The week of the riots and rebellion was the first day of my work as a civil rights attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund in downtown L.A. Friday morning, May 1, I drove downtown on the 10 freeway. It was an eery experience. The freeway was abandoned except for me and an occasional utility vehicle that rushed by, escorted by a police car in front and behind. Plumes of smoke rose from various parts of the city. There were only two or three cars parked in the surface street lot at the building where LDF had its Western Regional Office. Bill Lann Lee, who later served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the United States Justice Department under the second Clinton administration, and Kevin Reed, who later went into private practice and public education, were the only two people in the office. We could smell smoke in the air. We heard what sounded like a gun shot outside. Bill said, "You're a brave man for coming in today." I replied, "You're here." We got to work. (In 2006, LDF closed its L.A. office -- and not because there is no civil injustice in L.A.)
The riots and rebellion after the Rodney King beating exposed evils deeply rooted in the structures of this society. They were a reaction not only to the police beating of one more black man. They demonstrate that police abuse and urban issues like equal access to public resources, including transportation, parks and recreation, and quality education, are genuine civil rights issues of race, poverty, and democracy that are interrelated in Los Angeles and the American economy.
People turn to violence in the streets when access to justice through the courts is closed off. In the face of this reality, the U.S. Supreme Court is making it more difficult to right the wrongs that lead to riots and rebellion. In Los Angeles, we nevertheless continue the struggle for equal justice, democracy, and livability for all.
The Rodney King beating, like the Watts Riots in 1965 and the Rampart police corruption scandal in 1999, shows that a "relatively simple though serious problem such as police racism" is anything but simple. On March 3, 1991, four police officers beat and arrested King while some twenty other law enforcement officers stood by and did nothing. George Holliday captured the beating on videotape from his apartment across the street. A television station broadcast the beating the next day. The beating set off a chain of events that enflamed racial and social tensions, including six days of multicultural riots and rebellion, structural reforms of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and the resignations of the chief of police, the first black mayor of Los Angeles, and the district attorney.
Many who see the tape of the beating with their own eyes think this is a slam dunk case of police abuse. The culpability of the officers who beat King nevertheless remains ambiguous in the eyes of the law. This is illustrated by the history of the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Efforts to reform the police and sheriff's department to prevent systemwide corruption and violence have been even more difficult and complex than determining the moral and legal culpability of the officers who beat Rodney King.
The Watts riots and rebellion erupt in Los Angeles when a non-Hispanic white police officer arrests a black man for drunk driving. After six days, four people lay dead, over 1,000 are hurt, nearly 4,000 are arrested, and property damage is estimated at about $40,000,000. The National Guard is called in to restore order.
The Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots (the McCone Commission) issues its report, "Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?," citing hatred and resentment of the police as symbols of authority, the absence of jobs for blacks, the lack of good schooling for black children, and a prohibitively expensive transit system as fundamental causes of the riots and rebellion. Warren Christopher, vice chair of the McCone Commission, later heads the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (the "Christopher Commission") to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department following the Rodney King beating before becoming Secretary of State in the Clinton administration.
The United States Supreme Court issues its decision in City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95 (1983). The Court held that the plaintiff, a black motorist who was placed in a chokehold following a routine traffic stop, did not have standing to seek an injunction prohibiting the Los Angeles Police Department from using chokeholds to effectuate an arrest because he did not demonstrate a serious likelihood of being subjected to a chokehold again in the future. The holding represented a defeat for the plaintiff and for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit. However, non-litigation forms of advocacy resulted in a victory for police reform when the City of Los Angeles banned chokeholds in 1982 after the police killed sixteen people, including twelve black men, using the chokehold during routine arrests.
Undercover investigations into corruption in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department begin in Operation Big Spender. As of December of 1993, nineteen deputies had been convicted and the investigation was continuing.
The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., and other civil rights attorneys file a class action against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department alleging that deputies in Lynwood, California, a disproportionately Hispanic community near South Central Los Angeles, systematically engaged in the use of excessive force, racial harassment, and illegal searches and seizures. Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief as well as damages in the case, Thomas v. County of Los Angeles. The LDF filed the suit in part to revive injunctive relief against abusive police practices in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95 (1983).
Four Los Angeles police officers beat and arrest Rodney Glen King while 23 others stand by and do nothing. George Holliday captures the beating on videotape from his apartment across the street and delivers the tape to a local television station on March 4. The tape is broadcast around the world, galvanizing international attention on police brutality in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney dismisses all charges against King.
Four Los Angeles police officers -- Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno -- are charged with felony assault and related charges arising from the King beating. The four remain free on bail pending trial.
Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American grocery store owner, shoots to death Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year old African-American girl, after Ms. Du accused the girl of trying to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. A security camera in the store captures the shooting on videotape. The shooting exacerbates racial and ethnic tensions in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King beating.
Soon Ja Du is charged with murder for the shooting death of Latasha Harlins.
In response to the King beating, Mayor Tom Bradley appoints Warren Christopher to head the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (the "Christopher Commission") to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Los Angeles Police Commission places Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates on sixty-day leave. Gates enjoys civil service protection against being fired.
The Los Angeles City Council reinstates Gates.
Gates fires probationary officer Timothy Wind and suspends without pay the other three officers who have been criminally charged in the King beating.
A grand jury refuses to indict seventeen officers who stood by at the King beating and did nothing.
The Christopher Commission Report documents the systematic use of excessive force and racial harassment in the Los Angeles Police Department. The Report calls for structural reforms in the LAPD and the resignation of Daryl Gates.
Plaintiffs in the Thomas litigation move for a preliminary injunction against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to curtail the use of excessive force and illegal searches and seizures.
Gates announces that he will retire in 1992.
At the initial hearing on plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction in the Thomas litigation, Federal District Court Judge Terry Hatter states on the record that the court would favor an examination of the Sheriff's Department like the examination that the Christopher Commission conducted of the Los Angeles Police Department. Counsel for the plaintiffs convey that message to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at a public hearing on the Sheriff's Department the following day.
Judge Hatter enters a preliminary injunction in the Thomas litigation that requires all employees of the Sheriff's Department to follow the Department's own stated polices and guidelines regarding the use of force and the procedures for conducting searches, and requires the Department to submit use of force reports to the court each month in camera and under seal. The Ninth Circuit stays the injunction pending appellate review.
The jury convicts Soon Ja Du of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Latasha Harlins.
Compton Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin sentences Soon Ja Du to five years probation, four hundred hours of community service, and a five hundred dollar fine for killing Latasha Harlins. Ms. Du had faced eleven years in prison.
Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg orders the trial of the four officers charged in the King beating to be moved to conservative and disproportionately non-Hispanic white Simi Valley.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appoints retired state court Judge James Kolts to investigate the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Willie Williams, an African-American police commissioner in Philadelphia, is named to succeed Daryl Gates as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Crips and the Bloods announce a peace treaty and truce modelled on the work of Ralph Bunche.
The Simi Valley jury finds the four police officers not guilty of committing any crimes against Rodney King, except that the jury is hung on one count of excessive force against Laurence Powell. The judge declares a mistrial on that count.
Riots and rebellion erupt throughout Los Angeles. Daryl Gates leaves police headquarters to attend a political fund-raising party across town in the wealthy and disproportionately non-Hispanic white beachside community of Pacific Palisades.
The police evacuate the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles, which is a tinder box for the riots and rebellion. Reginald Denny, a non-Hispanic white man, is pulled from his truck and beaten. A news helicopter captures the beating on videotape. African American residents living nearby who see the beating on television rush to the intersection and take Reginald Denny to a hospital, but this fact is little noted nor long remembered by the dominant culture and media.
Fidel Lopez, a contractor who is a Guatemalan immigrant who lives in the neighborhood, is beaten near the same intersection. His beating is little noted nor long remembered by the dominant culture and media.
Choi Sai-Choi, an immigrant from Hong Kong, is pulled from his car, beaten and robbed. An off-duty black firefighter rescues him. His beating and rescue are little noted nor long remembered by the dominant culture and media.
By the time the riots and rebellion are over several days later, at least 42 people have been killed, 700 structures have been destroyed by fire, thousands of people have lost their jobs, 5,000 people have been arrested and Los Angeles has suffered $1 billion in damages. Of those arrested, 51% were Latino, 38% were black, 9% were non-Hispanic white, and 2% were Asian American or "other."
The United States Justice Department announces that it will resume its investigation of civil rights violations by police officers in the Rodney King beating.
Mayor Tom Bradley announces the creation of Rebuild L.A., a joint effort by private and public forces to be spearheaded by former baseball commissioner and 1984 Olympic Games czar Peter Ueberroth to rebuild the City of Angels. The effort fizzles without any apparent success.
The National Guard begins to withdraw from Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners appoints William Webster, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, to head a commission to study the performance of Los Angeles Police Department during the riots and rebellion.
Damian Williams, Henry Watson, Antoine Miller and Gary Williams, who become known as the L.A. Four, are arrested for the beating of Reginald Denny and others on April 29 and are held without bail.
Daryl Gates resigns after 14 years in office. Willie Williams is sworn in as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The voters of Los Angeles pass City Charter amendment F, which removes civil service protection from the chief of police. The amendment was one of the recommendations of the Christopher Commission Report.
Judge Kolts issues the Report on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (the "Kolts Report") documenting the systematic use of excessive force, racial harassment and lax discipline.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner announces that he will not seek re-election.
Mayor Tom Bradley announces that he will not seek re-election the following June after 19 years in office.
The Webster Commission issues its report (the "Webster Report") on the failures of the leadership in the Los Angeles Police Department and in city government that aggravated the riots and rebellion, and calls for reforms.
The Ninth Circuit in the Thomas litigation holds that plaintiffs have standing to seek injunctive relief against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which reflects a victory for the plaintiffs in light of the Lyons Supreme Court case limiting standing to seek injuntive relief. The court nevertheless vacates the preliminary injunction as issued by Judge Hatter and remands for further proceedings. Thomas v. County of Los Angeles, 978 F.2d 504 (9th Cir. 1993).
Gil Garcetti is elected District Attorney of Los Angeles County.
Judge Kolts and Sheriff Sherman Block issue a Joint Statement in which they agree to implement many of the recommendations of the Kolts Report.
A federal jury convicts Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell of violating Rodney King's civil rights, and acquits Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno. There is no violence in Los Angeles in response to the verdicts.
Richard Riordan, a wealthy non-Hispanic Republican businessman and sometime lawyer, is elected mayor of Los Angeles.
Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell are sentenced to 30 months in prison for the beating of Rodney King.
Damian Williams and Henry Watson are convicted of various charges and acquitted of many of the counts against them. Watson is released and is sentenced to the five months time served while awaiting trial because he could not post bail.
Damian Williams is sentenced to a maximum of ten years in prison in connection with the beating of Reginald Denny and others. Antoine Miller pleaded guilty on December 3, 1993, and is sentenced to probation and community service. Gary Williams pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison on March 26, 1993.
The City of Los Angeles concedes liability in Rodney King's civil suit, and agrees to go to trial solely on damages.
The jury in Rodney King's civil suit against the City of Los Angeles awards King $3.8 million in actual damages for loss of work, medical costs, and pain and suffering.
The jury in Rodney King's civil suit denies King any punitive damages against the officers who beat him.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirms the convictions of Koon and Powell, but reverses the sentences on the grounds that they are unduly lenient in violation of the federal sentencing guidelines. The Court of Appeals orders the case back to the District Court for resentencing. United States v. Koon, 34 F.3d 1416 (9th Cir. 1994).
A majority of the 26 judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refuses to review the sentencing of Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell. However, nine judges dissenting from the denial of a petition for rehearing write that the 30 month sentences imposed by the District Court should have been affirmed. United States v. Koon, 45 F.3d 1303 (9th Cir. 1995).
A federal jury in the Thomas litigation finds the County of Los Angeles, Sheriff Sherman Block and two of his top assistants liable for civil rights violations by their deputies and awards $611,000 in damages to plaintiffs Darren Thomas, Michael Sterling and Kevin Marshall. The verdict ends the first of 24 cases that are pending against the Sheriff's Department as part of the Thomas litigation.
Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon are released from prison after serving 24 months of their sentences.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the plaintiffs settle the Thomas litigation for $7,500,000 in payment for injuries and attorney's fees. The settlement also requires the County to make available an additional $1.5 million for force and cultural diversity training, to have fully operating a computerized force tracking system by no later than March 1997, and to extend the contract for a special counsel to monitor the implementation of the Kolts Report through December 1999.
The United States Supreme Court hands down its decision in Koon v. United States, 116 S. Ct. 2035 (1996), affirming the decision of the Ninth circuit in part and reversing in part and sending the case back to the lower court for resentencing.
Five and a half years after the beating of Rodney King, the trial judge reimposes the original sentences on Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon. The judge refuses to impose a fine on Koon, even though Koon has raised millions of dollars in funds from conservative groups and supporters and from sales of his book. The judge had refused to impose a fine at the time of the original sentencing on the grounds that Powell and Koon were destitute. Having already served their sentences, Powell and Koon go free. The Rodney King matter comes to a close in the courts.
Efforts to reform policing to prevent systemwide corruption and violence have been even more difficult and complex than determining the moral and legal culpability of the individual officers who beat Rodney King.
Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles Police Department detective whose perjured testimony helped to undermine the prosecution's case in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, pleads no contest in state court to one count of perjury for lying at that trial about his use of a racial slur. As part of his plea bargain, Fuhrman receives three years' probation and a $200 fine and is allowed to return to his home in the small town in Idaho where he fled with his family to escape the consequences of his misconduct after the Simpson trial. As a witness for the prosecution at trial, Fuhrman testifed under oath that he had not used the word "nigger" in the preceding ten years. Defense lawyers at the Simpson trial then played a tape in which Fuhrman referred to blacks as "niggers" and bragged that he had abused black criminal suspects. The taped interviews demonstrated that he had used the slur at least 41 times. Fuhrman also bragged that he enjoyed lining up "niggers against the wall and shooting them." The evidence forced the prosecution to label Fuhrman as the "worst LAPD has to offer." After the Simpson trial, several jurors said his statements were decisive in the acquittal. In a mystifying statement defending Fuhrman's deal, State Attorney General Dan Lungren said, "The system itself had been put on trial, and I wanted to show that the system worked."
geronimo ji Jaga (preferred capitalization), also known as Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther leader, was wronfully convicted 25 years before for the murder of a woman in Santa Monica, California. Geronimo always maintained his innocence, and that he was 400 miles away in Oakland, Calfornia, at the time of the killing at a Black Panther meeting, and that he was a victim of the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
Represented by Stuart Hanlon, Johnnie Cochran, Robert García, Julie Drouse, Valerie West, David Bernstein and other members of his defense team, geronimo's conviction and life sentence are vacated on May 29, 1997. He is released from prison on June 10, 1997. Judge Everett W. Dickey, a California Superior Court Judge appointed by Governor Ronald Reagan, holds that the prosecution denied geronimo a fair trial, in violation of his constitutional rights. The main witness against geronimo at trial was an informant for the FBI, the LAPD, and the district attorney's office. The prosecution suppressed this material evidence relating to the question of guilt and to the credibility of a material witness whose testimony may be determinative of guilt or innocence, in violation of the 1966 United States Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The California Court of Appeal later affirms Judge Dickey's decision, dismissing the District Attorney's arguments to reinstate the conviction as "disingenuous" and having "no merit." See In re Pratt, 69 Cal. App. 4th 1294, 1315, 1318, 82 Cal. Rptr. 2d 260 (1999).
It became apparent that Los Angeles was still incapable of policing itself even after the Rodney King reforms when the Rampart police corruption scandal erupted in late 1999. The U.S. Justice Department finally stepped in through a court-supervised agreement under federal laws prohibiting patterns and practices of police misconduct. In the first weeks of the scandal, Police Chief Bernard Parks called for the mass dismissal of cases against ninety-nine defendants who were framed by the police through a pattern and practice of unjustified shootings, beatings, drug dealing, false arrests, witness intimidation, perjury, planting of evidence, and wrongful convictions. Officers planted evidence to frame innocent people and lied in court to gain convictions. The local district attorney admitted that innocent people were convicted and punished for crimes they did not commit.
See Tom Hayden, Paul Hoffman and Robert García, Op/Ed, Perspective on the Rampart Scandal: This Case Calls for a Truly Outside Inquiry, L.A. Times, Feb. 20, 2000.
The Ramparts consent decree remained in place until 2009, when the court ended the supervision of the Los Angeles Police Department under the consent decree. A study by Harvard University concluded as follows: "[W]ith both strong police leadership and strong police oversight, cities can enjoy both respectful and effective policing. The LAPD remains aggressive and is again proud, but community engagement and partnership is now part of the mainstream culture of the Department. The Department responds to crime and disorder with substantial force, but it is scrutinizing that force closely and it is accountable through many devices for its proper use. Will the management and oversight improvements persist if the consent decree ends? Better yet, will management and oversight become still stronger? While we cannot answer those questions in advance, the LAPD appears ready for that test."
Facing an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into brutality in the county jails, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca publicly commits in April 2012 to shuttering much of Men's Central Jail, barring some unexpected hike in violent crime. The Kolts Report had warned against the practice of assigning young deputies to jail in 1992. The U.S. Supreme Court lets stand a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which held that Sheriff Baca can be sued for racial gang violence in the jails he supervises. The appellate court held that the sheriff can be sued for "deliberate indifference" to the inmate's rights because the sheriff was on notice about the jailhouse violence and failed to take action to stop it. See Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202 (9th Cir. 2011). People on the street do not distinguish between police abuse at the hands of an LAPD officer or a sheriff's deputy, depending on whether they happen to be stopped within the Los Angeles city limits or in other cities or unincorporated areas in the county. The history of police abuse police reform covers both the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the riots and rebellion, USC's PERE (Program for Environmental and Regional Equity) sponsored a conference on The 1992 Civil Unrest and the Rise of Social Movement Organizing.
See generally The Legacy of Rodney King and a Testament of Hope, American Bar Association publication Goal IX (2002).
Efforts to rebuild Los Angeles continue . . .
Timeline adapted from "Riots & Rebellion: Civil Rights, Police Reform and the Rodney King Beating" (1997) by Robert Garcia.
[Updated 4/30 12:45pm: Article was edited to include author's personal account of the riots.]
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- Engaging Spaces
- Green Justice
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