As we look back on the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King/ LA Uprisings there are a few things to keep in mind that’ll hopefully bring all that went down April 29th 1992 into a clearer perspective..
The vicious beating of unarmed motorist Rodney King which was caught on tape, March 3 1991 by bystander George Holiday angered many. But at the same time it gave people some sort of hope that things would change. The video tape was seemed the crucial piece of evidence that many had long been waiting for that would vindicate thousands of Black and Brown folks living in Southern, Cali who had long complained about the brutality of LAPD…Many felt it would lead to the arrest and criminal punishment of the 4 officers who were seen striking King over 50 times with batons and tasering him. The video tape underscored the long list of social and political conditions that were leading up to the 92 Uprisings. You can peep that infamous video HERE
The Sordid Legacy of Daryl Gates and LAPD
Prior to the Rodney King beating, many in the mainstream (whites) were dismissive of complaints from people in the hood about LA police brutality. In their minds they figured whatever was done by the police was justified, after all many had come to believe that areas like South Central LA, Watts, Compton and East LA to name a few, were ‘infested’ with out of control gangbangers who needed to be ‘suppressed’ at all costs.
I use words like ‘infested‘ and ‘suppressed‘ deliberately because that’s the dehumanizing language often used by the main antagonistic to Black and Brown communities in LA at that time, former Police Chief, the late Daryl Gates.
For those who don’t know, Gates was a media savvy, sadistic man who ran a well-heeled media campaign that convinced the world that his police force needed to be further militarized. Building off the legacy and policies of his mentor and predecessor LA’s police chief William H Parker, Gates started dressing his officers in military garb and supplying them with military weapons. He also got the department to adopt intrusive tactics more associated with Marine invasions vs protecting and serving the community which is the slogan seen on LA police cars.
Gates used the influx of crack cocaine and fights over drug turf as the rationale for ramping up his force. He even went out and got a tank that was modified to knock down crack houses. This tank was immortalized in the song Batter Ram by LA rapper Toddy Tee.. The Batterram garnered headlines when zealous officers knocked down the homes of innocent people thanks to faulty information or them being overzealous. Gates was unapologetic.
His campaign was suppression of the Black and Brown folks, no matter what walk of life. Under an infamous policy known as Operation Hammer, everyone from those communities who came in contact with LAPD was seen as a gang member. Again this is not exaggeration. Part of Gate’s strategy was to establish an extensive gang database, hence anyone pulled over for a traffic violation or stopped and detained for minor infractions was most likely to be entered into the database.
Gate’s policy was simple; you were associated with a particular gang based upon the neighborhood you lived in. The result of this policy was aggressive and harsh treatment, suspicion & profiling and oftentimes arrest when police pulled you over or detained you and found your name listed in the gang database.
Any crime committed against you was tainted as ‘gang related‘. The implication was , you were a victim of a robbery, or assault because of gang ties. This resulting in many crimes not being taken seriously. On top of that, complaints against the police was put on the back burner, especially if it could be shown that you were a ‘gang member’ listed in the database. By the time the Rodney King/LA Uprisings kicked off, a whooping 47% of Black males between the ages of 21-25 in Los Angles were deemed gang members thanks to the database.
LAPD’s Unwritten Policy of Suppression
The unwritten policy of LAPD dating back to the 1950s under Chief William H Parker was to establish dominance send a strong message to the growing population of Black and Brown folks that the police were in charge. This was done two ways. First, Parker notoriously recruited officers from states throughout the South, which were still immersed in Jim Crow. Many of the officers harbored strong anti-Black sentiments and carried it with them to their new jobs in Los Angeles.
Second, his officers would make it a point to stop and detain Black youth while they were pre-teens or in their early teens. This was Parker’s way of as a way establishing presence. He wanted certain residents of LA to know the police were always around and ready to roll and clamp down. Parker’s attitude was get to them while they’re young and put fear in them. The adults who were stopped by his men were treated even more harshly. Oftentimes they were talked to in a demeaning manner i.e. being called ‘boy’ or a racial epithet.
Parker’s cops were known to purposely embarrass adults in front of their kids or on husbands in front of their wives.. All this hostility was complicated by the fact that LA at that time was very segregated and had on its books housing covenants which restricted the areas that Black and Brown folks could live..
Watts was the main Black area was known among police officers as ‘the Duck Pond‘. Here officers who patrolled it, did so with the goal of containing Black residents and keeping them from entering into white sections of the city.
There was study done in the 60s that showed that 90% of the juveniles arrested by LAPD were not charged. This was essentially Stop-N-Frisk ala NYPD decades before it showed up as police practice in NYC. Many say Parker’s harsh policing policies led to the 1965 Watts Riots/Rebellions..
It’s important to understand this history when looking at the Rodney King uprisings. Its important for folks to know and understand how deep rooted and systemic police/ community relations were and the type of discontent that it caused. In the 1965 Watts rebellion, in spite of the resulting 39 dead and over a 1000 injured, conditions and policy didn’t change too much in LA. If anything they got worse.
By the 1980s LA’s first Black Mayor Tom Bradley continued that harsh policing when he famously ordered massive roundups and arrests via Daryl Gates, of Black and Brown men as LA hosted the 1984 Olympics. It’s reported that over 25 thousand were locked up. A few years later Gates implemented Operation Hammer which was a system of gang sweeps and massive arrests. One weekend he locked up over 1200 residents suspected of being ‘gang members’.
Gates said there was a war going on in the streets and his police force was determined to fight it. However, as we now know Gate’s war machine should’ve been directed at the government who supplied infamous drug dealers like Freeway Rick with the cocaine and not the community who were catching hell on both ends. On one hand, many in Black and Brown communities fell prey to crack addiction or crack related violence. While on the other hand, they also felt the the wide sweeping brunt of Daryl Gates and his brutalizing police force.
In looking at the Rodney King uprisings, many believe you can not overlook the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins at the hands of Korean grocery store owner Soon Ja Du. her death happened 2 weeks after Rodney King was beaten.. A video tape surfaced showing Harlin’s being shot in the back of the head as she attempted to leave a store where she was suspected of ‘stealing a soda.
According to court transcripts, what went down was; Harlin put a soda in her backpack and went to the counter to pay for it. Ja Du not seeing the money in Harlins’ hand grabbed her and a tussle ensued. During the struggle, Du threw a stool at Harlin, she in turn picked up the soda and threw it on the counter. Harlins then turned to leave the store at which point Du pulled out a gun and shot her in the head claiming she feared for her life.
Tensions between Black and Korean merchants exploded. Korean merchants felt that they were frequent victims to violent crimes at the hands of Blacks. Black customers felt they were always being far too often deemed suspicious and treated badly by Koreans who were getting money from the community yet didn’t live there or show respect. Harlins murder was the tipping point.
Verdicts Gone Wrong
The trials demanding justice for Harlin and King looked to be open and shut with convictions eminent. Many in the Black community were hopeful, after al,l both incidents were caught on tape. Unfortunately these trials were anything but simple.
In spite of the video and contradictory testimony Du was sentenced to 5 years probation at the conclusion of her November 1991 trial. A news report at the time showed a Korean man being sentenced around the same time for being cruel to a dog. He received 30 days.. That was contrasted with the Harlin’s verdict and caused widespread outrage. You can peep that video HERE.
The Rodney King trial took a longer path. First, it was moved out of LA to Simi Valley which is home to a lot of police officers. defense lawyers claimed there was too much pre-trial publicity.
Second, there were no African-Americans on the jury. The trial to convict LAPD officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind was heard by a jury consisting of ten whites, one Latino and one Asian..
On April 29 1992, that Simi Valley jury acquitted all 4 officers. Once the word got out, all hell broke loose. The result? 53 people dead, about 2,500 injured and more than $400 million in property damage.
The sentiment was Black life didn’t matter and there would never be any justice for those who found themselves on the receiving end of oppression and abuse.People were angery and felt hopeless, as if nothing they did mattered or would be given a fair shot.
Mayor Tom Bradley visibly taken a back by the verdict publicly stated; ‘the jury’s verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the L.A.P.D.‘
Then President Bush sr stated; ‘viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids’.
Daryl Gates defended his department and his decision not to have extra officers on hand after the verdict was read.. He claimed that his department would shut down any disturbance. After the uprising, Gates was asked to step down, by Mayor Bradley, he steadfastly refused and a huge public dispute between the two men emerged. Gates finally stepped down, two months later in June 1992.
6 months after the uprising Gates showed his true sadistic colors when he acknowledged that he made errors in judgement around handling the uprising. He said; “Clearly that night we should have gone down there and shot a few people… that’s exactly what we should have done. We should have blown a few heads off.’
The 92 Gang Truce
Rival Blood and Crip sets in Watts signed historic Gang Truce on April 27th. More than 300 gang members showed up at City hall to mark the occasion. Many didn’t realize a truce had went into effect until all the turmoil jumped off and folks noticed that rivals gangs were working hand in hand, calling for unity and exuding a spirit of cooperation. There were signs painted all over the city that read Crip, Bloods and Eses Together. Many thought the lopsided verdict brought everyone together overnight. The truth of the matter was the ensuing rebellion underscored and accentuated the peace and healing work various cliques had been working toward…
What led to the truce was gang members tiring of senseless deaths. LA had its highest murder rate two years in row leading up to the uprising. Much of the violence was around drug turf. In response gang members in Watts began to wake up and start a process that would eventually lead to peace.
Landmark meetings with Minister Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and later numerous gatherings at the home of former football legend Jim Brown played key roles in helping facilitate the various peace process gang members had undertaken..Its said Brown put almost half a million dollars of his own money into efforts to lay down a foundation for peace.
The 92 Gang Truce set off similar efforts throughout LA and around the nation. Its also one of the most under reported facets of what went down 20 years ago.
We recently sat down with Aqeela Sherrills who was part of that important process. In this interview he gives an indepth run down of what took place and what’s going on now in LA, 20 years later. He talks in great detail about the decrease in crime because of the Truce. He noted that LA has its lowest crime in over 40 years and that its currently in its 8th year of decreases. He also talked about how the 92 Gang Truce was an inspiration for the Million man march which took place 3 years later.
He also goes into detail explaining the attempts to break the Truce.. The main culprit? LAPD. He noted that the police had strong economic incentive to keep the chaos going due to the huge amount of income they were generating via overtime pay and the formation of specialized task force. It was in their interests to play up the fear and downplay the truce.
In our interview Aqeela also talks about the Black/ Brown conflict. He explains how a lot of the beef has been rival gangs (one Black one Brown) going at it and not so much due to racial hatred..
Here’s a link to this insightful interview..that aired yesterday on our TRadioV show
Below is an incredible clip just days after the Rodney King Uprising..It aired on Nightline w/ Ted Koppell and features gang members Bone and Lil Monster
We went digging in the crates to pull out an insightful interview w/ former Gang member Twilight Bey who was the inspiration for the PBS show Twilight LA…He gives a solid breakdown of the 92 Gang Truce and what led up to LA Uprisings.. Much of what he said 10 years ago holds true today.. Below pt 1 of the 4pt conversation..
The Role of Hip Hop
As we close out we have to acknowledge the role music and Hip Hop played in the Rodney King/ LA Uprisings.. First a bit of history… Back in 1965 during the Watts Rebellion, the media and the police blamed popular African-American disc jockey Magnifigent Montague for setting it off. Montague was heard on KGFJ where he frequently peppered his on air banter in between the hottest R&B and Soul songs of the day with tidbits about African American history. He would often have guest on his show including Malcolm X. Martin Luther King name checks him in a couple of speeches praising him for his activism.
Montague had a slogan that he used whenever he played a hit record.. That phrase was ‘Burn Baby Burn‘. Listeners would call up when he played a dope song and repeat the phrase. During the Watts Rebellion in 65, folks in the streets adapted the phrase. Some flipped it and said Burn Whitey Burn..
Montague was on the air encouraging folks to go home, but that didn’t stop Chief William Parker from publicly calling for Montague to be fired. LAPD also stepped to him to stop using the phrase. Montague kept his job, but dropped the slogan and changed it to Learn Baby learn as he committed himself to working with youth and calling for peace.
The scapegoating of Montague should be noted because years later during the 92 Uprisings, folks blamed rappers like Ice Cube for setting a tone that would lead to social unrest. Folks looked at songs like Black Korea, which Cube did in homage to Latasha Harlin 7 months before the 92 unrest where he warned Korean merchants to respect the Black fist or get burned to a crisp.. When folks went after Korean stores during the rebellion, Cube was called to task and accused of being racist..
What was overlooked was that Cube and many others were soundtracking the emotions and sentiments held by many at that time.. We could look back to Toddy Tee doing Batterram and Ice T doing 6 N the Morning as giving us early glimpse into what Black folks in LA were struggling with..
NWA‘s Fuck tha Police took it to a whole other level and became an anthem, which netted response from police departament and the FBI.. Police in cities throughout the country pressured venue owners to not allow the song to be played.. An FBI member sent a letter to the group condemning the group.
After the uprisings Cube shunned his critics and turned up the heat with songs like We Had to Tear This Mother Up Here he talks about going after the Simi Valley jury and personally assaulting the 4 officers who were aquitted. He name checks each of them and drops a line explaining the violent manner he would like to see befall them.
Meanwhile, his then newly signed artist Kam who was apart of the Gang Truce documents and celebrates it in his song Peace Treaty . His video brings to life the beauty of unity that was unfolding in Watts.
In the wake of that dozens of songs emerged referencing the 92 Gang Truce, the LA Uprisings and anger toward the police.
As we look back on the 20th anniversary, lets allow what occurred to be an inspiration. Lets learn lessons from the historic gang truce, lets try to bring similar efforts in our own communities. Lets also learn the lessons of a police force that refuses to change. 20 years after the Uprisings we seen the police departments get worse. It was just last week that we saw the investigation into LA sheriffs about a group of rogue cops calling themselves the Jump Off Boys.. The struggle continues..
written by Davey D