A state of emergency was declared in Los Angeles last night. Two thousand reservists from the National Guard were standing by in barracks after they were mobilised by California’s Governor, Mr Pete Wilson.
Freeways were closed, planes to the international airport were diverted because of smoke and heat from the fires, and motorists have been warned to stay away. Schools will be shut today and a curfew is likely.
In Washington, President Bush promised to review the possibility of legal action over the acquittals, and issued «an appeal for calm and reason in the community».
«The court system has worked and what’s needed now is calm and respect for the law until the appeals process takes place,» he said.
A national political debate must surely follow the riots, which began about 6 pm, three hours after the acquittal of the four white police officers.
The officers had pleaded not guilty to beating a black motorist, Mr Rodney King, in March last year. The assault was filmed by a bystander and his 81-second video, showing 58 blows or kicks, was televised around the world. One officer may have to stand trial again on a lesser charge over which the jury could not agree.
By the early hours of this morning the riots had left 11 people dead and more than 170 with injuries. It was unclear whether the disturbances would be contained without even more severe blood-shed.
Early last night, drivers were dragged at random from their vehicles and beaten. Television showed a white truck driver who knelt for what seemed an eternity semi-conscious, as a bystander kicked him in the head for no apparent reason. The driver Is now in serious condition in hospital.
Early this morning, police, fire fighters and other emergency services were still trying to cope with damage and destruction as the fires raged, some for entire blocks. The LA fire chief admitted at midnight that he was actually seeing blazes on television that had not been officially reported to his department.
There were widespread reports of looting, especially in the south central district, the area where LA’s poor blacks and Hispanics live, many unemployed and living In substandard housing. Rioting, vandalism and arson created havoc in the blacked-out city centre. The south-western suburbs towards the beach and Santa Monica were also hit by fires.
Whites and Hispanics participated in the rampage as well as blacks.
Some commentators made comparisons with the 1965 Watts riots, but those lasted for five days and 35 people died. If last night’s riots were not as severe, the perpetrators were much better armed.
Often, firemen could not approach blazes because bystanders threw bricks, and snipers fired automatic rifles at them. One fire fighter was in hospital after being shot in the cheek. The bullet entered his neck and he was having emergency surgery. Snipers also shot at helicopters, but without hitting them.
Black leaders in Los Angeles had pleaded for restraint in the event of an acquittal in the case. But a meeting soon after the verdict at a black church attended by LA’s black mayor, Mr Tom Bradley, soon made it apparent that anger ran too deep.
The «peace» descended into an acrimonious shouting match, with preachers’ pleas for a tranquil attitude drowned out by angry shouts that turning the other cheek was futile.
Mr Bradley was booed, and a middle-aged woman shouted at him: «This is a conservative, honky, mean, white town, and you’ve got to know that.»
Unemployment among blacks has worsened in the past decade, with their jobs disappearing or moving abroad, with nothing done to help their homelessness and increasing misery. The LA police have long been regarded as a hostile army of occupation among racial minorities here.
Some looters smashed shop windows with their cars, filling the boots with merchandise, and then using newspapers doused in petrol to set fire to the emptied stores. Bottle shops, electronics, clothes and furniture stores were systematically looted, many in black neighbourhoods only built up since 1965.
But uncontrollable young people of all races attacked banks In the city, set fire to the town hall, overturned police cars, smashed windows at the ‘Los Angeles Times’ and a newsagency and be-sieged police headquarters. Among these troublemakers were activists with loud hailers directing tactics, reported to be from extreme-left parties.
One gun attack was launched against the police station from which the policemen who beat Mr King came. A sniper was arrested. Some acts of arson seemed particularly inexplicable. The south central headquarters of Mark Ridley-Thomas, a recently elected leftist black city councillor, who had opened it to give a voice to his black constituents, was razed.
Community leaders throughout the evening exhorted rampagers to go home and express their «righteous» anger via «the system». Unfortunately many of those who took to the streets of Los Angeles have believed for some time that the system has failed.
The US Justice Department announced today that a federal investigation will be undertaken to see if anyone’s civil rights have been violated.
In a statement, the Assistant Attorney-General for Civil Rights, Mr John Dunne, said Justice Department officials «will now undertake a review of this incident to determine what, if any, action may be taken under federal civil rights laws».
A civil rights prosecution of the officers could be brought with the approval of the attorney-general if federal authorities decide the handling of the case by local authorities did not produce a just result.
Justice Department officials were frustrated by the fact that the Los Angeles prosecutor who tried the case lacked experience in cases involving police brutality, said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A Case of seeing no evil
The jury that brought in the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers on all main charges in the Rodney King beating case decided to defend “the thin blue line separating the law-abiding” from criminals.
This was the clear message left with them by counsel for Laurence Powell, 29, the officer who administered most of the blow, and then laughed about it afterwards. His lawyer, Michael Stone, had talked emotionally of the thin blue line in his final address, leaving the jury in no doubt that there was no “middle ground” in the case.
The result of their verdict, one clearly based on political rather than legal considerations, was to plunge America’s second largest city into violence.
Rodney King, an unemployed black labourer, was the subject of the now infamous beating that was filmed by a bystander and shown on television worldwide last year. It lasted for 81 seconds and showed Mr. King prone, receiving 58 blows from batons or boots. He suffered five facial fractures, a broken leg, and had 21 stitches. He was not charged with any offences.
One sergeant and three white officers were accused of assault with a deadly weapon, using unnecessary force, and abusing their authority.
The hearing took a year to mount and lasted seven weeks. The jury deliberated for seven days. In a key move, the trial took place in the north Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley, a mainly white community and home of many LA police officers.
The jury, six men and six women, contained no blacks and only a Filipino and a Hispanic to represent non-whites. However, the prosecutor, himself black, agreed to this after all the potential jurors had been closely screened.
Essentially the officers pleaded the “Eichmann defence” (named after Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official executed for sending thousands of Jews to their deaths).
They contended that they were only carrying out orders, using the «managed force» as the Los Angeles Police Department calls its policy of permitting beatings of suspects.
This was backed up by senior officers, and only one superior, Commander Michael Bostic, dis-agreed. He pointed to five occasions during the video footage when officers could have ceased the beating and handcuffed Mr King. But having given the jury the loophole of «official policy», technicalities could now take priority.
One such technicality was that beating about the head was forbidden. Mr King clearly had head injuries. As no medical evidence could be pinned down unequivocally that batons caused those injuries, and through, the «blue code» in which officers never incriminate each other, It was suggested that Mr King hit his head on the ground.
Elements of racism were simply ignored. Despite jokes on the police radio about the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ in relation to a black domestic dispute, despite Mr Powell’s recorded laughter after the beating, despite bad jokes at Mr King’s expense at the hospital, despite Mr Powell calling Mr King «an animal», despite all this, the jury chose to reject any idea that race played a part.
Even as he awaited the verdict, Mr Powell, the chief protagonist in the case and the defendant with the most aggressive counsel, denied that Mr King was a victim. «He is a civil lawyer’s client (a reference to his SUS58 million suit against the city) and a political puppet,» he declared. Again, Rodney King’s humanity was denied.
Was it a mistake not to put him on the witness stand? Perhaps. The prosecutor, Mr Terry White, told the jury that as Mr King was intoxicated and severely beaten, his memory of the events was not clear. There is also the fact that Mr King was a convicted felon on parole, but Mr White did not want the jury to know that.
Officers claimed they thought Mr King had been taking PCP, a drug with a mythical reputation inside the LA Police Department, with claims that it grants its users «superhuman strength», as officers testified. The prosecution presented no expert to refute this, or to deal realistically with the exaggerated and wondrous tales about the drug.
But given their astonishing indifference to one of the first crimes in legal history to be filmed in progress, court testimony needed only to give the jury an excuse to acquit. They said they «did their best» and in political terms, on behalf of a society traumatised by race and near-hysteria over crime, they certainly did.