Newsreal: Rethinking Rodney King

The whole world thought it knew what it saw when police batons rained down on Rodney King's head. It may not have got the whole story.

By Lori Leibovich

Published March 13, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It was seven years ago this month that the grainy images were seared into the national consciousness: a black man struggling on the ground while Los Angeles police officers stood in a semicircle around him, beating him for 19 brutal seconds. Six years ago come April, in the same city, different images: angry fists and faces, broken glass and flames, 54 dead, 2,000 injured and a city tearing itself apart before the world.

Ever since, the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing riots have formed a somber backdrop to America's "dialogue" on race. The beating itself, and the initial exoneration of LAPD officers by a suburban Simi Valley jury, supported the notion that America remained a deeply racist society. When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty, some black Americans said it was "payback for Rodney King."

But was what we saw on that grainy videotape the whole story? Was the Rodney King affair as simple and straightforward as we believed? Salon spoke with Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, who re-examines the Rodney King case in his exhaustive new book, "Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD" (Times Books).

Almost the entire country, along with the federal government, thought the four LAPD officers convicted of beating Rodney King were guilty of civil rights violations. But your book casts doubt on the racial motivation of the beating.

In many everyday incidents, police just move in and hit the suspect. In cases where you have white officers and a black suspect, it's often safe to say you've got a racial thing. That was not the case with Rodney King. Here they chased this guy for eight miles, they had stopped him, a female California Highway Patrol officer advanced on him with her gun drawn, which in the LAPD is considered a very dangerous tactic. Sgt. Stacey Koon of the LAPD ordered the CHP officer back and he took over this arrest. He then directed four officers to jump on King. King threw them off his back. He was sweating on a cold night, it was obvious he was drunk. He pointed at the sky, he called around, he made strange noises, he waggled his buttocks at the woman officer, all of these things. They suspected he was on PCP, and they knew he was strong.

So the LAPD, at least in the beginning, acted correctly?

It's the middle of the night. You have this guy acting very strangely. Koon did what he was supposed to do under LAPD doctrine -- they fire electronic darts of 50,000 volts. If you get hit by them, you don't get up for a very long time. King got up. They fired another volley, he gets up again. As the second volley is fired, George Holliday, this amateur cameraman, had his new camcorder that he was photographing everything with. He had been awakened by the noises, and the police helicopter and sirens. Just as Rodney King is charging toward Officer Lawrence Powell, he starts the video. This is the first three seconds of the video. It is not terribly clear, but it is obvious what King is doing. It is not clear whether he is trying to run over Powell, or whether he is trying to run by him to get to this park behind him. Neither of them knew where he was going -- King was too drunk to know, and Powell was too panicked to know.

And then we get to the part that has been broadcast around the world, of Powell swinging his baton.

Yes, Powell swings his baton, not as he has been taught -- in a power stroke that probably would have flattened King, and this thing would have been over -- but wildly, and he hits King. The defense thought he hit him in the chest or the arm. I am convinced he hit him in the head, but Powell was just swinging. Then the next 10 seconds after this are blurred on the video. They are blurred because the cameraman moves his camera to try to get a better view of the situation.

You point out that crucial seconds of the videotape showing King violently resisting arrest were edited by a local TV news station and then beamed around the world.

Yes, and it explains why the jurors in Simi Valley, who were from a very pro-police, conservative community, ruled the way they did. They thought that the media hadn't told them the full story, and lo and behold, we hadn't. But in trials, if there is evidence that is damaging to your side, it's going to come out one way or the other. So lawyers try to present it, to give their own spin on it before the other side can present it. As the King trial begins, the prosecutor, who is an African-American, Terry White, a very fine lawyer, is giving the opening statement. He is showing the jury this unedited tape. Their mouths are agape. They are saying the mental equivalent of "ah-ha." So, in his opening statement, White has to explain away part of the tape, and to describe King as the person who was hostile. That wasn't the only problem with the trial. King didn't testify, the prosecution had poor witnesses, the other side had good witnesses. But the prosecution really never recovered from the videotape.

So was then-Police Chief Daryl Gates right when he called the incident an "aberration"?

Only in that it was videotaped. Injuries had been mounting before this. The year before, Los Angeles had paid out more than $11 million in damages, many of them resulting from settlements. So the city felt confident that if the King case went to trial that it would be decided in favor of the kinds of people who had been injured before by LAPD batons -- whites, Latinos and blacks.

Except -- and this is another major point that you make in the book -- the trial was moved to Simi Valley.

Yes, but there's another potential misconception here when we use the word "moved." It wasn't something the prosecution wanted. It came as a result of a change of venue motion by the defense. And nobody expected an appeals court to grant the motion. It shouldn't have happened. For 25 years the appeals court had not been moving or granting changes of venue. They didn't do it in the Manson murders!

So why did the court do it in this case?

As you know, the King case drew outrage from Paris to Tokyo -- everyone had seen the tape. But Judge [Joan] Klein -- whom I respect -- had been very active in Los Angeles politics and thought this hugely controversial case was hurting the city. But so what? That didn't have anything to do with whether or not the defendants could receive a fair trial in Los Angeles! But she said in her opinion that it should be moved out of Los Angeles, and out of the local media market.

If the beating wasn't purely racial, it still reflected very badly on the LAPD.

The police work was terribly negligent. Most people used to think that the LAPD was a little too rough and ready, but they also thought they were well-trained and effective. Lawrence Powell, who swung most of the baton blows, had failed a baton test against a stationary object -- and King wasn't stationary -- at the beginning of his shift, two hours earlier! If I had written that in fiction, if I had written a novel, and I had said that the officer who was most responsible had failed a baton test two hours earlier, I am sure my editor would have said, "You're relying too much on coincidence."

You also argue that the city of Los Angeles carries a large share of the responsibility for the King case.

Yes, the city failed. The city had taken away the choke hold that the LAPD had used, and equipped them with these weapons -- steel, side-handled batons -- not a "night stick" or a wooden club. You can literally kill someone with this steel club. As soon as the LAPD was equipped with these batons, in the '80s, injuries started to rise, injuries to suspects, and injuries to police officers. This was pointed out repeatedly to the city council and to Mayor {Tom] Bradley, but they did nothing about it. After the riots, when the LAPD asked to equip officers with pepper spray, the council and the police commission gave it to them in a New York minute. They'd asked for it long before the riots and had been turned down.

It is easy to say this is the fault of Daryl Gates or Mayor Bradley. But the fact is, there are a lot of people in the City Council, in the police command -- Daryl Gates wasn't personally responsible for training Lawrence Powell -- who failed. If you've been in the Army, you know that incompetence is as likely to get you killed as bad intentions. These people really did let down the city, and let down the people in the city they were serving.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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