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10 Years After the Riots | Sandy Banks

L.A. Remembers

'There is no one answer, and there is no one story'

April 28, 2002|Sandy Banks

It is not the horror of the riots, but the heartbreak of the verdicts that I remember most--the physical pain, like a blow to the chest, that crept down through my stomach, weakened my knees, made my limbs feel numb and my head dizzy.

Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.... Ten findings of innocence against four police officers on trial for the beating of Rodney King. The jury had seen the videotape of a prostrate black man being clubbed, kicked and stomped by police. But no one did anything wrong, the jury decreed.

All I could do was collapse at my desk, head pounding, legs shaking, unable to speak, trying to absorb all the verdict said to me: You don't count. A black man has no rights. The police can get away with anything.

At that moment--and just for that moment--I understood what bigots must feel when they profess to hate all black people because of something one black person did.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to look back on the verdict and the devastation it unleashed and measure with any certainty what the 1992 Los Angeles riots said about our city and its multicultural legacy; what they taught us about human nature and our own inhumanity.

The numbers tell one story: Fifty-four dead, 2,200 injured, 8,000 arrested, $1 billion in property damaged by arsonists and lost to looters during five days of rioting that began within hours of the broadcast of the verdicts on April 29.

But it is through personal recollections--in different voices, from different perspectives--that we see its imprint on our hearts and minds.

There is no one answer, and there is no one story.

On a sunny morning in Northridge, from our hilltop park along a mountain ridge, I could see a smoky haze blanketing the city's skyline miles away. But there were no fires on our suburban horizon, no boarded-up windows or gutted buildings or sidewalks heaped with sodden debris.

The only sign here of the riots, then in their fourth day, was what I brought to a child's birthday party: the lingering stench of smoke in my hair from my time spent at work in the inner city.

My daughter and I were at the park for a 3-year-old friend's birthday party. I'd grown accustomed to us being the only blacks in this crowd, but on this day I felt like a neon sign. Everyone around us seemed to be on edge. One woman I barely knew rushed to greet me with enthusiasm. Others turned awkwardly away, reluctant to meet my eyes, uncertain what to say.

Around us, knots of guests stood solemnly, murmuring about the tragedy playing itself out "over the hill," in neighborhoods few of them had ever actually visited.

I took a seat at a picnic table, near two women I didn't know. They were so deep in conversation, they didn't even notice me. "It's such a shame what's happening," said one, shaking her blond ponytail, eyebrows knitted earnestly. "It almost makes you wish that videotape had never been made."

It took a moment for her words to register with me: If only that videotape had never been made.

She didn't wish Rodney King had just been arrested and not savagely beaten.

She didn't wish that justice had been done in Simi Valley and the policemen who beat him had been convicted.

She just wished that the beating had not been caught on film, its ugly reality not shoved down our throats, forcing us to confront what we'd prefer not to know. We could have avoided this messy, inconvenient riot if only the police had been allowed to terrorize King in secrecy.

Hers was a sentiment I could never have uttered, a thought that would never have occurred to me. I do not have the luxury to presume that what happened to King had nothing to do with me. Too many black men I love--brothers, fathers, husbands, friends--have been harassed at gunpoint, poked with nightsticks, spread-eagled on the streets by overzealous police. Rodney King, ne'er-do-well though he was, had become Everyman to me.

And when King tried to quell the riots with his pitiful, plaintive "Can we all get along?" plea, I wanted to say, yes, we probably can, but only if some of us agree to bear injustice privately.

At least this time the world was listening. It hadn't been that way the year before, when the black community was rocked by the killing of Latasha Harlins and the judicial absolution of Soon Ja Du.

Latasha, 15, was shot to death shortly after the King beating. There was a videotape in that case too. It showed the black teenager and the Korean grocer arguing over a $1.79 bottle of juice. Latasha threw a punch, Du threw a chair, Latasha put the bottle down and turned to leave. Then, Du pulled a gun from under the counter and shot the girl in the back of the head. Du claimed Latasha was trying to steal the juice, but the videotape showed her approaching the counter with the bottle in her backpack and $2 in her hand.

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