Jewish World Review March 10, 1999 /22 Adar 5759
Rodney King in perspective
RODNEY KING HAS BEEN ARRESTED for the seventh time since his notorious
beating in 1991. The Los Angeles Times reports that he was arraigned on
charges of domestic violence against his 16-year-old daughter and her
mother. His most serious crime involved a conviction for hitting his
estranged wife with a car and then leaving the scene in 1995.
King's resurfacing coincides with an extremely illuminating video that
aired recently on the Learning Channel and is available through Films for
the Humanities and the Sciences (1-800-257-5126, $34.95 for individuals).
"The Rodney King Incident: Race and Justice in America" takes advantage of
the passage of time and new evidence to reflect on the role of the police,
the media, the courts and the federal government in this searing national
As one of the lawyers in the case explains on this videotape, "Everyone
thinks they know what happened that night. They saw it with their own eyes.
But they don't know."
I must confess that I myself was in that category. After viewing the video
of King's beating (which was broadcast more often on American television
than any other video in history with the exception of the assassination of
President Kennedy), I wrote an irate column calling the officers involved
"criminals" and condemning the Los Angeles Police Department for harboring
The truth is more complicated. There were three people in King's car that
night. After the 8-mile high-speed chase on which King led the California
Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles police, a CHP officer demanded that
everyone get out of the car with his hands on his head. King's passengers
did as they were told. King, for reasons that remain mysterious, refused to
comply and did not speak intelligibly to the officer. An ex-con on
probation, King certainly knew the arrest drill. He says he smoked dope and
drank malt liquor that night. The police were convinced that he was high on
The whole world thinks that the police next engaged in an orgy of violence.
But that is because the first 13 seconds of the tape -- which showed King
charging at Officer Laurence Powell -- were edited out. The first jury saw
the whole tape.
King simply would not get down. The police accordingly escalated their
violence. They attempted a maneuver called the swarm, in which four officers
would overcome King. He was able to throw them off. Sgt. Stacey Koon, the
officer in charge, next attempted to subdue King with a Taser. It had no
effect. Frightened now of this large and seemingly preternaturally strong
suspect, the officers began to hit him with their batons, all the while
shouting for him to get down on the ground. King continued to stay up on all
fours. Powell told the first jury that he feared King was going to wrest his
gun away from him, leading to a shooting.
The final seconds of the Rodney King beating tape do suggest excessive
force. Ironically, it was Officer Ted Briseno, who turned on his fellow
defendants at the first trial, who administered the first unnecessary blow
after King had submitted.
That is only one of the many ironies this story yields. The tale of the
second trial, the federal trial, which followed the riots, reveals federal
prosecutors who were determined to make this a racial case (which the black
district attorney in the first trial did not) and accordingly coached King
to testify that racial epithets had been hurled that night. King testified
that he couldn't recall but that he thought they had called him "killer" or
Stacey Koon, who served 20 months in prison and survived an assassination
attempt, knows that "Somebody had to serve as a scapegoat." But as this film
makes clear, it was the news stations' irresponsible editing of the
videotape combined with their inflammatory decisions to run it so very often
that created the charged climate that eventually made justice impossible and
helped set the stage for the O.J. Simpson trial.
No one emerges unsullied in this tale, not L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates,
not President George Bush, not the officers and not Rodney King. Still, it's
important to grasp the truth, even if it's too late to prevent the
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©1999, Creators Syndicate