If we are to speak of "Rodney King" the incident or historic moment rather than Rodney King the man that passed tragically at the age of 47 this weekend, we are talking about a moment caused by technological development more than anything else.
If the truth be told, a black man getting the shit kicked out of him by white policemen wasn't all that rare. It never has been in American history. If the truth be told, its not all that rare, even today, and we all know I can cite numerous cases from the last year to make my point.
What was improbable, in 1991, was that someone would be across the street with a camcorder with enough low-light capabilities to catch all the action. The police weren't ready for that one. Five of them were beating the shit out of Rodney King while another twenty stood around cheering them on, and the camera caught them with their pants down.
That's what caused the Rodney King incident.
Now that seems like ancient history. Now the LAPD has it's own camcorders and they know half a dozen cell phone cameras may catch every move. Now, the occupy movement even makes it a practice to live stream police brutality, but 20 years ago the police had beaten many a black man but they had never had a Rodney King incident yet.
As to the Los Angeles Riot that followed. There is something else I would like to clear up because I lived it. I lived near Washington Blvd & Redondo Blvd. in 1992 and my shop was on Venice Blvd. in mid-town.
All yesterday I heard reporters and commentators speaking about the death of Rodney King, and saying that the riot or uprising was caused by the beating he took. That is revisionist history. The Rodney King Incident happen in March 1991. The uprising took place in April 1992 when the cops that were charged in the incident were acquitted.The black community in Los Angeles just lost it.
I consider that that was also driven by technology.
You see, the Rodney King trial of the four cops in Simi Valley was one of the first trials, if not the first, to be televised gavel-to-gavel. It was followed, in short order, by the O J Simpson trial and then came Court TV and now cameras in the courtroom are no big thing, but at the time, it had never been done before and they didn't know they were playing with dynamite.
Channel 9 coverage was excellent and it was keenly watched in the black community. People who had no jobs had time to watch it. Mothers home with their children had time to watch it. I had it on every day over my work bench.
So when the jury came back with "not guilty" the black community was livid at the sheer arrogance of the judicial system. For once there had been a video tape of the kind of thing that happened all the time and still the cops walked. It was as if the defense had said "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?" and they believed him. It smacked of the Dred Scott decision.
It was the injustice, not the beating, that caused the Rodney King riots, and it was the march of technology that brought that injustice home as never before.
10:14 AM PT: My personal introduction to the uprising went like this. I watched the verdict come in on TV like maybe a million others, I think it was about 3pm. I knew that activists would be forming up to protest at Parker Center, LAPD HQ, left a note on the frig, and headed down there.
Of course, the usual group of activists and then some started to congregated in front of Parker Center. I'd already had a long history of fighting police abuse in LA, 8 years earlier I was a named plaintiff in the ACLU - LAPD spying case, so I was no stranger to the sidewalk in front of Parker Center and knew a lot of the people there.
As the afternoon wore on, the protest got larger and more militant, as I noticed the LAPD forming up their lines for some sort of move, I decided it was a good time to make my exit and I am very glad that I decided not to get arrested that day.
I stayed in the area and I was strolling along the line of TV news vans that had formed up on one side of the street. It was dark by then. I saw on one of the monitors in a news van, what as clearly a live helicopter shot of the city and fires were burning everywhere. I asked the tv news guy what was going on and he said "Oh yeah, the whole city has erupted." I rushed home to make sure my family was safe and began a week like no other I have ever lived.
My hat still goes off to our local gas station on the corner of Hauser & Venice that stayed open and pumped gas through it all, and to the Pantry on 9th & Figueroa that kept its reputation of "Never closed, never without a customer" [since 1924] through it all.