Eazy-E, the controversial Los Angeles rapper once accused of advocating violence against police officers, confirms that he believes in the innocence of one of the four officers on trial in the Rodney King case--shocking some members of the rap community.
"What the cops did to Rodney King was wrong and the officers who beat him should be sent straight to prison," said Eazy-E, in his first formal interview since he began attending the trial almost daily. "I went to the trial to support Rodney King and because I'm curious.
"The difference is that most people look at the video and say four white officers were responsible for the beating of this helpless, innocent black man. I say, 'Wrong.' Three white officers were responsible for beating Rodney King. The other officer (Theodore J. Briseno) happens to be Mexican-American, and he tried to stop them."
Questions about Eazy-E's role have been raised since he began attending the trial two weeks ago, frequently standing next to Briseno. But the issue escalated last Friday when The Times printed a front-page photo of Eazy-E with Briseno, identifying the rapper as a "supporter."
"Eazy-E is a sellout," said Houston rapper Willie D, a former member of the best-selling Geto Boys.
"He got everybody all riled up about police injustice with (N.W.A.'s 1988 song) 'F--- tha Police,' but evidently he wasn't sincere. I guess maybe he should have called that song 'F--- Bein' Broke,' because that's all Eazy-E seems to care about. He ain't about nothin but money."
One key East Coast rap journalist who asked not to be identified said, "It takes guts for Eazy to stand up for what he believes in. But the general feeling in the rap community is that any hint of support for these cops is wrong."
Eazy-E (real name Eric Wright), founder of the rap group N.W.A. and president of the Hollywood-based Ruthless Records, said he was introduced to the officer two weeks before at the courthouse by Briseno's attorney Harland W. Braun, who also does legal work for the rapper.
"It was the first time I ever met the man, and all of a sudden everybody in the media starts spouting off about how Eazy-E supports Briseno," said Wright, 25, a self-professed ex-gangster and former drug dealer. "All I ever said to the press was that out of the four, he was the only one I saw who was trying to stop the beating.
"I never said I came down to the court to support him. I came down to watch the trial because this case is about police brutality, and anybody who knows anything about me knows (how I feel about) police brutality."
Four years ago, N.W.A.'s record company--Hollywood-based Priority Records--received a letter from an FBI official claiming that the Compton quartet's music incited violence against police officers.
"These people who are criticizing me don't have a clue as to what's going on," Wright said. Referring to the anti-police sentiments on the group's controversial 1988 "Straight Outta Compton" album, Eazy-E said the anger "wasn't about all cops. We were talking about bad cops who pull you over and harass you for nothing and do crooked stuff to you. There are bad ones and there are good ones. I still think the same way I did then. The bad ones ought to be sent to prison."
Briseno and officers Lawrence M. Powell and Timothy E. Wind are charged with intentionally violating King's civil rights by stomping, kicking or striking him with batons during a March 13, 1991, videotaped incident. A fourth defendant, Stacey C. Koon, the senior officer at the scene, is accused in the federal civil rights case of allowing officers under his supervision to administer an unreasonable beating.
Briseno--who can be seen stepping on the back of King's head in the videotape--could not be reached for comment.
During last year's state trial in Simi Valley, Briseno criticized the beating of King by his fellow officers, testifying that he thought they were "out of control." Briseno maintained that he was King's defender and stepped on him only to keep him from getting up and being struck again.
Wright refused to comment on whether he thought Briseno was a good or a bad cop, but said that after watching the videotaped beating many times, he believed the officer did not mean to harm King.
"The way I figure it is if the man jumped in front of the other cops and took a couple of blows, he must have been trying to stop the beating," Wright said. "He must have had some kind of heart about what was going on. Why else would he risk getting hurt?"
Monday, the appeals court cleared the way for prosecutors to show the videotape of Briseno's testimony criticizing the beating from last year's state trail. But defense attorneys are still scrambling to block--or limit--its use.
Assuming that Briseno was trying to stop King's beating, how does Wright rationalize the officer using his boot to force King to the pavement in the video?
"Sure, I've seen that little stomp Briseno does on the video, and I'm not saying it's justified, but we don't know what it was about, do we?," Wright said. "It could have been him just trying to tell Rodney, 'Stay down, man, stay down.' Who's to know?"