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Festival of Books: On the Los Angeles riots, 20 years later

April 22, 2012 |  2:30 pm

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

In a lot of ways, Sunday's Festival of Books panel "Los Angeles, 20 Years After the Verdict," was a sequel to Saturday's interview by Patt Morrison with Rodney King, whose beating by L.A. police officers 21 years ago was the first in a series of steps that culminated in the 1992 riots.

And in another sense, the panel was a reunion for some of the players in that tragic moment in Los Angeles history.

Moderator Warren Olney, now a KCRW radio host, was a Los Angeles TV reporter at the time. He was joined by Jim Newton, L.A. Times columnist and editor at large, who was covering the Los Angeles Police Department for the L.A. Times when the riots began. 

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

Connie Rice was a civil rights activist and lawyer, and later a co-founder of The Advancement Project, and the recent author of "Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman's Quest for Social Justice in America, From the Kill Zones to the Courts." The fourth panelist was Gil Garcetti, who at the time was mounting a campaign for Los Angeles County district attorney.

Most of the discussion was given over to the underlying causes of the riots, with a bright spotlight focused on the culture of the LAPD at the time. Most people have forgotten, Garcetti said, that the King beating followed the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Korean American shop owner Soon Ja Du, who was sentenced to probation.

"There was just outrage within the community," Garcetti said, adding that the LAPD should have read the signals. "If you had any kind of community policing, if you had any kind of contact from the top through the captains, you would have the ear out, and understanding there is the potential [for riots] if we're going to have a not guilty verdict. And who wouldn't have expected a not guilty verdict?"

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

The probation sentence plowed the ground for the reaction to the King verdict.

"What was on the African American radio was, 'Kill a dog, you get six months. Kill a black teenager, you can go free,' " Rice said. "That's on top of 25 years of LAPD policing with such an openly hostile, occupying, emasculating way."

The riots, she said, grew "from the total emasculation and humiliation of an entire community."

Newton recalled being inside the police headquarters as the verdict was announced and witnessing the growing crowd and anger outside -- and the lack of preparation by the LAPD for what seemed like a predictable reaction by an angry community.

As the police watched from inside, the crowd began pelting windows with rocks and debris. Police Chief Daryl Gates, Newton recalled, was at a fundraiser to stave off political efforts at police reforms. "In fairness to those officers, they were quite paralyzed by the lack of command," he said. "They were concerned about engaging with the crowd that was, after all, so angry at them. They were concerned that if they engaged in a violent way, it would just multiply."

The LAPD has changed since then, panelists agreed, and the open racism of the white-dominated force has disappeared as the department has become more integrated. But more works needs to be done.

"That doesn't mean we changed the DNA of the LAPD culture," Rice said. "We are on the road to changing the DNA, but it's going to take another 10 years."

A key change yet to come: Policing policies built around "suppression and containment" of crime in poor neighborhoods. "You keep certain neighborhoods safe, but you keep poor neighborhoods contained," she said. "Until we change that ... the cops are always going to get caught in bad situations."


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-- Scott Martelle is an Irvine-based writer and author of Detroit: A Biography

Photo: Gil Garcetti, from left, Connie Rice, Warren Olney and Jim Newton discuss the 1992 L.A. riots at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Sunday. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times