Dover Bitch

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Can't we all just get along?

It was 15 years ago today that Rodney King asked that question. DB was at a friend's house.

The first night of the riots, the local news was showing maps of Los Angeles with little fire icons slowly moving towards my location. I called my future roommate to ask what was happening at the apartment in Koreatown where I would soon be living. Buildings were blazing out the window. I ended up staying with a friend in Highland Park for a few nights. Between the carnage and the curfew, where you were was where you ended up.

Eventually, we had to get used to seeing tanks parked at the 7/11 instead of cops. Store owners walking on their roofs with rifles. Strange days.

I went down to Florence and Normandie a couple years ago and it looked alright. I don't have much occasion to go there, but I had a work assignment that brought me nearby. It was hard to picture so much violence in that neighborhood at that point. I guess Los Angeles has come a ways, if not a long way.

I hadn't been in Los Angeles for very long when the riots happened. I had been living someplace where you knew just about everybody. The riots were an eye-opener for me in a lot of ways. The complete breakdown of order, now all too familiar, had previously been beyond my imagination.

Looking back, other than the heroes who saved Reginald Denny and whatever other acts of bravery took place over those insane days, nobody at all came out looking good.

President George H.W. Bush looked clueless, especially when he insensitively stated flatly that the system worked.

Mayor Tom Bradley was outraged at the verdict. But when the choke hold was banned, the police ended up with those steel batons and Bradley saw the injury rates steadily increasing during his tenure. He didn't act when he could have (and he was asked to).

Chief Gates presided over a department that allowed the officer seen flailing over King to remain on duty even though he failed a baton test only two hours earlier. And his department's relationship to its community was obviously beyond substandard.

Unless that community was someplace like Simi Valley, which brings us to the justice system. As bad as it was for the jury to let the cops off completely, it was the mindboggling decision of a couple judges to move the trial to an extremely cop-friendly town with an all-White jury. They almost couldn't have put the trial in a place more likely to return an acquittal.

The way the media edited the footage of the beating also set up false expectations in the minds of the jury.

And then there were the people of Los Angeles. As I wrote above, some were heroes. But many were not. Fifty-four were killed. Hundreds of buildings burned to the ground.

A decade later a friend called me from another state. He had been my next door neighbor and we were actually together when we saw the verdict handed down. I hadn't spoken to him in years. What he told me was shocking to me.

He said that he moved out of California because during the riots, while I was asleep in Highland Park, he was out breaking curfew. He was walking around looking to contribute to the carnage. He was a college graduate, out of steady work (the first Bush presidency was not friendly to the L.A. economy) and ready to explode. The riots pushed him to act out.

He didn't tell me what, if anything, he did while roaming. But when the fever finally broke, it left him wondering what kind of person he was and what living in Los Angeles had done to him. I can tell you what kind of person he was; he was good. It was all just too much for him and soon he was back in his home state, living at his parents' house.

The riots changed my world views as well. They certainly changed my life. The career path I had laid out for myself was shattered by the lack of faith I suddenly had in all these institutions.

Sometimes you look back and say "I can't believe it's been 15 years..." but this time, it seems like a lifetime ago for me. I remember thinking that the Bush presidency was a disaster. I had no idea that his offspring would eventually reach new depths.

UPDATE: Just found this excellent look at key figures in the riots and where they are today at TIME Magazine.

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