Big Cities (The Free Press).