Sometimes breaking news is no surprise. The surprise is that what had to happen sooner or later did happen, as this particular moment, but we’ve been here before. Out here we remember. The office was a few hundred feet south of the main runway at LAX – and at the office window, on Thursday, April 30, 1992, we all stopped working and looked out over Imperial Highway and the runways 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 security doors that rattle down each night, in case something like this ever happens again.
We watched from the office window down at the airport. A young black computer programmer said she was ashamed for her people. A white guy said he was ashamed for his species. Management sent us home early, if you could get 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 he seems even stranger now, as it may be that he had been 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 next day there was Rodney King at an impromptu news conference in front of his lawyer’s Los Angeles offices on Wilshire and Doheny, in tears – “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”
That wasn’t going to happen. Just after midnight, Governor Pete Wilson had requested federal assistance. That wouldn’t be ready until Saturday but the wheels were turning. On Saturday the rioting and looting was under control, but the 40th Infantry Division (doubled to 4,000 troops) continued to move into the city in Humvees, and eventually 10,000 Army National Guard troops were activated – and 1,700 federal law-enforcement officers from different agencies from across the state had arrived, to protect federal facilities. Friday ended with the main riot area hit by a power failure – the lights went out.
That evening, President George H. W. Bush, the father no one remembers now, addressed the country, denouncing “random terror and lawlessness” and how there was an “urgent need to restore order” – and he warned that the “brutality of a mob” would not be tolerated. He would “use whatever force is necessary” – and some of us remembered what Malcolm X had said in 1964 – “We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.”
This wasn’t going to end well, 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 out here 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 even after all these years. 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 since then, except that the cops are now a bit more careful, or circumspect, and America hasn’t changed much. In late 2014 it was Missouri – things got nasty in Ferguson. Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager, walked. There were riots, with looting and the burning of cars and businesses and all the rest. The governor there called out the state’s National Guard – but this sort of thing happens all the time. Another unarmed black kid, or unarmed black teenager, or unarmed black man, is shot dead by a white police officer, or in Staten Island, choked to death. The officer walks, there are massive protests, and sooner or later there will be a riot. That’s the breaking news waiting to happen. We were overdue, and this time it was Baltimore:
Gov. Larry Hogan activated the National Guard on Monday and the city of Baltimore announced a curfew for all residents as a turbulent day that began with the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, the nation’s latest symbol of police brutality, ended with rioting by rock-throwing youths, widespread looting and at least 15 police officers injured.
The violence that shook the city broke out in the late afternoon in the Mondawmin neighborhood of northwest Baltimore, home to the New Shiloh Baptist Church, where more than 2,000 people – politicians, activists, White House officials and civil rights activists including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dick Gregory – had gathered for a morning of soaring Gospel music and passionate eulogies for Mr. Gray.
Hours after the service ended, angry groups of people threw bottles, rocks and chunks of concrete at officers who lined up in riot gear with shields deployed. Young men surrounded a police cruiser and smashed in its windows in what police described as an organized attack by criminals. Cars were set on fire, and store windows were shattered. A CVS drugstore was looted and set on fire. A check-cashing business was also looted. The cafe portion of the Trinacria Italian Deli, in Baltimore since 1908, was destroyed.
By evening, the unrest was spreading, and the police said at least 27 people had been arrested. At a news conference on Monday night, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew would be imposed for a week beginning on Tuesday. “Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs,” she said. The city already has a curfew for juveniles.
That sounds familiar, as does this:
The governor, at the request of the city of Baltimore, declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. Officers were also on the way from surrounding counties to back up more than 1,000 Baltimore police officers already on the streets and 82 state troopers dispatched earlier in the day.
“Today’s acts of looting and violence in Baltimore will not be tolerated,” the governor said in a statement. He condemned “direct attacks against innocent civilians, business and law enforcement officers,” adding, “there is a significant difference between protesting and violence.”
The Baltimore police vowed the authorities would take “appropriate measures” to keep officers and the neighborhood safe.
“You’re going to see tear gas. You’re going to see pepper balls. We’re going to use appropriate methods to make sure we can preserve the safety of that community,” a spokesman, Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, said at a news conference.
You’re also going to be listening to George H. W. Bush on a Friday night back in 1992, but fifteen Baltimore police officers were injured, some with broken bones, and one was unresponsive, according to the department – but no one really knew – and Obama is not Pappy Bush:
A White House official said President Obama had spoken to Ms. Rawlings-Blake and stood ready to “provide assistance as needed,” though officials were not specific.
Obama was being careful. The Baltimore police said early in the day that they had received a “credible threat” that members of the Black Guerrilla Family, and the Bloods and Crips, had “entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.” They were saying that whatever happened, it wasn’t going to be their fault. It would be those big black gorillas – the implied other spelling – but out here in Los Angeles we wonder whatever happened to the Bloods and Crips. They’re long gone. They no longer exist. Something nasty was going on here, but the Baltimore police also said that a flier circulated on social media called for a period of violence on Monday afternoon, to begin at the Mondawmin Mall and move toward City Hall downtown. All of this was pre-justification for whatever they wanted to do, and a warning. They’d be playing rough. They had to play rough – there were Bloods and Crips out there, plotting to kill them all, and black gorilla guerrillas too.
The conflict here is obvious:
Mr. Gray’s death on April 19, a week after sustaining a spinal cord injury while in police custody, has opened a deep wound in this majority-black city, where Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts – both of whom are black – have struggled to reform a police department that has a history of aggressive, sometimes brutal, treatment of black men. …
But the violence on Monday was much more devastating and profound – a blow for a city whose leaders had been hoping Mr. Gray’s funeral would show the nation its more peaceful side. At the New Shiloh Baptist Church, Mr. Gray lay in an open white coffin, in a white shirt and tie, with a pillow bearing a picture of him in a red t-shirt, against a backdrop of a blue sky and doves, with the message “Peace y’all.”
The service was much more than a celebration of Mr. Gray’s short life; it was a call for peace and justice – and for residents of Baltimore to help lead the nationwide movement for better police treatment of black men that emerged last August after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
That may never happen:
As the day went on, the mood changed. The violence appears to have begun inside the Mondawmin Mall. Erica Ellis, 23, who works in a Game Stop store there, said the mall was shut down at 2 p.m., not long after Mr. Gray’s funeral cortege left for his burial.
She said she went outside and saw a big line of police officers and hundreds of young people who started throwing rocks and bricks. But police did not respond immediately, she said. “The police officers were trying as hard as they can not to hurt the people’s children,” she said.
At the corner of North Fulton and West North Avenues, looters could be seen breaking into stores and walking out with cases of food and water while hundreds of police officers in riot gear gathered about four blocks away.
When a pair of police cruisers tried to enter the area, young men threw bottles at them. Several of the men wore surgical masks. Some carried baseball bats, others carried pipes. While several people held signs that said “Stop the war,” protesting peacefully, the rising chaos surrounded them: a broken-down BMW sat empty in the middle of the street, shards of glass from convenience store windows lay on the pavement and a young man carrying bolt cutters walked by.
Residents looked on aghast. Along North Avenue, not far from the Gilmor Homes, the public housing development where Mr. Gray was first arrested, Chris Malloy, who lives in the area and participated in Saturday’s protest march, shook his head. He said he was angry at the police and the looters – all at once.
“All they had to do was march, but they did this,” he said, sounding disgusted, as the CVS store burned nearby. “You can take stuff out of the store, but why do you have to burn it down?”
The Washington Post has more:
“Every time you come into this community you bust heads,” Ochilo Kelo, 35, said to police officers as they moved into the area of the CVS, near where Kelo lives. “And I ask you an intelligent question, and this is how you respond? With batons? Come on. I know you hear me. If we could just talk, all this would stop. This is my city. I don’t want this.”
“Eight hours of peaceful protest and all we got to show for it is a riot,” Kelo said.
Or look at it the other way:
Gray family attorney William “Bill” H. Murphy Jr. said the family was “fearful” the rioting would eclipse the investigation into Gray’s death.
“This could damage the justice we’re trying to get for Freddie,” Murphy said. “If this becomes widespread, the mood in Baltimore will shift from what went wrong with the police and Freddie to how the police are doing a great job at securing this chaos. This won’t solve the police problem. This is dangerous to the movement.”
A few did something about that:
The first group to enter the core area where the violence occurred was a group of a dozen or more religious leaders led by the Rev. Jamal Bryant, members of the Nation of Islam and students from Morgan State University. The groups of men began to engage, press back and disperse youths who had been hurling rocks in the general direction of the police.
“This is not what Baltimore stands for,” Bryant, who helped organize protests after Gray’s death, told CNN. “I am asking everyone to go home and clear the streets. This does not represent the Gray family, nor does it represent the last seven days of peaceful protesting.”
When looters broke into a cellphone store, members of a religious group chased them out and formed a wall of bodies to block the entrance.
On the other hand, there was this:
A neighbor, Darlene Dorsey, said the streets would calm if police take action against the officers involved in Gray’s arrest.
“Just arrest the police who did it and all this will stop. They are taking way too long,” Dorsey said.
And there’s the mayor:
“I’m at a loss for words,” Rawlings-Blake said. “It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city that you’re going to make life better for anybody.”
But these things happen, and Conor Friedersdorf, the senior writer for the Atlantic, who is a libertarian more than he is a conservative, suggests why they happen:
What’s crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn’t wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn’t looked.
I include myself.
Despite actively reading and commenting on police misconduct for many years, I was unaware until yesterday that the Baltimore Sun published a searing 2014 article documenting recent abuses that are national scandals in their own rights.
That 2014 article is here and Friedersdorf now sees things this way:
I join all who say that protests in Baltimore should remain peaceful, and I will continue to withhold judgment about Gray’s death until more facts are known.
But I also insist that Baltimore protests are appropriate regardless of what happened to Freddie Gray, as is more federal scrutiny and intervention. Although much was rightly made of Ferguson’s racially unrepresentative local leadership, the presence of a black mayor and a diverse city council has not solved Baltimore’s police problem, partly because the DOJ responded to revelations of epidemic brutality with less than the full-scale civil rights probe that some residents requested and because Maryland pols have thwarted reform bills urged by city leaders.
So you get things like this:
Let’s start with the money – $5.7 million is the amount the city paid to victims of brutality between 2011 and 2014. And as huge as that figure is, the more staggering number in the article is this one: “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil-rights violations.” What tiny percentage of the unjustly beaten win formal legal judgments?
If you’re imagining that they were all men in their twenties, think again.
From the Sun:
Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones – jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles – head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.
The 87-year-old grandmother was named Venus Green. A former teacher with two college degrees, she spent her retirement years as a foster parent for needy children. She was on her porch one day when her grandson ran up crying for an ambulance. He’d been shot.
From the Sun:
Paramedics and police responded to the emergency call, but the white officer became hostile. “What happened? Who shot you?” Green recalled the officer saying to her grandson, according to an 11-page letter in which she detailed the incident for her lawyer. Excerpts from the letter were included in her lawsuit. “You’re lying. You know you were shot inside that house. We ain’t going to help you because you are lying.”
“Mister, he isn’t lying,” replied Green, who had no criminal record. “He came from down that way running, calling me to call the ambulance.”
The officer, who is not identified in the lawsuit, wanted to go into the basement, but Green demanded a warrant. Her grandson kept two dogs downstairs and she feared they would attack. The officer unhooked the lock, but Green latched it. He shoved Green against the wall.
She hit the wooden floor. “Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up,” Green recalled the officer saying as he stood over her. “He pulled me up, pushed me in the dining room over the couch, put his knees in my back, twisted my arms and wrist and put handcuffs on my hands and threw me face down on the couch.”
After pulling Green to her feet, the officer told her she was under arrest. Green complained of pain. “My neck and shoulder are hurting,” Green told him. “Please take these handcuffs off.” An African-American officer then walked in the house, saw her sobbing and asked that the handcuffs be removed since Green wasn’t violent. The cuffs came off, and Green didn’t face any charges. But a broken shoulder tormented her for months.
When pondering the fact that Baltimore paid out $5.7 million in brutality settlements over four years, consider that the payout in this case was just $95,000. …
Lest anyone imagine that this investigation was the only tipoff of egregious misconduct among Baltimore police, more context is useful. The period covered in the brutality investigation came immediately after the FBI caught 51 Baltimore police officers in a scheme that resulted in at least 12 extortion convictions.
Friedersdorf has more. The Baltimore Sun has much more. This had to happen. The breaking news was that the inevitable happened, again. And no good will come of it, again.