"It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubborness of the inorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed." - Albert Einstein

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I aspire to a stubbornly incorrigible nonconformity. The degree to which I have achieved my aspiration I leave in the capable hands of those whose wisdom and humilty exceed my own.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Can't We Just All Get Along

It was today, April 29, in 1992 that rioting erupted in Los Angeles following the acquital of any wrongdoing of the four Los Angeles police officers who savagely beat an unarmed African-American motorist.

On the evening of March 3, 1991, Rodney King was driving his automobile when a California Highway Patrol officer signaled him to pull over. Mr. King, who subsequently admitted that he had been drinking, fled and a high-speed chase ensued. Los Angeles Police eventually pulled Mr. King over. After King got out of his car, four officers—Stacey C. Koon, Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind, and Theodore J. Briseno— kicked King and hit him with their batons more than fifty times while he struggled on the ground.

Likely, nothing more would have been known about this and Rodney King's name would be unfamiliar to everyone, except that an amateur photographer, George Holliday, videotaped eighty-one seconds of the beating. The videotape was shown repeatedly on national television demonstrating the daily reality of police brutality for people of color and almost unknown to the white, priviedged, and/or affluent.

Koon, Powell, Wind, and Briseno were charged with assault with a deadly weapon, excessive use of force, and filing a false police report. The trial was moved to Simi Valley and the jury was seated - ten whites, one Filipion-American, and one Hispanic. On April 29, 1992 the jury found the four police officers not guilty on ten of the eleven counts and could not come to an agreement on the other count.

Understandable outrage and protest turned to violence in South-Central Los Angeles, erupting first at the intersection of Florence Boulevard and Normandie Avenue.

Freeways and surface streets were blocked and random motorists were beaten. A news helicopter filmed truck driver Reginald Denny being dragged from the cab of his truck and savagely beaten almost to death. Business were looted and burned.

Los Angeles police were slow to respond, and then Governor Pete Wilson deployed the national guard at the request of Mayor Tom Bradley. A citywide curfew was declared.

On May 1, President George Bush ordered military troops and riot-trained federal officers to Los Angeles and by the end of the next day the city was under control.

The three days of disorder killed 55 people, injured almost 2,000, led to 7,000 arrests, and caused nearly $1 billion in property damage, including the burnings of nearly 4,000 buildings.

It was during this period of rioting that Rodney King, being interviewed on television news, posed his now famous question when he tearfully asked, "Can't we just all get along?"

I was living in San Diego at the time managing a shelter for homeless teenagers. I remember that night so vividly because all throughout Southern California sympathetic riots were also erupting. I remember how vigilant and expectant we were that violent protests were likely to begin. I had known for many years how oppressive and abusive San Diego Police were towards people of color and the homeless. Remarkably, it was a quiet night. This was due in large part to the calm, reassuring voices of community leaders, notably African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, calling for restraint and a begin to healing.

That experience left a profound effect on me of the tremendous power of the right words at the right time. Power to provoke violence and the power to provoke healing.

I think that it is good for us to remember this. I think that it is especially good for us to remember this because we have a President, Vice-President, Attorney General of the United States, presidential advisors and cabinet members, many other elected officials, and numerous celebrities who clearly do not understand this. What we say and what we do has a powerful capacity to create or to destroy and to define our world and our place in it.

In the last several years the United States has cultivated significantly more destruction than construction. Our place in the world, in many eyes, has been defined in terms that embarasses and shames me. President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, and the administration for which they are responsible, has deliberately and intentionally pursued a path of ego centric nationalism that has caused much destruction. They have not seized opportunities to genuinely pursue a path that is contructive.

And oh, by the way ...

In August 1992 a federal grand jury indicted the four officers for violating King's civil rights. Koon was charged with depriving King of due process of law by failing to restrain the other officers. The other three officers were charged with violating King's right against unreasonable search and seizure because they had used unreasonable force during the arrest.

At the federal trial, which was held in Los Angeles, the jury was more racially diverse than the one at Simi Valley. On April 17, 1993, the jury convicted officers Koon and Powell of violating King's civil rights but acquitted Wind and Briseno. Koon and Powell were sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

King filed a civil lawsuit against the police officers and the city of Los Angeles. After settlement talks broke down, the case went to trial in early 1994. On April 19, 1994, the jury awarded King $3.8 million in compensatory damages. However, the jury refused to award King punitive damages. In July 1994 the city of Los Angeles struck a deal whereby King agreed to drop any plans to appeal the jury's verdict on punitive damages. In return, the city of Los Angeles agreed to expedite payment of King's compensatory damages.

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