Rodney King for a Day

Riots and the rise of the Southern California SUV culture

Scarcely anybody goes off-roading in them. They aren't all that practical for daily use. They're not very safe: an estimated 70,000 of them will be involved in rollover accidents this year. I suspect that, even if subconsciously, people started buying SUVs as their get-away-from-Negroes vehicle.

Over the sidewalk curb, over bodies if need be, skidding down the ice-plant slick freeway embankment, and just drive on the shoulder until you reach Utah. That's why you bought an SUV. Loading up at Home Depot is just a bonus.

Take a good look at the menacing grills of many SUVs: they are designed to intimidate. They don't share the road but bully their way through. According to PBS' Frontline, a Ford Explorer is 16 times as likely to kill the occupants of the other vehicle in an accident as is a conventional car. My stepdad thought the highway was the great equalizer, where, no matter how rich or poor, everyone had an equal chance to be a jackass behind the wheel. But SUVs have brought class warfare to the road, since the only people who can afford them are professionals and gangbangers, who also recognize the value of a good get-away-from-Negroes-mobile.

My point is that, lumbering down the road, windows rolled up in the air-conditioned comfort of your hulking Ford Death Cocoon, you are probably not adding to the cultural richness that should be bringing us together. It is virtually the symbolic antithesis of that.

There is more oversight on police now—a bit—and that great black spokesman Alan Keyes has a TV show, but has much else changed since 1992, aside from our economy becoming even more stratified, with the rich ever richer and the poor poorer? (I'm still touched by the entrepreneurial spirit I saw in two young men working a corner when I ventured into LA a couple of weeks after the riots, selling T-shirts reading, "I spent five days rioting and looting, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.")

Rodney King is probably not the man you would choose to represent mankind's nobler instincts, but he did have one golden moment, his "Can't we all just get along?" one. Maybe his lawyer fed him the line, maybe it just sprang from his mouth, but you could hear in his voice that the horrors done in his name were breaking his heart.

The other beacon was Reginald Denny. Pulled from his truck and beaten by black rioters with a brick before being rescued by other blacks, Denny had the heart to forgive his attackers.

You can see the paroxysms of Los Angeles in 1992 played out on the larger stage today, in the seemingly unquenchable hatreds of the Middle East, in the savagery of Sept. 11 and our response to it. But where on that stage is there a leader with even the momentary wisdom of professional screw-up Rodney King or the grace of gravel-truck driver Denny? Sorry—they're off drilling for oil to power our SUVs and fuel the fire next time.

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