Scaremongers should beware. A grass-roots revolt is brewing against the sensationalized press coverage of the Rodney G. King civil-rights trial--particularly the incessant image of black gangs sup posedly armed for a "Tet offensive" against the city.
In the past three weeks, exasperated church and community leaders from South Los Angeles have begun to publicly question whether the media army camped in front of the Federal Building downtown is here to objectively report news or irresponsibly solicit disorder.
It is easy to sympathize with community grievances. South Los Angeles is being mugged by tabloid television. Night after night, the "doom tube" (as some residents now call it) relentlessly portrays Los Angeles' southside as tottering on the brink of a second Apocalypse. As a result, investment and tourism continue to be scared away from the city, while gun stores and razor-wire manufacturers reap the free advertising.
Critics of the media, however, need to ponder why it has become so easy to push the world's panic button about a new riot. The current alarmism, after all, only recycles the stereotypes about South Los Angeles established amid the reporting of last spring's disturbances. It feeds less on the obvious excesses--the posed gang photos and the lurid "get the police" sound-bites--than on the endless repetition of half-truths posing as hard facts.
Like monstrous weeds--kudzu on prime-time--these deceits have obscured the real, and very complex, events of last year. They have become a Los Angeles riot mythology, justifying the current preparations for a military onslaught against African-American youth. It is time to chop a few of them down.
Myth 1: It was the Los Angeles riot.
Nothing seems more obvious. Yet, arrest data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union from the Sheriff's Department reveal that 55.2% of the 12,545 arrests in last year's uprising were made outside Los Angeles city limits. The Long Beach police alone booked 1,050 people, 300 for riot-related felonies. The Marines had to be landed in Compton, while the National Guard patrolled Huntington Park. Hundreds of arrests were made in the Firestone district, Inglewood, Lennox, Hawthorne, Lynwood and Pasadena. Serious rioting even crossed the hills to affect Pomona and the west end of San Bernardino, not to mention a full month of violence in Las Vegas. Unrest even spread to Atlanta, New York and Toronto.
Myth 2: The riot, within Los Angeles, was concentrated in South-Central neighborhoods.
According to the LAPD arrest database used by the Webster Commission, the greatest density of riot-related "incidents" occurred north of the Santa Monica Freeway within the Wilshire and Rampart LAPD areas, not in South Los Angeles. Indeed, nearly as many suspects were booked by Rampart alone as by all four of the stations included within the department's South Bureau. Even the Hollywood station made twice as many arrests as the 77th Street station, which patrolled the supposed riot epicenter at Florence and Normandie.
Myth 3: It was primarily a black riot.
Only 38% of those arrested by the LAPD were African-Americans. Within both the city and county jurisdictions, Latinos constituted the largest group of arrestees--51% and 45%, respectively. Municipal Court data show that more Spanish-surname individuals were charged with arson than blacks. Meanwhile, the large contingent of Anglos arrested (1,447 or nearly 13% of the county total) belies the idea that whites were merely passive bystanders or victims. The Crips, after all, did not loot Hollywood Boulevard.
Myth 4: Black gangs, at least, planned and instigated the riot.
Predictably, a tangled folklore of conspiracy has grown up about last year's disorders. At one point, many journalists saw an alleged Sheriff's Department intelligence report that blamed the riots on "Muslims." Now, a former deputy to Chief Daryl F. Gates has published an account claiming that black gang leaders met to systematically plot the burning and looting of the city. Yet, the FBI, which has had more than a hundred agents in the field for almost a year, denies finding any evidence of a coordinated conspiracy behind the riot.
Meanwhile, the media has largely ignored the year-old truce between the Crips and the Bloods that has been responsible for a dramatic reduction in gang-related homicides throughout South Los Angeles. Television, in particular, loves bloodcurdling sound-bites from purported gangbangers, but has yet to produce a rounded documentary about America's most important urban peace movement.
Myth 5: The cops underreacted.
Whatever your opinion of the belated police response on the first day of disorder, subsequent deployments were hardly timorous. Gates presided over the biggest mass arrest since the climax of anti-Vietnam war protests in 1971. The LAPD egregiously abused power with their suppression of a peaceful, city-licensed demonstration on May 1 and their indiscriminate "vacuuming" of the homeless for curfew violations. In addition, they violated longstanding city policy by joining Immigration and Naturalization Service agents in a dragnet of Central American neighborhoods around McArthur Park.
Despite the Police Commission's recent finding that the LAPD was justified in all of its riot-related shootings, folks in Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts are still seething over the deaths of Dennis Jackson and Anthony Taylor--two local men caught drinking beer in a parking lot during a firefight between the police and alleged "snipers."
Myth 6: Los Angeles has become a Third-World city.
Contrary to the opinions recently expressed by Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner and "D-FENS" (Michael Douglas's character in "Falling Down"), the land of sunshine remains a white Raj. Though only 37% of the current city population and just 12% of the public-school enrollment, Anglos still comprise 70% of the active electorate and 80% of the federal jury pool for the King civil-rights trial. Needless to say, they also control 90% of the metropolis's fixed wealth and capital gains.
This list of media-endorsed myths could easily be extended. One other example would be the fantastic notion that the city can be "rebuilt" while its schools and human services are undergoing a fiscal apocalypse. Perhaps there is an ironic justice here: A city that has stubbornly refused to hear the cries and whispers of its own children is now the helpless prisoner of other peoples' caricatures and calumnies.