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Rodney King Is Dead, but Little Else Has Changed Since the Riots That Bore His Name

Rodney King’s recent death and the twentieth anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising generated a lot of heat, but little light on what caused those historic events.

Rodney King’s recent death and the twentieth anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising generated a lot of heat, but little light on what caused those historic events.

On April 29, 1992, at the Ventura County courthouse in Simi Valley, home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a jury of ten whites, one Asian and one Latino delivered not guilty verdicts in all assault charges but one against four Los Angeles (LA) police officers who beat motorist Rodney King 13 months earlier. The jury forewoman reportedly told the court that it took the panel “barely six hours of deliberations” to acquit the defendants despite exhibit A: an 84-second slice of George Holliday’s video showing the cops brutalizing a drunk and subdued King with 56 baton blows, six kicks and a Taser, leaving him with a skull fractured in 11 places and brain and kidney damage. Already baking in a 90-degree heat wave, Los Angeles exploded. By 9 PM, Mayor Tom Bradley declared a state of emergency; Gov. Pete Wilson mobilized 2,000 National Guard troops; the California Highway Patrol closed sections of the freeway in the city; and the Federal Aviation Administration began altering airplane traffic around LAX. The unrest lasted six days, marking the deadliest riot in modern US history with 54 killed, 2,383 injuries, 12,111 arrests, 7,000 fires and nearly $1 billion in damages.

Rodney King’s recent demise prompted laments over his “sad life and death” that recounted his brushes with the law, addiction demons, parole status that convinced him to flee the cops that fateful night, the subsequent notoriety that made him unemployable and the squandering of millions of dollars from a civil lawsuit that reduced him to poverty.

But the news cycled on without providing any real understanding of King’s life or why unrest broke out in Los Angeles and spread across the nation. The LA riots occurred because of “the economy, stupid” – Bill Clinton’s winning campaign slogan in 1992, but were also the result of years of systematic police abuses, particularly damn-the-civil-liberties assaults on black neighborhoods that were justified as the only way to vanquish crack kings and gangbangers. These police raids were the logical outcome to how society addressed the urban unrest of the 1960s. Rather than lift up millions trapped in slums with jobs, education and housing, America decided to lock them up in super-max prisons and keep them down with militarized policing. In this light, there is a direct line from the ultra-violent beating of Rodney King to the killing of Trayvon Martin. Both are examples of a grotesque system that has turned black and brown bodies into sites of profit for the prison economy and a source of middle-class anxiety about dark enemies who lurk among us and deserve whatever punishment is meted out to them. In short, police abuses are not the result of a few bad apples, but our systemic solution to reoccurring economic crises, whether in the sixties, the nineties or today.

King’s story is sad indeed. His alcoholic father dragged a fourth-grade Rodney to clean office buildings late into the night, which “really whacked” his ability to learn, then a high-school-aged Rodney discovered the corpse of his 42-year-old father in the bathtub. More significant than the tale of personal woe, King’s life was a product of historical circumstance. He was born four months before the Watts riot, as the civil rights movement and black power movement were reshaping America. By the time he reached adulthood, his world was eroded by the collapse of manufacturing, a receding welfare system and a thriving prison and police economy. King was unwillingly cast as a central historical figure, buffeted by forces he could barely understand, however, any one of millions of other Americans could have starred in his role.

One of those bit players was Latasha Harlins. Two weeks after King’s beating, 51-year-old Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American grocer, pumped a bullet into the back of the head of Harlins, a 15-year-old school girl, after scuffling over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Then, a week before the cops who beat King beat the criminal charges against them, Du’s sentence of probation, community service and a $500 fine was upheld despite the security video showing Harlins walking away after leaving the juice on the counter.

The unwillingness of the courts to redress these crimes lit the fuse, but LA police supplied the fuel. Mike Davis wrote in “City of Quartz” that, since the 1950s, “the LAPD has been regarded by L.A.’s black community as a redneck army of occupation.” Police contempt for the black community peaked during the 14-year reign of Chief Daryl Gates, whose incompetence worsened the 1992 unrest, starting when he ditched his post on April 29 to attend a political fundraiser opposed to police reforms. After Gates died in 2010, Joe Domanick, author of a book on the LAPD, told a reporter that Gates defended “each and every” shooting of “dozens and dozens of unarmed people.” Gates explained away police chokehold killings of black men as due to their anatomical differences with “normal people.” He concocted military-style raids like “Operation Hammer” where hundreds of police would assault “South Los Angeles and arrest every black male on the street,” said Domanick. Justified by the war on drugs, up to 50,000 suspects were grabbed by 1990, which Davis calls an “astonishing figure considering there are only 100,000 Black youths in Los Angeles.” (Gates also personally ran a vast spying, infiltration and provocateur apparatus, but that’s another story.)

If the police were the fuel, then the tinder was bone-dry anger resulting from 12 years of right-wing policies. America’s once great cities were treated like rats in the lab of neoliberalism that began with the 1979 “Volcker Shock” of soaring interest rates. Airplane factories, chemical plants, metal works and automotive facilities needed and created the labor pools and sprawling infrastructure of cities. Jacking interest rates pushed thousands of factories into bankruptcy, thereby robbing cities of stable, decent-paying jobs and much of their tax base. President Reagan rubbed salt in the wound by slashing federal aid to cities by nearly 75 percent and defunding antipoverty, public transit and housing programs and community-based organizations. Rounding out the neoliberal program were two wars: one on organized labor and the other on drugs.

King poignantly drew the connection between economic and physical control shortly before his death. Reporter Kurt Streeter wrote, “King explained how, as boots and batons fell, as electricity from Tasers ripped through his body, he thought of what it was like for African slaves to withstand whippings. The thought of what they went through helped him stay alive.” But the weight of that event may have been too much to bear. The recording of what appears to be Trayvon Martin’s last moments closed the circle for King. Before his own death, King said, “The horrifying sound of a young black male screaming for his life on a 911 call reminded me of my horrifying scream on a videotape 20 years ago.”

It’s Still the Economy

The LA uprising burned through the fog to reveal police brutality as the handmaiden of inner city misery. Contrary to pontificating that King’s beating ushered in more professional policing, not much has changed. Policing the poor is about keeping the profitable machinery of deprivation and cruelty running smoothly.

For example, stop and frisks have soared 600 percent under New York Mayor Bloomberg, topping 684,000 in 2011. A few statistics say it all: There were more stops of young black men last year than there are young black men in New York City. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be frisked than whites and less likely to be found with a weapon, which is the main rationale for stop and frisk. Finally – and this is why stop and frisk is an economic issue – one control study found blacks without a criminal record are less likely to receive a callback from a potential employer than whites with a criminal record. Given the 50,000 New Yorkers slapped with marijuana possession in 2011, thousands of black and Latino youth are effectively tossed out of the workforce. With limited job prospects, many turn to the drug economy and wind up trapped in the prison system. (In terms of immigrants, laws and rulings like the Supreme Court approval of Arizona’s SB1070’s racial profiling strips the undocumented of most civil and workplace rights, rendering them extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation.)

Economic issues were also central to the “Rodney King riots,” the halfway mark between the present and the urban revolts of the 1960s. The Kerner Commission on civil disorders warned in 1968 that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” (The only thing they didn’t foresee is desperation as diverse as the LA riots, in which the majority of those arrested were Latino.) The unrest in 1992 revived sixties-era soul searching because the shockwave of protest radiated out from LA to Seattle, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Atlanta, and many other cities. But the national discussion over the debt owed to people confined and abandoned in slums petered out because there was no political incentive in the mainstream to address the crisis.

Nonetheless, there were clear policy choices twenty years ago. And the decisions made then lead directly to the present of routinized stop and frisk and racial profiling.

Neoliberal Screws

By the early ’90s, working-class sections of cities were tortured by neoliberalism and battered by the Bush recession. During the Reagan years, Los Angeles lost 124,000 manufacturing jobs. In February 1992, after 18 months of recession, California had hemorrhaged another 523,000 jobs, almost one-quarter of the nationwide total. In January 1992, big-city mayors pleaded with Congress – without effect – for a $35 billion aid package to salve the painful cuts in state and federal spending.

South Central’s 800,000 inhabitants suffered unemployment rates of up to 21 percent, fertilizing resentment over harsh policing. Author Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote that after hearing the verdicts, she headed to the rally at the First A.M.E. church, but her car was “stopped by scores of people, mostly black men, milling about in the streets; the air was thick with a gathering anger.” She wrote that “what struck me … was the sight of all those men who had been able to turn out so readily at three in the afternoon. Their presence made dramatically visible what had been ignored for too long: the high rate of black unemployment.”

As fires, shootings and looting lit up TV news, many Americans were dumbfounded to discover Poor! Angry! Blacks! still roiling decaying inner cities, imagining they winked out of existence somewhere between the shotgun-toting Black Panthers and the Nike-endorsing Michael Jordan. (Others steeled their minds shut, balancing the assault of trucker Reginald Denny by random South Central sadists – and subsequently saved by random South Central good Samaritans – against the state-sanctioned pummeling of King.)

When the storm broke, Koreatown was in the eye with hundreds of business looted and burned. As it was an election year, Koreatown’s glowing embers proved an irresistible lure for candidates Bill Clinton and Patrick Buchanan. Clinton was gunning for President George H. W. Bush’s seat with the potent slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He could have been voicing the grievances of the black and Latino underclass in LA and the many other American cities. Washington and the media were forced to acknowledge the crisis was an economic one.

Bush took just a week to roll out a $2 billion urban aid plan. It was jerry-rigged from flimsy right-wing solutions, however, consisting of urban enterprise zones, vouchers, welfare reform, home ownership of downtrodden public housing and counterinsurgency doctrine that linked drug war funding to social services in a program known as “Weed and Seed.”

The New Democrat Solution

Clinton seized the political opening by blaming the disorder on 12 years of “denial and neglect.” But swooping into LA’s cauldron on May 3, Clinton left talk of recession and job losses at the campaign office and decried “black-on-black” violence as “the scourge of America.” The response foretold Bill and Hillary Clinton’s project of using the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to squeeze the last vestiges of social justice out of liberals. Alexander Cockburn commented that Clinton’s position after the riots was not to “throw money at problems,” which he termed a DLC strategy “to persuade white folks that the Democratic Party no longer cares for ‘minorities’ and will target no particular money in their direction.”

In February 1993, on the heels of Clinton’s inauguration, the DLC published a white paper, “The Los Angeles Riots: Causes, Myths and Solutions” that typified the “New Democrat” mindset. It pooh-poohed the “traditional liberal approach” of gaining “leverage over the existing corporate power structure to steer resources to the underprivileged” and sneered at conservative policy, “which has largely ignored cities and stressed tax abatements and regulatory rollbacks as a means of luring larger manufacturing firms back to urban areas.” Its brave new policy was “entrepreneurial development, self-help and economic empowerment.” Government’s role was no longer to clean up capitalism’s destructive wake and certainly not to support an alternative to it, but simply to be a more attentive handmaiden in the search for profit. Clintonism was the triumph of Reaganism.

Clinton campaigned on enacting an economic stimulus and rode a wave of concerns over jobs and health care into office. But as president, he orphaned his $30 billion plan for business tax credits and “highway construction, summer jobs, community development, jobless benefits, education programs and projects for treating waste water.” The House did pass a $16.3 billion recovery plan, which proponents said would generate one million jobs, with 80,000 of those in California. But days before the first anniversary of the riots, a Democratic-controlled House, Senate and White House were outwitted by 43 Republican senators who sliced the stimulus down to $4 billion in unemployment crumbs.

Out of the Ashes

While Washington was twiddling its thumbs, two opposing visions rose out of LA’s ashes. The first was “Rebuild LA,” a private-public partnership that would cut red tape and entice industry and commerce to the multihued ghettos. The outfit lobbied for enterprise-zone legislation derided by the new Democrats, but which Clinton passed. When it closed shop a few years later, Rebuild LA claimed to have generated $380 million in investment, but one report listed its most visible achievements as shopping centers and “Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains … on practically every other corner.”

Astonishingly, the most detailed plan for rebuilding Los Angeles was courtesy of the Crips and Bloods. Proclaiming “Give us the hammer and the nails, we will rebuild the city,” the gangs outlined a $3.728 billion reconstruction that covered economic development, community-controlled policing, school refurbishment, textbooks, tutoring, computers, teacher competency, three new hospitals, 40 health care centers, dental clinics, removing blighted and abandoned buildings, sanitation, lighting, pavements and an AIDS research and awareness center.

It recalled similar demands made by LA gang leaders 20 years earlier. Mike Davis wrote that, in 1972, “The Human Relations Conference, against the advice of the police, gave a platform to 60 Black gang leaders to present their grievances. To the astonishment of officials present, the ‘mad dogs’ outlined an eloquent and coherent set of demands: jobs, housing, better schools, recreation facilities and community control of local institutions. It was a bravura demonstration that gang youth, however trapped in their own delusionary spirals of vendetta and self-destruction, clearly understood that they were the children of deferred dreams and defeated equality.”

In a cold-eyed assessment, Susan Anderson wrote in a 1996 essay entitled, “A City Called Heaven: Black Enchantment and Despair in Los Angeles,” that the “Crips/Blood document reveals a faith, amounting to apotheosis, in the virtues of capitalism, the responsiveness of the government and the goodwill of the community.” The plan’s fatal flaw was “there is no leadership prepared to meet it.” Furthermore Anderson argued, “The children of the black working class face extraordinary challenges that a generation ago would have been unthinkable. They face a labor market unable to absorb them, a political system that has abandoned them and a culture unwilling to embrace them – except as criminals.”

That’s what Clinton eagerly offered black and brown youth – starring roles as criminals. To do so, he assumed another right-wing stance: withdrawing a helping hand while extending an iron fist. Unable to find $30 billion to boost the economy in 1993, Clinton managed to find that amount the next year for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act despite a feeble recovery. The law “provided state and municipal governments with $30 billion to add 100,000 new police officers, to build more prisons and to employ more prison guards.”

While the architecture of the war on drugs was erected during the ’80s, under Clinton, the race to incarcerate was on. During his tenure, the prison population swelled by nearly 50 percent to more than two million; the rate of African-American imprisonment topped 3.5 percent; and funding for the Justice Department increased by 72 percent (in constant dollars). Clinton expanded sentencing, broadened the death penalty, instituted a federal three-strikes law, narrowed judicial review for undocumented immigrants – leading to the deportation boom and the profit-driven detention industry – created sex-offender registries and increased wiretapping. Attracted by federal dollars, state spending on prison construction has quadrupled over the last 20 years. Three decades ago, California spent more than three times the money on higher education as it did on prisons. Now, it spends 50 percent more on prisons.

On the flip side, Clinton fulfilled the right-wing dream of ending welfare. Whereas welfare used to aid 75 percent of those in poverty, it now covers 28 percent. Another decision was to use workfare recipients to replace thousands of public-sector union workers. Clinton’s legacy included “more people working in the criminal justice system than [were] working in community and social service occupations (like employment, vocational, mental health and substance abuse counseling).”

The Clintons and DLC did not invent neoliberalism, but just as with crime and the war on drugs, they turned right-wing radicalism into bipartisan consensus. Prisons, policing and poverty are mere background noise. While the impact of Clinton’s policies was masked by relatively strong growth in the late ’90s, the monstrous effects surfaced when the economy tanked in 2007. Currently, the black and Hispanic poverty rate is nearly 27 percent. Black unemployment in some cities is at “Depression-era levels.” In parts of South Central, joblessness is 23 percent, outstripping 1992 levels. Hispanic unemployment tops 20 percent in some California cities. For black and Latino youth, unemployment rates are 40 and 30 percent, respectively. And blacks and Latinos were preyed on by subprime mortgage fraud, with the resulting foreclosures being concentrated in these communities.

It’s the same story the Kerner Commission identified 44 years ago. It listed “pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing” as the immediate causes of civil disorders. Its proposals included creating two million jobs – half of those in public works programs – to “absorb the hard-core unemployed,” “substantial federal aid” to education and a minimum national income.

Instead of jobs, welfare and schools, Democrats and Republicans have fabricated a prison state. For-profit prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and Geo are growing wildly in this medium that has mutated into an even more virulent form after the 9/11 attacks. The capitalist law of growing markets, revenues and profits compels them to spend millions lobbying for harsher prison sentences and privatizing and expanding immigration detention. Their product isn’t cars, software or energy drinks, however. It’s the ranks of the poor who have become superfluous to capitalism as workers, but whose bodies are profitable once confined in steel cages. Systematic police abuses like stop and frisk and Arizona’s SB 1070 law and its copycats are thus necessary because they are the conveyor belt, reducing people to commodities.

By all accounts, Rodney King struggled to make sense of the whirlwind in which he was caught. His body was no longer his own, but a site of intense political dispute. He interpreted his ordeal as one step in the African-American journey that led to Barack Obama’s historic election and clung to his infantile though heartfelt maxim, “Can’t we all just get along?” But in the end, he concluded not much had changed. “The American Negro gets no respect when it comes to law enforcement and brutality and his life means nothing.”

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