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Race matters in America. An incident that happened fifteen years ago typifies the nature and practice of racism and white supremacy - inequity and polarization - then and now. Rodney King in the midst of a riot that brought havoc and destruction to Los Angeles, entreatingly opined "Can't we all just get along?"
My Eye-Witness Account of "The Rodney King Riot" was first published in 1992. It is being reissued in commemoration of the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Rodney King Riot. Prologue "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black and unequal. ...To pursue our present course will involve this continuing polarization of the American community... ." This was the now famous warning of the Kerner Commission, issued twenty-four years ago in the aftermath of widespread urban upheavels in America. Recommendations of the report have been all but ignored. What was then the "present course" has been pursued and the polarization of the rich and poor - haves and have-nots - has accelerated. Many of the poor are black Americans as reflected in the fact that 43% of black children live in poverty and a 1989 study from the U. S. Bureau of Justice showed that 610,000 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 - 23% of the total - were in jail or under supervision, compared with 436,000 enrolled in higher education. In the United States 47% of state prison inmates are black even though Blacks constitute only 12% of the population. The rioting that followed the Rodney G. King verdict - an all-white jury's acquittal of four Los Angeles white policemen - is one expression of polarization in the American Society that is characterized by the rich getting richer - yearly increase in the number of millionaires - and the poor getting poorer - a growing underclass ... homeless and poverty-stricken people. The message being heard today is: "If you are rich there is help on the way; if you are poor that's just too damn bad." The question for the righteous indignant person to answer is: Why should I live by and let go unchallenged rules that favor exploiters?" Answer... . This writer lived in Los Angeles when the Watts Riot occurred in a neighborhood of Los Angeles in May of 1965, approximately three years before the Kerner Commission's Report that investigated urban riots in the United States and 27 years before the Rodney King Riot. The Watts Riot lasted 5 days. At the time Watts was 99% black. Police brutality, a police having been accused of raping a black woman and high unemployment were some of the causes for the Watts Riot. Thirty-four people were killed. Among the dead were a fireman, a deupty sheriff and a Long Beach police officer. The National Guard was called and put a cordon around a vast region of South-Central Los Angeles that included my residence. Approximaely one year after the Watts Riot the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense formed in Oakland, California. In May 1996, less than a year after the Watts Riot a policeman shot and killed Leonard Deadwyler. In his first notable case Attorney Johnnie Cochran represented his widow Barbara who sued several police officers who had shot and killed her husband. This shooting and murder by a policeman outraged black people in a city still smoldering from the Watts Riot. Another incident of grave concern to the black people in South-Central Los Angeles occurred on March 16, 1991, thirteen days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Departement officers and about a year and a month before the verdict in the Rodney King case. A 49 year-old grocery store owner Korean American woman, Soon Ja Du, shot and killed Latasha Harlin, a 15-year old American of African descent girl who was seen on security camera in the store putting a $1.79 bottle of orange juice into her backpack. When enough is enough ... too much to be left unchallenged. u.j.f. Los Angeles - A City On Fire
No sooner than I had left a community mass meeting at the First AME Church in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, after having listened to Mayor Tom Bradley and other meant-to-be quieting voices plead with an angry people to "keep cool and the peace," did I see a city on fire. My people were angry because an all-white Simi Valley jury had acquitted four white Los Angeles policemen who had savagely beaten black Rodney King as millions have seen on TV, thanks to a home video cameraman who caught this dastardly act on a home video. The acquittal ignited passion that set Los Angeles on fire. ... a fire that burned for three nights and three days. And when the fires were extinguished and the smoke cleared five days later there remained an eternal flame that constantly reminds Los Angelenos and other Americans that Los Angeles remains "a city on fire." It is one week after the the three-day riot that started in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. The riot followed the acquittal by an all-white jury of four Los Angeles policemen who savagely beat black Rodney King. Police officers stopped the automobile of African American driver Rodney King after a high--speed chase through city streets, in the early hours of the morning. Sgt. Stacy Koon and three other LAPD officers (Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind) struck King more than 50 times with metal batons before finally handcuffing him and calling an ambulance.) The beating of Rodney King was caught on a home video made by videographer George Holliday who recorded the crime scene. It was later shown on TV screens across the nation and much of the world. The trial of the policemen was held in the nearly all-white suburban Simi Valley, away from the inner city of Los Angeles where these policemen had committed the crime. I want to share some reflections and impressions on what I am calling the Rodney King Riot. Later, I will state why I feel the black response to the acquittal of four white policemen should be called the Rodney King Riot. Much of the information that follows is taken from my "personal journal" which I kept during the riot. I am a resident of South-Central Los Angeles. It was Thursday, April 30, 1992, about 1:00 p.m., in Los Angeles when rioters fired more than twenty rounds of ammunition into the appliance warehouse and store next door to the Mutuality Center for Creative Living where there are also offices of the American Christian Freedom Society (ACFS) and Mutuality Warrior Corps (MWC). I am a founder and president of ACFS and a founder and the Encourager-in-Chief of MWC. Immediately, after the shooting, the firing of more than twenty shots into the building (fortunately no one was in the building) rioters and looters broke down the iron bars across the front of the appliance warehouse, also retail store, and began looting. They took refrigerators, micro waves, washing machines and other appliances. I stood there in front of the parking lot between the appliance warehouse and the Mutuality Center, looking on. I saw a police car pass by without stopping. I called out for my next door neighbor, on the opposite side of the Mutuality Center than the appliance warehouse, who had locked his security gate and went back inside his office after hearing shots and seeing people bandishing guns. Suddenly, I found myself helping to supervise the confiscation or looting operation. For the most part I directed traffic to help prevent anyone from getting hurt. I pulled a 12-year old boy out of the way of a car just in time to keep him from getting hit by a car that was driven by a man who appeared to be drunk or on drugs. He was driving his car on the sidewalk in front of the Mutuality Center and appliance warehouse and then crossing to the other side of Western Avenue and driving down the sidewalk. He did this not once but many times. His front-seat passenger was a young woman of about eighteen years of age who was drinking beer. The atmophere was part carnival. It was as if Christmas had come and Santa Claus was passing out gifts, on a take-what-you-want-or-can basis. At one point I said to the looters, "Take the goods, but don't set the building on fire." I knew that some other buildings had been set on fire after being looted. Referring to the Mutuality Center, I said something that had spared some black-owned businesses from being torched: "This business is black-owned!" Some looters made several trips to the appliance warehouse. One person left in a car and returned with a u-haul. About 25% of the looter were non-black, Latinos, Asians and Whites. I saw the smoke coming out of the front of the appliance warehouse building and I heard someone - several someones - say, "Burn baby burn!" The building had been set on fire. I rushed inside the Mutuality Center and dialed 911 (an emergency telephone number) but got no response. I took a hose and watered down the terrace. Using a ladder I carried bucket after bucket of water upon the roof. The Mutuality Center, a brick building is about thirty feet from the appliance warehouse which is now an infernal. I was hoping and praying that the firemen would come. The fire was now coming through the roof of the warehouse building and had leaped across the alley in the rear building and was burning the garage attached to a home on another street. As I looked to the south, about twenty doors from the Mutuality Center, I saw a furniture store and a church building (The Church of the Living God) next door to it, on fire. Firemen came there but they did not succeed in extinguishing the fires. Both buildings were totally destroyed. Eventually, four fire trucks with firemen, escorted by policemen, came to the appliance warehouse and knocked down this fire that continued to burn for another two days because of the nature of the contents that were in the building. The appliance warehouse was totally destroyed. Fortunately, the Mutuality Center for Creative Living was spared of any fire damage. At 2:45 p.m., Thursday our electricity and telphones were off and remained off for four days. The poles that held the cables had burned to ashes. Perhaps, it is now clear to those reading this discourse that I speak from the point of view of an experiencer - someone who was actually involved - on the scene - during the three-day Rodney King Riot that lasted another two days before the smoke cleared. As I said earlier, I am writing this record one week after the riot ended. Today, I join some other people who are assisting in "the healing" of those who have been wounded. At the Mutuality Center we are giving away food, clothing and sharing a lot of love. We are also encouraging people, directing them to other sources of help and responding to their questions and desperation as best we can. Even the children, some crying, are asking questions. Here are some statistics of the Rodney King Riot: The toll - Deaths: 53; injuries: 2,383, including 227 critical; Fires: 5,383 structure fire calls; Arrests: 15,008, including 2,628 felonies, 1,352 illegal aliens, damage estimate; $785 million; Dispatched to Duty - Los Angeles Police Department - 5,000 (1,700 to 2,100 deployed at any one time): California Highway Patrol - 500, (200 to 250 officers deployed at any one time); Los Angeles County Sheriff Department - 850; National Guard - 9,844 (2,602 deployed on street, 2,460 support staff, 4,782 in staging areas;) Federal troops - 3,313, Army; Fort Ord, 1,769, 578 deployed on street, Marines, Camp Pendleton, 1,544, 431 deployed on street. Now I want to go back to Wednesday, April 29, 1992. I repeat, much of the information that follows is taken from my "personal journal." At 3:30 p.m., that Wednesday I was informed by a white man in Garden Grove, (the city where Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral is located and some 35 miles from Los Angeles) where I was engaged in transacting business that the four policemen charged with beating Rodney King had been acquitted. He wondered how that could be after what he had seen on the videotape of the beating of Rodney King. I had intended to remain in Garden Grove another two or three hours but instead I hastily returned to Los Angeles. I was aware that black ministers and other black leaders in Los Angeles had scheduled a community mass meeting to be held at 7:00 p.m., on the day the verdict was announced at the First AME Church. As secretary of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Los Angeles, I had recorded the minute scheduling this community meeting. The ministers felt that it was inportant to have such meeting. At the time, we did not know when the verdict would be rendered but we knew that the black community would be making an immediate response to the verdict and that leadership could be crucial. There was a feeling among blacks, based on unjust decisions of the past, that the pending verdict would dispense injustice, notwithstanding, the videotape of the Rodney King beating. In less than an hour after I arrived in Los Angeles the news came that black people were throwing rocks and bottles at the corner of Florence street and Normandie Avenue which was about to become as well known as Hollywood Blvd and Vine Street in Hollywood. At 6;30 p.m., I saw on TV a white man, Reginald Denny, a truck driver who had stopped at a traffic light at Florence and South Normandie being dragged from his truck by black men and severely beaten. The news reported, without specifying, other areas of the city were Blacks were protesting and violence was taking place. I headed for the First AME Church, pastored by Reverend. Cecil "Chip" Murray. Chip, as he is affectionately called, is the leading black minister and spokesman for black people in Los Angeles. When I arrived at the church just minutes before 7:00 p.m., the church was filled and overflowing into the streets. I informed the ushers that I needed to be on or near the speaker's rostrum and they, thinking that I was a speaker for the occasion, escorted me inside the church where I was able to tightly squeeze myself between two cooperative persons near the pulpit. Following some dramatic singing, comments by a number of speakers who lamblased the all-whie jury for having acquitted the four white policemen who had beaten Rodney King, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley uged people to express their anger but to do it in a positve way and not resort to violence or destructive behavior. He was booed by some people in the audience. Two speakers said that Blacks must take action - take to the streets - and protest the decision that had been rendered by the all-white jury. One person desiring to speak who intitially was not allowed to do so had to be restrained. After some people in the audience shouted out "let her speak!: she was allowed to speak. Some people demanded that black leaders offer a plan of action. Before the two and one-half hour meeting ended news came that a building near the church was on fire. Shortly after this news the meeting adjourned. When I stepped outside of the church I saw a building on fire. I drove two blocks away from the church to the corner of Adams Blvd., and Western Avenue and saw a gasoline station on fire. I looked south on Western Avenue and saw more fires. Rather than turn left on Western Avenue as I had intended to, I continued west on Adams and turned left on Crenshaw Blvd., where several buildings were on fire and some people were in the streets. Others were looting. The area was beginning to look like a war zone. As I drove south, I felt that my only safety-badge was being black. However, I could not be sure that my color would save me from wrath in light of what was happening. Tonight, in this area of the city that is usually over policed not a single policeman was anywhere in sight. The same was true of firemen who were conspicuous by their absence. Continuing, I drove about sixty blocks south on Crenshaw Blvd., until I reached Manchester Avenue. At the corner of Crenshaw and Manchester a gasoline station was on fire. As I proceeded east on Manchester I saw two liquor stores and a clothing store on fire. I turned right on Western Avenue and headed south about six blocks where the Mutuality Center for Creative Living is located and where I work. Before I reached the Mutuality Center I saw more burning, including a bank. Arriving home safely, I fastened my eyes to the TV and watched the news practically all night. What I had observed and the scenes I saw on TV that night were unbelievable. It appeared to be surreal but I knew from my own experience that it was reality. Fire trucks had been shot. It was announced on TV that firemen and policemen were refusing to get involved in South-Central Los Angeles for the remainder of the night because they felt it was too dangerous for them to be there. They feared for their lives, apparently not for the lives they were sworn to protect and serve. As Thursday morning approach, the news media people urged people to stay off the streets and to stay home. Fires were spreading like wild fire in areas of the city beyond South-Central Los Angeles that included, Koreatown, Hollywood, Westwood and the nearby cities of Inglewood, Compton, Harthorne, and Long Beach. Reports began to come in announcing that people had been killed. On Thursday, about 8:00 a.m., I drove about 40 blocks in something of a rectangle configuration. There were devestation, water flowing down many streets, buildings burning and policemen and Firemen on the scene. I sensed that the best place for me to be was at home. So I returned home where I remained until about noon then I left to have lunch. About an hour later I arrived at the Mutuality Center just after shooting had taken place next door. I saw looters or confiscators at the appliance warehouse loading refrigerators, washing machines, micro waves and other home appliances into cars. Others were using dollies or on foot carrying confiscated goods. Mayor Bradley ordered a curfew, effective Thursday night. It seemed to have been of some benefit. But the burning, looting and violence continued through Friday night. The mayor lifted the curfew on May 4th. On Saturday one could feel the difference, although the burning of badly dmaged or destroyed building were more than reminders that things were not the same as they had been just four days earlier. Saturday is the day when a large number of people, including myself, took to the streets with brooms and rakes in hand to help clean-up the city, i.e., to at least remove rubbish out of the streets and sweep the sidewalks. I did not have to go any further than next door to the Mutuality Center for Creative Living to assist in the clean-up. I was joined by twelve other people. Later I went not far from the Mutuality Center to the furniture store and Church of the Living God and assisted in the clean-up. These two building had been totally destroyed by fire. I also encouraged people, some who were victims, others who were angry or frustrated and children who needed to find their bearing and to know that somebody, perhaps, other than members of their families cared about them. Sunday we had an extended spiritual service at the Mutuality Center that is also known, especially on Sundays as the Mutuality Temple. My feeling was that a part of the answer to the questions being raised could be found within people's souls and meditation was one technique for tapping that resource which could help mend the individual and community brokenness. On Sunday afternoon we conducted the weekly People United Freedom Forum (PUFF) at the Mutuality Center. During our forums we discsuss a variety of topics aimed at personal development and practicing community. This Sunday the topic to be discussed is: "The Black Response to Soon Ja Du's Killing of Black Fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlin and Judge joyce Karlin's Failure to Send this Murderer to Prison." This event had been scheduled a month before the acquittal of the four white policemen. Tut Hayes who had been arrested while picketing Judge Karlin's home was the principal speaker. The Latasha Harlin case, like the Rodney King case angered the black community. Wiithout electricity at the Mutuality Center we met in semi-darkness. During the Roundtable Talkback which followed Tut's lecture there were reactions to the Rodney King Riot which became of greater concern than the Soon Ja Du murdering of Latasha Harlin. Emotions were high but thoughts expressed by the participants were positive. Strong views were expressed. Prior to the meeting I had posted a large two-word sign on front of the Mutuality Center that said: "The Healing." And that was the spirit of my message to those attending the forum. I am the director of PUFF and Tut Hayes is the facilitator of the Roundtable Talkback. On Monday politicians began doing their thing in Los Angeles. California Governor Pete Wilson who had authoized deployment of the National Guard, on the request of Mayor Bradley, came to Los Angeles and promised to help owners rebuild their businesses, the former Governor and now a democratic presidential candidate Jerry Brown flew over the city and commented to the media on what he saw and what should be done and presidential candidate Bill Clinton came and did his thing, expressing empathy for those who had been wounded. On Thursday President George Bush came and spent two days in Los Angeles and announced that he had ordered the Department of Justice, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the riot and determine if Rodney King's civil rights had been violated. Jesse Jackson had come to Los Angeles ahead of all the politicians to weep with those weeping and to join local black leaders in demanding justice. O yes, the "who-was-the-blame" rhetoric was being heard from many sources, especially, from local politicians and Chief of Police Daryl Gates. There was a unified effort on the part of many local people to respond to the immediate needs of those who were victims of the riot, including the families of those who had been killed by law enforcement officers. Let me now keep a promise I made earlier. I promised to let the reader know why I feel that the correct name for the April 29 through May 1, 1992 social explosion in Los Angeles should be called the Rodney King Riot. "What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked. "A rose by any other name is just as sweet," he also asserted. In a less flowery moment he said, "Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls; who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; "Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed." What should we call this destructive and violent incident that occurred following the verdict that acquitted four Los Angeles white policemen who had severely beaten Rodney King? Some people have referred to it as a riot, others call it the Los Angeles Riot and still others refer to it as the South-Central Los Angeles Riot. I take the position that the proper name we call this incident is of great importance. I propose that we call it "The Rodney King Riot." Just as the Martin Luther King Holiday is named after Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rodney King Riot should be named after Rodney King. One of the purposes of the name is to pay tribute to the person whose contribution impacted people significantly enough for his legacy to challenge them to embrace and perpetuate the values and concerns that were for the legacy-giver a matter of ultimate concern and of redemptive value for society. It is probably true that neither Martin Luther King, Jr., nor Rodney King had much to do with actualization of the holiday or riot, and even though they are pivotal personalities in these achievements they, nor others, should assigned any credit to them for the holdiay or riot. Providence or Karma destined both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rodney King to play the roles they played in these unfoldments and, equally as important, that other players would contend for a Martin Luther King Holiday and justice for Rodney King and others potentially subjected to police brutality. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rodney King have more in common than their surnames. Both are Americans of African descent who contributed to advancing social justice in America. Calling this incident the Rodney King Riot does not demonstrate, as some people may think, that we are dignfying something that is bad any more than when we embrace the Martin Luther King Holiday. It is a matter of record that some people find it revolting to have a national holiday that is named the Martin Luther King Holiday. The State of Arizona has refused to ratify the King Holiday. Some people find the Rodney King Riot to be revolting, especially since it contains the word "riot." But riot, like war, can be honorable, when it is justified, as many Blacks feel to be true with this riot that was a response to injustice. When we open-mindedly focus on what the Rodney King Riot was about injustice black people are subjected to every day it is not difficult to understand that only strong and confrontative actions have any chance of being effective in making society more just. It is true as Frederick Douglass noted, "Power never concedes without demand." Like the Prophet Amos, the Rodney King Riot delivers the message, "Let justice run down like waters." (Amos 5:24). Much damage was done doing the Rodney King riot and 53 lives were lost, but apart from the lives sacrificed, the cost in economic terms is peanuts when compared with what is likely to occur if we fail to learn the lessons that the Rodney King Riot have offered to us. It is conceivable that Americans will begin to look differently at America where each year the rich get richer - more milliionaires each year - and the poor get poorer - a growing underclass and a huge yearly increase in homelessness. To be sure, the good that will come from the Rodney King Riot is a matter of conjecture or speculation but what cannot be denied is that during the Rodney King Riot some people, including rioters were Good Samaritans in the style of classic Robin Hoods. I saw them help people who had been physically wounded and even rescuing them. Some so-called looters confiscated food from well-stocked supermarkets and medicine from drug stores and gave it to hungry and sick people who, the day before the riot, like scavengers fetched their food from gabarge containers and others writhed in pain because they could not pay for pain tablets or a laxative. Despite the brutal beating he suffered at the hands of policemen, the verdict acquitting them by an all-white jury and the calamitous conditions that resulted from the riot, "Rodney King entreatedly opined, "Can't we all just get along?" Since the publication of my book, "The Mutuality Warrior" two years ago and my help in founding the Mutuality Warrior Corps (MWC*). I have accepted for myself as being a Mutuality Warrior. My title is Encourager-in-Chief of MWC. A Mutuality Warrior is the person best prepared to survive and find meaning and peace. (*The threefold function of MWC: (1) to develop personhood, (2) encourage the practice of community, and (3) to promote peace.) As I observed those rioters, also called looters or thugs, I was moved to write a discourse titled, "The Mutuality Warrior as Robin Hood." "The Rodney King Riot" account presented above is a part of this discourse, I decided to reissue it in commemoration of the Fifteenth Annivesary of the Rodney King Riot. At this time I will not reissue the portion of this discourse that specifically focuses on "The Mutuality Warrior as Robin Hood." (I do plan to reissue it at a later date). Let us pay tribute to Rodney King by remembering Apirl 29th through May 1, 1992, as the "Rodney King Riot," in the hope that it will live in perpetuity. Aftermath On April 30, 1992, Presidenrt George Bush announced that he had ordered the Department of Justice to investigate the possibility of filing charges against the LAPD officers for violating the federal civil rights of Rodney King. On August 4, a federal garnd jury indicted the four officers. The second trial began February 23, 1993, with two Americans of African descent on the jury, two of the officers, Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacy Koon were convicted and two officers were acquitted. No riot ensured after this trial. ============================= Correspondence may also be sent to: P. O. Box 4770 Charlottesville, VA 22905 Copyright 1992 and 2007 by Uriah J. Fields