Tuesday, April 29, 2008

April 29

On this date in 1992 a jury in Simi Valley, California, acquitted four white police officers of all the charges that had accrued to them from the beating and arrest of Rodney King the previous year. The pummeling of King -- an African American who had just been pulled over after an extensive, high-speed chase on Highway 210 in Los Angeles -- had been caught on videotape by a bystander who was roused from bed by the commotion outside his apartment.

George Holliday’s fortuitous camera work provided what was supposed to be the central piece of evidence against the officers, who kicked and struck their victim dozens of times as he writhed on the ground. After King had been subdued, one of the officers reported that “I haven't beaten anyone this bad in a long time.” At the LAPD officers’ trial, however, defense attorneys managed to persuade the jury -- none of whom were black -- that Rodney King had, in fact, been the aggressor and that the videotape showed an arrest procedure that had gone by the book.

When the verdict was announced just after 3:00 p.m. on April 29, 1992, a shocked nation watched as south central Los Angeles descended into violence. Within an hour following the acquittals, the intersection of Florence and Normandie streets had become ground zero for the uprisings that would continue throughout the city for the next five days. Young men, infuriated by the outcome of the trial and eager for revenge, smashed windows, set buildings on fire, looted stores and threw bottles and chunks of concrete at passing cars. Rioters quickly targeted Korean-owned grocery stores, which -- along with police brutality -- served as a focal point for black grievance in Los Angeles.

When the LAPD pulled out of the neighborhood, the arson and looting spread, and random passers-by were caught up in the convulsion. In one of the more horrific episodes that first day, Reginald Denny, a truck driver hauling a load of sand, was dragged from his car and attacked by four men, one of whom threw a block of concrete on his head, shattering his skull in 91 places. Remarkably, Denny survived. Others did not. Among those who died that first day were Eduardo Vela, who was standing beside his stalled car when someone shot him in the chest; John Henry Willers, who had stopped to help victims of a collision when he, too, took a bullet in the heart; and Elias Rivera, who was beaten into a coma when he intervened to stop an assault against one of his neighbors. Rivera’s family removed him from life support eight months later -- four months after the body of Nissar Daoud Mustafa was at last discovered in the rubble of a department store that had burned on April 29.

When the disturbances ended on May 4, 53 people had died and thousands were attempting to recover from injuries; the city, meanwhile, had suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses. Like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 1992 Los Angeles riots were supposed to provoke a “national conversation” about race and poverty -- a conversation that has yet to actually take place.