Watching It Burn Again

Los Angeles was supposed to be nice – beaches and sunshine and the big stars up in Hollywood, and Malibu and the surfers just a few minutes up the coast. Everyone was tanned and pretty, and loose and relaxed and creative. The job in aerospace was cool too, even if it was just in Human Resources – others made the spy satellites and missile guidance systems and such. At least the office was just right, high up, with a wall of windows that looked out over the LAX runways and then all the way to downtown and beyond. Imperial Highway was right outside the door. Randy Newman, who grew up in Pacific Palisades and who had three uncles who were famous Hollywood film-score composers – Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman and Emil Newman – and who went on the win his own Oscars for his film scores – wrote his paean to Los Angeles back in 1983 – I Love LA – and it mentions Imperial Highway:

Rollin’ down the Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north
And we was born to ride…

It was supposed to be like that, and it was (she was blond, actually) but Randy Newman, being who he is, also added this:

Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like ’em nowhere…

There were things you saw, but didn’t really see, and you moved on, but at that office window, on Thursday, April 30, 1992, we all stopped working and looked out over Imperial Highway and the runway and watched Los Angeles burning. The scattered columns of smoke rose in the distance, all over the city, out to the mountains.

That was the second day of the massive Los Angeles riots – the largest riots since the sixties, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the death toll was fifty-three, the worst death toll since the New York City draft riots way back in 1863, not that anyone remembers those. These lasted six days, with about a billion dollars of damage done to everything. Koreatown went up in flames. Even shops here on Hollywood Boulevard were looted and burned – many of them still have metal roll-up security doors than rattle down each night, in case something like that ever happens again.

We watched from the office window down at the airport. A young African-American computer programmer said she was ashamed for her people. A white guy said he was ashamed for the human race. Management sent us home early, if you could be home. That night, Bill Cosby spoke on the NBC affiliate out here, KNBC, and asked people to stop what the hell they were doing and watch the final episode of The Cosby Show instead. He’s a strange dude, and seems even stranger now as it may be that he was a serial rapist all along, but back then he was trying to be helpful – or he was worried about his ratings.

That didn’t help:

The third day was punctuated by live footage of Rodney King at an impromptu news conference in front of his lawyer’s Los Angeles offices on Wilshire & Doheny, tearfully saying, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” That morning, at 1:00 am, California Governor Pete Wilson had requested federal assistance, but it was not ready until Saturday, by which time the rioting and looting was under control. The 40th Infantry Division (doubled to 4,000 troops) continued to move into the city in Humvees, eventually seeing 10,000 Army National Guard troops activated. Additionally, a varied contingent of 1,700 federal law-enforcement officers from different agencies from across the state began to arrive, to protect federal facilities and assist local police. As darkness fell, the main riot area was further hit by a power cut.

Friday evening, U.S. President George H. W. Bush addressed the country, denouncing “random terror and lawlessness”, summarizing his discussions with Mayor Bradley and Governor Wilson, and outlining the federal assistance he was making available to local authorities. Citing the “urgent need to restore order” he warned that the “brutality of a mob” would not be tolerated and he would “use whatever force is necessary.”

And then it was over. Not much force was really necessary. The riots had run their course. There wasn’t much more to burn, and there was no point in burning anything anyway. Nothing was going to change. The previous year, four or five white Los Angeles Police Department officers had beaten the crap out of Rodney King, who was black, after a car chase. King had given up and was on the ground, but they kept beating him with their nightsticks, and then they kicked him around, and then beat him a bit more. It happens, but someone had caught it all on videotape and had shopped that amateur videotape to the media. Everyone out here saw those white cops beating that helpless black guy on the ground, who was just lying there half-conscious, and beating him again and again. It seemed to go on for eight or ten minutes. It didn’t, but the LAPD was still in a fix. The officers were finally brought to trial.

Ah, but then there was that change-of-venue motion. That was successful. They couldn’t have the trial downtown, in the city – the people were too outraged. They couldn’t be fair. The trial was moved out to Simi Valley, at the far end of the San Fernando Valley, where, curiously, almost all the folks were white and where a whole lot of LAPD cops had retired. Ronald Reagan is buried at his ranch in the nearby hills. On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury out there acquitted all four officers of assault, and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. Maybe one of them had gone a bit overboard, but they were deadlocked on that last charge. All four officers walked. The riots followed.

African-Americans had had just about enough of this crap. Lincoln had freed the slaves. Martin Luther King had forced the country to change the law – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been signed, sealed and delivered – but even now white cops, in a pack, could beat a single black man, who had already surrendered to them, nearly to death – and walk. Do you think that’s okay, whitey? You’ll be sorry.

In the end everyone was sorry. Much was lost in those riots and little was gained, except for a few police reforms, not quite implemented yet. Whites did, however, become more fearful, and angry that they were more fearful. Blacks saw nothing much would change. They saw that their anger, while satisfying for a week or so, made them look like thugs – or like fools who burned down their own neighborhoods. They also saw that their anger alone changed nothing.

Los Angeles hasn’t changed much, except that the cops are a bit more careful, or circumspect, and America hasn’t changed much. This time it’s Missouri:

A St. Louis County grand jury has brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, more than three months ago in nearby Ferguson.

The decision by the grand jury of nine whites and three blacks was announced Monday night by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, at a news conference packed with reporters from around the world. The killing, on a residential street in Ferguson, set off weeks of civil unrest – and a national debate – fueled by protesters’ outrage over what they called a pattern of police brutality against young black men. Mr. McCulloch said Officer Wilson had faced charges ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Darren Wilson walked, and this happened again:

Word of the decision set off a new wave of anger among hundreds who gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department. Police officers in riot gear stood in a line as demonstrators chanted and threw signs and other objects toward them as the news spread. “The system failed us again,” one woman said. In downtown Ferguson, the sound of breaking glass could be heard as crowds ran through the streets.

As the night went on, the situation grew more intense and chaotic. Bottles and rocks were thrown at police. At least one police car was burned; buildings, including a Walgreens, were on fire, and looting was reported in several businesses, including a beauty supply store and a liquor store. Law enforcement authorities deployed gas or smoke to control the crowds. Protesters blocked Interstate 44 in St. Louis in the neighborhood where another man was shot by police this fall.

Before midnight, St. Louis County police officers reported heavy automatic gunfire in the area where some of the largest protests were taking place. Flights to St. Louis Lambert International Airport were not permitted to land late Monday as a safety precaution, officials said.

Cue up George H. W. Bush in 1992:

Mayor James Knowles III of Ferguson, reached on his cellphone late Monday, said he was there and wanted to see National Guard troops, some of whom were stationed at a police command center, move to protect his city. “They’re here in the area,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re not deploying.”

Use whatever force is necessary, and cue up Rodney King:

Mr. Brown’s family issued a statement expressing sadness, but calling for peaceful protest and a campaign to require body cameras on police officers nationwide. “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” the statement said. “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”

People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?

The White House also issued its statement:

President Barack Obama is seeking to calm the mood after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on any criminal charges stemming from the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

He recognized the events in Ferguson have revealed a deep distrust between law enforcement and communities of color. Obama expressed his hope that this will lead to a broader discussion of race in America.

“This is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America,” Obama said. “There are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making this up.”

Expect a few weeks of everyone on Fox News saying that communities of color certainly are just making this up, but the outrage was real enough:

Shops were looted and burned on Ferguson’s main street. There were smoke bombs, tear gas, thrown rocks and random gunshots. In Ferguson, the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown was almost as bitter and hollow as his killing itself.

Brien Redmon, 31, stood in the cold watching a burning police car and sporadic looting after the announcement that there would be no indictments for Mr. Brown’s death at 18.

“This is not about vandalizing,” he said. “This is about fighting a police organization that doesn’t care about the lives they serve.”

Thomas Perry, 30, was equally bitter. “I support my people who are out there doing it,” he said. “For years they’ve been taking from us. We don’t care.”

The outrage was also spreading:

In New York City, a rowdy group of hundreds of protesters made its way up Seventh Avenue through Times Square, halting traffic as police officers raced on foot to keep up. “No justice, no peace,” the group yelled as cars honked and tourists snapped photos from the sidewalks.

“Everybody is frustrated,” said Hugh Jackson, 28, who just moved to New York from Atlanta and wore an American-flag-print bandanna over his mouth as he passed Carnegie Hall. Referring to a young black man killed a few days ago in Brooklyn, Mr. Jackson added that “you’re kind of numb to it at a certain point. It’s so systematic.”

In Philadelphia, a large but orderly crowd gathered downtown, singing, playing drums and chanting, “Justice for Mike Brown.”

In South Los Angeles, a crowd of protesters chanted, “From Ferguson to L.A., these killer cops have got to pay,” while about half a dozen police officers stood nearby. By 7:30 p.m., the crowd that gathered in a South Los Angeles park had dwindled to about 70 people. Chanting had given way to somber speeches.

“We’re not here to socialize. We’re here to demand justice,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor and chairwoman of the Pan-African studies department at California State University, Los Angeles.

That wasn’t much, but there are reports from other cities. At this point it’s the middle of the night just before the second day. Back in 1992, the second day was the worst day, but there is this:

Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson’s lawyers said Monday that a grand jury’s decision not to indict him in the shooting of Michael Brown showed that their client’s actions “followed the law.”

“From the onset, we have maintained and the grand jury agreed that Officer Wilson’s actions on August 9 were in accordance with the laws and regulations that govern the procedures of an officer,” Wilson’s attorneys said in a statement, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Law enforcement personnel must frequently make split-second and difficult decisions. Officer Wilson followed his training and followed the law,” they continued. “We recognize that many people will want to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. We would encourage anyone who wants to express an opinion do so in a respectful and peaceful manner.”

The man did what he was allowed to do, by law, and you have to respect that. Police work is hard, but there’s this:

Part of Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden’s reaction to the news that a St. Louis County grand jury would not indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for shooting her son Michael Brown was caught on tape.

St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who has frequently been present on the ground in Ferguson since the Aug. 9 shooting, posted a brief video of Brown’s mother’s reaction after the announcement.

“They still don’t care,” McSpadden, identified by French in his post, said – “They ain’t never gonna care.”

And there’s this:

About 200 people stood in the cold in front of the Ferguson Police Department, listening on radios as the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Robert P. McCulloch, read his statement on Monday, reality dawning that they were not going to hear what they wanted.

During Mr. McCulloch’s announcement, Mr. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and stepfather, Louis Head, stepped up onto a platform where protest leaders were standing.

“Defend himself from what!” Ms. McSpadden yelled, when Mr. McCulloch spoke of Officer Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mr. Brown, defending himself.

She bowed her head and tears started streaming down her cheeks. …

“Everybody wants me to be calm,” she said, her eyes covered with sunglasses. “You know what them bullets did to my son!”…

Mr. Head then turned and began to yell.

“Burn this down!” he repeatedly shouted, inserting an expletive.

The crowd then began to roar. Some rushed toward the fence near where the police were lined up.

They’d had enough of this crap, and it certainly was crap, as Ben Casselman explains:

Former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable. Unlike in federal court, most states, including Missouri, allow prosecutors to bring charges via a preliminary hearing in front of a judge instead of through a grand jury indictment. That means many routine cases never go before a grand jury. Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment.

“If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,” said Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Ah, but police shootings are different:

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.

Something is going on here:

There are at least three possible explanations as to why grand juries are so much less likely to indict police officers. The first is juror bias: Perhaps jurors tend to trust police officer and believe their decisions to use violence are justified, even when the evidence says otherwise. The second is prosecutorial bias: Perhaps prosecutors, who depend on police as they work on criminal cases, tend to present a less compelling case against officers, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The third possible explanation is more benign. Ordinarily, prosecutors only bring a case if they think they can get an indictment. But in high-profile cases such as police shootings, they may feel public pressure to bring charges even if they think they have a weak case.

“The prosecutor in this case didn’t really have a choice about whether he would bring this to a grand jury,” Ben Trachtenberg, a University of Missouri law professor, said of the Brown case. “It’s almost impossible to imagine a prosecutor saying the evidence is so scanty that I’m not even going to bring this before a grand jury.”

The explanations aren’t mutually exclusive.

That’s not very helpful. But consider this:

Americans are sharply divided along racial lines as to whether Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson should be charged with murder in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a new CNN/ORC poll out Monday finds.

Fifty-four percent of nonwhites – including blacks, Latinos and Asians – say Wilson should be charged with murder, while just 23% of whites agree. And 38% of whites say Wilson should be charged with no crime at all, while just 15% of nonwhites hold that position. …

Most Americans agree that Wilson should at least face some form of criminal charges, the poll finds.

But it’s not that simple:

There is broad 63% agreement that peaceful protests are justified if a grand jury doesn’t indict Wilson for murder. But a racial divide exists over whether violent protests are justified in that case, with 22% of nonwhites saying yes while 10% of whites agree.

The differences underscored the broader perceptions of prejudice among police officers.

Only 19% of whites said some or most police officers in their areas are prejudiced against blacks, while 33% of nonwhites held that opinion.

Half of all whites say that “almost none” or “none” of the police in their areas are prejudiced against blacks. Only 35% of nonwhites agreed with that view.

Half of all whites seem to live in Simi Valley, in the shadow of the Reagan ranch. This is like 1992 all over again. Stand at the office window and watch it all burn, again. Six hours have passed since the announcement. The second day begins now.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Watching It Burn Again

  1. Rick says:

    I stayed up watching until midnight my time, at which point I think only two police cars and two buildings were on fire, although it was hard to tell from the pictures if these were the same cars and buildings or new ones.

    The live coverage seemed sort of calm to me, but all the networks asked their people on the scene what they thought, and they all seemed to say everything was tense — a little surprising, but probably because they had not been fully relaying to the rest of us the threats to themselves they were getting from demonstrators, although they did hint at this stuff now and then.

    I saw one Fox reporter get cussed at when he examined three bottles of looted booze (and orange juice mixer) sitting on the sidewalk, followed immediately by a demonstrator in one of those scary Guy Fawkes masks come close to the camera, which immediately when dark. (Someone later told us that everyone was okay, that it was just that a camera cable accidentally got disconnected.) At another point, I saw someone run up behind a CNN reporter and apparently pull an earplug out of his ear, and run away. I heard one report of brick-throwing rioters yelling at a cameraman to stop shooting and then turning on him and busting up his camera with bricks. Still, nobody made a big deal out of any of all this.

    Do I have an opinion on whether Wilson should have been indicted? Strangely, not really. Maybe I’ll have a better idea after reading the published evidence, which I imagine the public will devour just as voraciously as they did the Watergate transcripts and the Starr Report in earlier eras.

    I keep hearing ABC legal reporter Dan Abrams point out that this grand jury was unlike your average grand jury, in which a prosecutor usually just shows up with a detective or two, explains the case, asks for an indictment, and everybody goes home, while this one apparently took a total of 25 hours, spread over three months, with every bit of alleged evidence they could scrape up being presented.

    The difference, I think, is crucial to the black community’s argument that when there isn’t a spotlight shining on a case, there is even less chance of justice, if that’s even possible. In truth, whether this cop felt justifiably threatened by this unarmed, six-foot four-inch “little kid” who was beating on him in his own car or not, the facts of this case may not even matter to the larger picture in Ferguson and the rest of America — which is that, for some reason, the American criminal justice system keeps treating minority Americans more harshly than it treats white ones.

    And that is what needs to somehow change.

    Rick

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