Rodney King for a Day

Riots and the rise of the Southern California SUV culture

Photo by Thomas Van DoRodney King was—and possibly remains—a piece of crap. He was convicted in 1987 for beating his wife, convicted in 1989 for robbing a convenience store with a tire iron, and speeding on city streets at 115 miles per hour on the night of his beating. Post-beating, he has taken full advantage of his get-out-of-jail-free card: picking up hookers, racking up DUIs, crashing cars, being arrested for assault on his wife and daughter, for indecent exposure, for being under the influence of PCP.

But on March 3, 1991, he was beaten for the crime of being black and powerless.

What was the jury thinking, the whitish one that let his uniformed torturers go 10 years ago this week? Were they suffering from video fatigue? After hundreds of viewings, after seeing that hail of baton blows on King's handcuffed, prostrate body in slow motion, blown up and shown frame by frame, did the footage become just an eerie form of performance art to them, leeched of immediacy and feeling? Will a jury someday feel the same watching the World Trade Center footage?

To the whites seeing it on their home TVs, the video may have been a revelation. To blacks, it was business as usual, the only difference being that this time there was a camera running to back up their side of the story.

It was Lenny Bruce who pointed out the wisdom of our Bill of Rights: that those rights aren't there to protect criminals; they're there to protect us against our authorities becoming criminals. Some of us have the luxury of worrying about runaway power in Washington, D.C. Persons who live closer to the street have the more immediate worry of power running rampant on the street.

I don't envy cops their jobs for one minute. Day in, day out they get to deal with the worst of humanity: sociopaths, liars, losers, wife-beaters, murderers. Sometimes they get shot at. Sometimes they have to shoot. One of the first things people learn to do on a battlefield is to dehumanize the enemy, and if most of the people facing you on your particular battlefield are black, there you go. It's going to take more than laws to fix all that's wrong in that.

But the law should at least be some protection. And when, day in, day out, you see the law working against people of your color; when it's not just what's done against your people out of sight that goes unpunished but also when the whole world sees it, I can understand how the anger might boil over.

I was enjoying a bowl of gumbo when black Los Angeles did indeed boil over for five days in April 1992. I was in New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival, possibly a less comfortable vantage than folks at home in OC had. In 1965, we could see the smoke and flames of the Watts riots from my Buena Park carport roof, but there was never any question that the rioting was going to spread to Orange County. It was the same deal 27 years later. It was an occasion for gun nuts to oil up their collections, but no one seriously expected Mission Viejo to go up in flames.

New Orleans was another matter. There were riots in several U.S. cities following the King verdict, and few places seemed as primed for mayhem as the Crescent City, where the economic and social disparities between the races are stark. When rich whites want to build a Superdome or casino down there, you know a black community will be bulldozed to make way for it. You can still see Congo Square, where slaves were sold. A white cabbie once refused to drive friends and me to a black nightclub, explaining to us Californians, "Our animals ain't like your animals."

The New Orleans police were primed for anarchy. The town was sweltering. We were staying in a not-quite-gentrified warehouse district, butting up against dilapidated public housing, where not everyone greeted us with a smile. So as LA burned on the tube, the heat from the flames felt pretty damn palpable.

But New Orleans didn't erupt, and I feel pretty sure that the reasons were the same ones we'd gone down there to begin with: the food and the music. As racist as New Orleans still is in many ways, there is so much shared culture, so much marvelous cross-pollination on bandstands and stovetops, that it was enough to hold things together. There was plenty of anger in the air. Even the peace-and-love Neville Brothers' Cyril Neville was shaking his fist and barking, "Next time, the fi-yah!" into his microphone. But the air was also filled with music and gumbo scent, and those ephemeral things were enough to warrant putting the fi-yah off until next time.

In the decade since the riots, one would have hoped there would be similar cultural glues bonding Southern Californians. Instead, people bought SUVs.

The sales statistics don't exactly yield a smoking gun, but I've always traced the rise of the sport utility vehicle to the King-verdict riots. Annual sales of SUVs were 3.3 times higher at the end of the '90s than they were in 1991. There are now fewer cars sold in the U.S. than light trucks, with almost all of that shift due to SUV sales.

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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