The Los Angeles riots were sparked by the acquittal 20 years ago of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, but civil rights attorney Connie Rice says the kindling for the fire was laid years before, by decades of hostile policing in black neighborhoods.
“The reason we had this riot was because we had the total emasculation and humiliation of an entire community,” she said. “It was kindling built on kindling built on kindling.”
Rice reflected on the riots Sunday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books along with former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and L.A. Times columnist Jim Newton. Radio host Warren Olney moderated the conversation.
The panelists addressed a question that many are asking on the eve of the anniversary of the riots: Are things any different now?
The answer, they agreed, is yes.
Just look at statistics on the racial make-up of the Los Angeles Police Department, Garcetti said. In 1992, the department was 59% white. Now that number is 37%.
Diversifying the department has helped change its culture, they said. In the past, some officers would dismiss domestic violence incidents in African American households as “NHI” — or No Humans Involved — said Newton, who covered the department in the 1990s. Now, he said, that “casual racism” is gone.
King was driving under the influence and being pursued by police when he was pulled over by officers, who responded to his erratic behavior by kicking him and beating him with their batons as others stood by and watched. The incident was caught on video by a civilian bystander and replayed around the world.
The officers, who were tried for excessive force, were acquitted on April 29, 1992, igniting one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history, resulting in 54 deaths.
Then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who was known for his combative style, was castigated as a leader out of touch with the changing realities of the city. He generated controversy with gaffes about Latinos, blacks and Jews, most famously with a remark about blacks faring poorly under police chokeholds because their physiology was different from that of “normal” people.
Gates, who had run the department since 1978, stepped down two months after the riots.
Rice said changes at the Police Department came with the appointment of William J. Bratton as police chief in 2002.
Rice, who has sued the department many times over its policing of minority communities, joined forces with Bratton and tried to persuade him that police needed to work with, instead of against, blacks and Latinos. She recently released a memoir, “Power Concedes Nothing,” that traces her path from LAPD antagonist to reformer.
Though the department’s mind-set has evolved in some ways, Rice said, many people on the ground don’t notice a difference. Violence is still prevalent in certain neighborhoods, she said, and police aren’t as committed as they should be to making every Los Angeles resident feel safe. The department’s ethos is still “You keep certain neighborhoods safe, you keep certain neighborhoods contained,” she said.
But she praised Bratton’s successor, Chief Charlie Beck. She recalled meeting him when he was a captain who had been tasked with turning around the Rampart Division after the corruption scandal there. She said Beck told her that “search and destroy” policing was not working. “If you destroy the community you destroy yourself,” he said.