Rodney King, Redux

April 30, 2012

Photo courtesy of ATOMIC Hot Links


Recently, I told a
group of my students at Boston College how much I’d like their help in
organizing an event to commemorate the Los Angeles riots. Their response: Can you tell us more about
what the riots were? What were they
about? Why were they important? I was stunned by their questions for a
moment, and then I realized the students are barely twenty. Newborns at best when the riots
occurred. And so for them the riots had
already passed out of living memory, something they have no way of knowing
except maybe as story.

This is how I
explained it, more or less: On March 3,
1991, Rodney King and two of his friends took a late night ride in his Hyundai
Excel. King had been released from
prison the previous Christmas -- he had tried to rob a Korean merchant with a tire
iron, was fended off by the merchant, and shortly thereafter was apprehended by
the police. It seems possible King was
enjoying his newfound freedom a little too much that early spring evening. When he and his friends were first spotted by
the police, the officer who called in their pursuit claimed King was driving at
speeds of 110 to 115 miles per hour. By
the time the chase ended, more than two dozen officers surrounded King’s car. George Halliday, an Argentinian-born plumbing
supplies salesman, was awoken by the noise and immediately took out his
camcorder. This is what he captured: a
heart-pulsing image of a man on the ground, one arm stretched outward to
protect his face, uniformed figures wielding steel batons against him.

Many people felt
that the video would convict the officers involved for excessive use of
force. Thus the surprise and outrage
when instead, on April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury in Simi valley found three
of the officers involved not guilty; they were undecided about the fourth. Over the next five days, 54 people died as a
direct result of the riots, more than 2000 people were injured, more than 800
buildings were burned to the ground, and the region suffered nearly $1 billion
in property damages. About half of the
12,000 people arrested were Latinos, and of these about 80% were from Guatemala
and El Salvador. Roughly half of all
property damages were suffered by Korean American merchants, with another
significance percentage suffered by Latino-owned businesses. 

didn’t tell the students that I was a senior in college at the time, on my way
to graduate school to study literature. I
eventually landed a teaching job, but found myself unable to put the L.A. riots
out of mind. The ten-year anniversary
was just around the corner then and, as now, they remained painful and urgent
to understand. I ended up writing Strange Future: Pessimism
and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots
. The book is less
about what happened during or immediately after the riots, and more about the
ways in which the riots offered us a vocabulary for talking about some real,
but hard-to-articulate, anxieties. One
of these anxieties, I argued, is the fear that America is in national decline. I thought that point would get the most
attention, but as it turns out, I’ve had to field the most questions about my
decision to call it the riots

I’d considered the
other possibilities. But an “uprising” or
“rebellion” felt to me to romanticize something that was deadly serious. “Unrest” felt misleadingly neutral. And “Sa-I-Gu,” which literally means April 29
in Korean, was too focused on a specific community for what I was trying to
do. I tried to be diplomatic about this
word choice, saying one could use these other terms but that one needed to do
so with deliberate purpose. And given
these choices, the “riots” felt equally inadequate but still marginally
better. I understand its reactionary
implications, and have been pointedly reminded of them on several
occasions. Yet, if I were writing this
book now, I’d go further to say that I strongly
prefer calling this event the riots because the word compactly and vividly
conjures its disorderliness. When I say
disorderliness, what I mostly mean is that the riots broke up the order of more
reassuring narratives about the nation. 

Here's an example. Before the riots, I think it’s fair to say,
many in this country were under the spell of the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan’s
speech-writer. The phrase “It’s morning
in America again” encapsulated the kind of renewal Reagan’s brand of
conservatism had supposedly brought to a country brought to its knees by
liberalism run amok -- what supposedly began with the New Deal and ended with the
failures of Jimmy Carter.

The commercial that popularized this phrase worked
narrative magic, from its opening shot of a tugboat on a harbor, to the scene
of a father and son moving a rolled-up carpet into their new home, to the
delighted smile of a matronly woman at the sight of a young couple getting
married. The music is stirring, the
voiceover authoritative while reassuring -- personifying the avuncular. The lighting is subtle but dramatic. It evokes an America of vibrant cities,
industrious farms, and orderly homes, without a hint of cynicism or doubt. No
wonder this commercial is consistently ranked as one of the most effective ever
produced, its catchphrase deemed
more memorable than “Where’s the beef?” and “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.”

In the presence of
this enchanting vision of America circa 1984, it feels churlish for me to point
out that under
, inequality in income and wealth grew more pronounced. The number of prisoners spiked. Unions
. The manufacturing base was
steadily eroding. The police completed
its decisive turn toward militarization.
As we have seen this
past fall
, even campus police can now look a lot like the military when
facing off against students. (All of
this, as the ad pointedly foregrounds, was part of a policy that privileged
control of inflation. It was as if all
of our prosperity depended on making sure that a dollar today was more-or-less the
same dollar tomorrow, and as a result anything could be sacrificed to this one
principle. The free market would save us
from there.)  

Even as I point
out what seems to me to be plain facts, I suspect they will only be received as
such by those already skeptical of the Reagan feel-good vision. In 1984, Reagan went on to win every single
state of the union except Minnesota, and would in the process claim more electoral
than any presidential candidate before or since. His campaign, and that commercial, breathed
life into a feeling that had power independent from facts. That feeling spoke directly to a longing for
a social ideal that to many people probably seemed, if not a reality, then
nearly so. The riots were in many ways
an epilogue to the Reagan presidency, and a retort to that feeling. Not only did they help defeat George Herbert
Walker Bush in his bid for reelection, but they foregrounded the ways the legacies
of Reagan’s presidency were felt by those living in places like South Los
Angeles and Koreatown. The riots gave
expression to a kind of counter-feeling,
one that rebuts the carefully managed and orchestrated dominance of a morning
without end. It does so not by offering
an equally managed and orchestrated narrative of renewal and hope; rather, this unplanned outburst of sharply
negative emotions -- anger, resentment, grief, fear -- resisted narrative. The images we remember the riots by are for
the most part amateurish, out of focus, grainy, fragmented. They aren’t experienced, as was Reagan’s ad,
in thoughtful narrative order, a succession of polished and market-tested
images. They are instead frenetically repeated
images, shown juxtaposed against each other without a lot of premeditation, as
newscasters tried to keep abreast of something that occurred quickly, in
multiple locations, to a lot of different people. 

If we remember the
riots at all, we remember the video of King being
beaten. We might also remember another
video, this time from a convenience-store security camera, which shows
15-year-old Latasha
turning sharply around when a Korean American merchant catches hold
of her backpack, claiming she has stolen a carton of orange juice. Harlins
punches the merchant two or three times, hard, on the face, then is shot in the
back of the head just as quickly. At her
trial, Soon Ja Du, the merchant, was sentenced to probation, community service,
and a $500 fine. Some of the animosity
directed at Korean American merchants was attributed to anger over this
ruling. There was also Reginald Denny, the white
truck driver who accidentally drove through the epicenter of the riots as it
started to spin out of control, and mercifully lost consciousness as a group of
black teenagers beat him with as much force as the police beat Rodney King. A news helicopter captured Denny being beaten
from up high, the camera looking down, foreshortening bodies, miniaturizing and
distancing. It wasn’t at all like the movies. And there is Charles Kim, a young Korean
American son of a merchant who went out into the riots in a quixotic attempt to
protect stores owned by Korean Americans, only to be shot to death accidentally
by another Korean American. As the
documentary Sa-I-Gu brilliantly
recalls, the image most circulated of Kim’s corpse appeared first in black and
white and then again in shocking bright-red.

These are a riot
of images. They encourage multiple and
competing interpretations. And, they
make watching Reagan’s “Prouder, Stronger, Better” difficult. The social ideal that ad envisions begins to
seem gravely suspect, with its almost-all white faces and idyllic settings, staged
to stand in for a vast, heterogeneous, and complex country. Whom did this neat vision erase? After seeing the incredible racial and ethnic
and social diversity on display during the riots, the complex social weave that
laced and bound the city of Los Angeles to itself, it was more possible to ask
this question, and to think more forcefully about how Reagan’s ideal was both a
mirage and a reduction of what we are. After
the riot of images, the conservative movement itself was made more visible as
something that did not speak for the nation as a whole, but for segments who
yearned nostalgically for a nation in which the rest of America did not, and
might again not, figure. After the
riots, it was less easy to claim that there was only one America. In many ways,
the riots were the first major historical event of the post-Reagan era to cast
doubt on the confidence that the choices being made regarding the well-being of
the country were leading inexorably to greater social harmony. It would not be
the last.

Consider a final set of images: planes flying into buildings, the amateurish videos, the chaos
in the streets, the sharp tang of negative emotions, the unnerving sense of
lost control. At first glance, 9/11 may not
seem comparable to the riots. This is
partly because it has for the most part been successfully narrated as a story
about heroism, action conquering grief, and a call to nationalism. As a result, its major anniversaries, unlike the riots’, have become a time to
affirm what is admirable about this country -- and to brush aside reminders of the
wars fought abroad, the civil liberties suspended at home, and the vulnerable
populations targeted for special scrutiny that also occurred in its wake. Nevertheless, similarities continue to linger
that make comparisons worthwhile: For most of us, the experience of 9/11 was
mediated by a riot of images which, like the videotape of Rodney King being
beaten, keep whispering to us that the future is not
what had been promised.


from a talk given at Pomona College, April 24, 2012.

* * *

Min Hyoung Song teaches
English at Boston College, and is the author of Strange Future: Pessimism
and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots
. He's just finished a new book
The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian
American, out next spring.



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History seems to hold so many valuable clues to upcoming trouble and act as a level of experience to lay back on. The rise of the Nazis, being led into wars with information that is later found to be false or vastly incorrect and pack mentality. However, if we do not teach the next generation the failures and mistakes we have seen in the history of our planet, they can not possibly learn from them. This is very dangerous, but we have seen it happen time and time again. Nixon was voted in after it was revealed what an unstable choice he was. With a short attention span, we tend to forget what happened and walk headlong into disaster time and time again. Do our votes even count any more? Does anyone even care? When I talk to people, they do not seem to care about the state of the country or learning lessons from the past. They simply close their eyes. Asking questions is dangerous, especially when the answers are extremely valuable.
a thoughtful piece that i hope will be widely read and considered. one note: the name of the slain young man is edward song lee.