Rodney King 20 years later

March 3, 2011 1:57:03 PM PST
At the risk of stirring up a chorus of, tell us about the invention of the wheel again, Uncle Bill, I'm thinking tonight about a disturbing anniversary in the history of U.S. race relations.

Twenty years ago tonight, a group of Los Angeles cops beat up a guy named Rodney King. I remember clearly watching the videotape of the beating, I was a reporter in Los Angeles at the time and also clearly remember the discussion in the newsroom at the time. This was 1991, and getting videotape from the public, the tape was shot by a plumber watching from his balcony was a fairly new occurrence.

Usually when allegations of police brutality surface, there is always another side to the story. And we couldn't be sure whether what we were seeing on this video was the whole story.

In the end, of course, it didn't matter. The beating of Rodney King was such an overreaction by police that few things short of Mr. King shooting at the cops beforehand would have justified it.

And King did not do any shooting.

King was not then nor has he been since, anywhere near a model citizen. But that was back then and remains today completely beside the point.

The year that followed the beating of King was one of restrained tension in Los Angeles. The cops were charged criminally, but the trial was moved out of L.A. proper, 22 miles to the north to Simi Valley. Defense attorneys worried the officers couldn't get a fair trial because the tape had been seen so many hundreds of time and the beating had been headline news for so long.

Of course, the beating and tape were also big news in Simi Valley. The difference was the composition of the jury pool: It would have been largely minority in L.A.. But in Simi Valley it was white, nearly entirely white. In fact, of the 260 people in the jury pool, only half a dozen were black, and five of those made it clear they didn't want to serve. The one African American who got into the jury box was challenged peremptorily by the defense. An all-white jury, described by the prosecution as pro-law enforcement. Two jurors were members of the N.R.A. Two others were retired military.

I remember being outside the courthouse when the verdict was read. Hundreds of people jammed the parking lot, and the fury was palpable within seconds of the officers' acquittals.

With hours, L.A. was on fire. A full-blown riot that lasted several days and took the lives of 53 people. Stores were trashed looted, or burned, or both. Anyone who covered those riots, anyone who drove the streets and saw bands of armed men fighting and robbing and battling the cops, if they say they weren't scared as a reporter, then they're either lying or rewriting history.

I don't hesitate for a second saying it was frightening. L.A. was a war zone, and covering it we all became war correspondents. One more personal note about the rioting. I was driving with a live TV truck in one neighborhood, when I passed by my uncle's auction house. He, and his father before him, had been in business at the location for more than 50 years. More than 90% of the people who worked there were African Americans; most had worked for him for years. And the place was on fire. I called him, and told him. "Bob, your shops on fire and it's destroyed." When he opened up later in the year it was several miles away.

What a sad commentary on America's second-largest city.

L.A. is an incredibly diverse city, but it is also incredibly segregated. Whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, you name the ethnicity in Los Angeles the races stay separated. It's a tragic and sad situation. I remember when I moved to New York at the end of 1992, I was impressed by how ethnic groups here interact daily. It just isn't like that in L.A. And that, many experts believe, helps build racial tension out West, and helps diffuse tensions on this Coast.

The feds later stepped in and accused the LAPD cops of violating Rodney King's civil rights. The officers were found guilty, and the police department was reorganized and people were fired. But racial tension still exists in L.A. Not as it did back then, to be sure, but King's famous "can't we all get along" after the riots started could still ring true in many parts of that city today.

It was clear to those of us who covered the murder trial of O.J. Simpson three years after the Rodney King trial that Simpson's acquittal was in large part because of the King verdict. The jury mostly minorities were in no mood to trust anything the L.A.P.D. said. And when Simpson's all-star defense team was able to show bumbling by detectives at the murder scene and mismanagement of some of the evidence, the jury was all-too-eager to give the former football star the benefit of their doubts about the police department.

I suspect Simpson never sent King flowers as a thank you, but he largely has King's case to thank for his acquittal.

The anniversary, and all the fallout, and the widespread use by television stations now of videotape by average citizens are all top of mind and prelude to tonight's 11 p.m. newscast.

We're following gas prices tonight, because they're going through the roof, again. About 17 cents per gallon higher tomorrow in New Jersey on the Turnpike and Parkway, that's what they're expecting. The State allows dealers on state toll roads to raise their prices once a week, and so lots of peeps are filling their gas tanks tonight, before the price hike.

In the cities, the so-called "average price of gas" is a joke. You'll pay way more than $4 a gallon in New York City, despite the Triple A pronouncements about the average price.

We're also keeping track of the latest in the not-pleasant talks between the National Football League and its players' union.

Revenue sharing and increasing the number of games from 16 to 18 are the sticking points. Right now it appears that the midnight deadline is likely to be extended.

Meanwhile, Pres. Obama was asked to weigh in today on the possibility of a lockout by the owners. Mr. Obama, an avid Chicago Bears fan, punted. Politically speaking.

"You've got owners, most of whom are worth close to a billion dollars; you've got players who are making millions of dollars," President Obama said. "At a time when people are having to cut back, compromise and worry about making the mortgage and? paying for their kid's college education? the two parties should be able to work it out without the President of the United States intervening.

"I'm a big football fan, but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making."

Of the $9 billion, NFL owners take $1 billion off the top for expenses, and the get nearly 60 percent of the remaining revenue. The owners want to take another $1 billion off the top.

Our sports anchor Rob Powers will have the latest in this spitting match between the rich.

And Joe Torres tonight takes a look at the newest in eyewear: Electronic glasses. Yup. Glasses go high-tech.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.


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