Legacy of Fire: The L.A. Riots

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate and I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Rage over the videotaped beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the police responsible exploded in the Los Angeles riots in 1992. It was a moment that transformed the way many Americans view police and the justice system.

S2: Who’s going to protect our life? Like who’s accountable to the law? Then like if we have this on tape and it still doesn’t matter, then does the law actually matter? Why should we respect the law?

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S1: Looking back on the L.A. riots with slow burn host Joel Anderson coming up on a word with me Jason Johnson. Stay with us! Welcome to a World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. It’s impossible to understand the history of race and police brutality without the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the events that led up to them. Rodney King, a black motorist, was beaten and kicked by four LAPD officers after a traffic stop in the spring in 1991. But King wasn’t the first or the last black man to endure a police beating. Unlike many similar incidents in that era, though, this assault was filmed by a bystander. The tape went the 90s version of viral, and the police were arrested and charged. But months after that videotape ignited a national debate, the officers were acquitted of all charges. Hours after the verdict, the city erupted in protest and destruction that lasted for almost a week. Chaos, motherfucker K. When the smoke cleared, more than 60 people have been killed, most of them African-American. Thousands of people were arrested and there was millions of dollars worth of property damage. Decades later, Americans are still dealing with the legacy of the L.A. riots, and they’re the centerpiece of the latest season of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast. Veteran journalist Joel Anderson is the host of Slow Burn Season six, The L.A. Riots, which premiered this week, and Joel Anderson joins us now. Joel Welcome to word.

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S2: Thanks, Jason. You say veteran. That means old, but I appreciate you.

S1: Why do you think now 20 21 is a good time to revisit the L.A. riots and the Rodney King beating?

S2: Well, I will say that originally the plan wasn’t to necessarily make it you know of this moment, you know, and slow burn is a little coy. Like, you know, obviously, it parallels the events that have happened in American history with things that are going on today. But there absolutely was an element of that as we were going through America’s so-called racial reckoning following the George Floyd video. You know, this started to come up, and it has some real resonance given the last few years, from Trayvon to Alton Sterling to watch Scott. And so on. But but in truth, I’d been thinking about telling this particular story for a couple of years now, going back to when I worked on the third season of Slow Burn, which was about the deaths of Big and Tupac. And it was about how law enforcement all around the country, but particularly in L.A. and South Central L.A., just ramped up its offense against black communities that were suffering at that time. And so it obviously has. All these things tie back today, like the things that are happening today, like all you got to do is go back 30 years ago and see that a lot of the same things were going on and people were having a lot of the same concerns about police overreach, police being unaccountable for brutality, things like that. So obviously the timing is right, but I’ve been thinking about it a long time before this.

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S1: Do you have any personal memories of that time, like looking at, you know, things on the news or talking to your parents as a kid when this was happening?

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S2: I mean, I could point to a few things. I mean, the videotape of the king beating itself was really jarring to me. You know, I was 12 years old at the time, and I was aware generally of the concept of racism. And you know that maybe the police didn’t love us. You know, I was starting to listen to hip hop at that time. I was a big N.W.A. Ice Cube fan, all of that stuff. But I think that seeing that video itself was like, actually shocking to me. I think, Oh, I don’t know, the police were allowed to do that or can they do that? Are they allowed to do that to you? And so that was really striking. But then, of course, like the riots, seeing a city explode, like, I don’t think that I thought, you think as a kid that, oh, somebody is going to come in and stop this riot like that? You didn’t know that cities could explode like that. I did not live through anything at that point that was like that. And so that part of it, just seeing, you know, the chaos at Florence and Normandie, where they pulled Reginald Danny out of the car and seeing, you know, buildings, you know, totally on fire and people coming out to the street with handguns and shooting at each other, like all that sort of stuff really hit. But you know, and this is going to be a sort of a weird thing. What I remember. Strangely, the most is the season premiere of a different. I was about to say the same thing.

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S1: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, talk about that. Talk about that. Yes.

S2: Yeah. Well, that was one of my favorite shows at the time. And they start the first two episodes Duane and Whitley, the main characters on a honeymoon. And like they get stopped, their car stops and they get caught in the middle of these riots. And I just remember thinking, like, Wow,

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S1: oh my God, what happened? They just acquitted the officers that beat up Rodney King.

S3: How can was on tape, hard evidence and without solid girl only they can beat us, kill us, do whatever they want to do and get off. Just like they always had

S2: a point to see a TV show actually reflect real life, because that was always one of the concerns about, you know, one of the critiques of The Cosby Show, which was responsible for a different world. So for them to like, actually address this, I spoke to how big of a moment it was.

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S1: So in this is a slow burn. You talk to people who actually live this story that includes George Holliday, the man who filmed the king beating. Here’s a clip

S4: I saw cars coming to a stop and, you know, dust in the air and stuff and the big light from the helicopter shining down. And my first thought was, Oh, the camera. So I’m picking up the camera and lifting it up to my eyes and turning it on. And it was an autofocus camera, something that I’d never had before. So the camera’s trying to focus, and I’m trying to think it’s not focusing, but eventually it focuses on what’s going on.

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S1: What made him decide? Not only do I want to film this, but I’ve got to get it out to the world because that tape doesn’t end up in the hands of reputable press. The whole history of this country changes. What was that decision process like for him?

S2: Well, I’m going to. I’m going to. Say this, so the camera was a Valentine’s Day gift from him and his wife to each other. Right, they only use the camera once before, and that was to record some footage from Terminator two, which was filming at an old biker bar right across the street from their apartment. Right. So this is a new toy. He’s like, I want to play with this. And so he gets out on the patio, and I think it was just normal human curiosity, right? Like you hear the low flying helicopter, you see these police sirens and you see all these cops gathered around somebody. And so his curiosity? I mean, for better or worse, got the best of him and he took it out. And so the next day, he and his wife looking at what they recorded and they’re like, What the hell was that? What would it? What do we have on camera? So they go to the LAPD foothills station and they say, Hey, what happened out near our house the other night? And they’re like, We don’t have anything about that. You know, we can’t. We can’t tell you anything anyway, so they hang up. And so I mean, right then I mean, there’s a lot of directions in which the story could have gone. I mean, they could have given it to the police and everybody else spoken to cover LAPD at that time said they would have destroyed the tape, right? But they didn’t do that, but they were so undeterred. They were like, You know what? We still want to know what’s going on. And so they called KTLA, which was the biggest TV station in Southern California at the time, and they gave the tape to them. And that’s how things really took off. But I mean, really, it was just curiosity is not necessarily a sense of, you know, being a good citizen or whatever. I’m not saying that he wasn’t a good citizen, but I think it was just they were nosy and they wanted to know what they had on that camera.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back. More on slow burn season six. A look back at the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. We’re talking about slow burn season six, the L.A. Riots, the podcast debut this week. And our guest is host Joel Anderson, if you talk to people today in Los Angeles. There is a concerted effort to say the L.A. uprising instead of the L.A. riots. It’s kind of like today we’re trying to push press and public discourse to say enslaved people instead of slaves. Did you think about that when you were putting slow burn together? Like, did you think of saying the L.A. uprising? I mean, because people know what is the L.A. riots? But with that a conversation that your team had?

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S2: Oh my god, absolutely. From the very start. In fact, it goes to when I would reach out to people to talk, depending on who I thought the audience was. I’d say, Oh, I want to talk to you about the L.A. riots or I want to talk to you about the L.A. uprising. Right? But because media is what it is, this is shorthand. People are familiar with the L.A. riots, and so that’s the nomenclature we decided to use for this season. But yeah, there’s absolutely a debate to be had about whether or not it was actually a riot, which is, you know, it’s sort of a loaded term, right? Or an uprising against marginalized people who had finally were fed up with being denied justice and being told that their lives didn’t matter. So Eileen, I’m a person that leans toward uprising, right? Like, if I if I had to use that language to myself, that’s probably what I would settle on. But I understand the people that say, no, that was a riot. Like, there was a lot of like senseless chaos, senseless death, senseless destruction among some people, not everybody. Right? Like, like there’s some opportunist amongst the crowd, but at the heart of it, there was a real sense of purpose for what people were doing and getting out to the streets and saying, you know, we’ve had enough of this.

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S1: One of the most striking voices in the season is Johnny Kelly, who was a friend of Rodney King’s, and we have a clip from your conversation with him about watching the video of his friend getting beaten.

S5: Yeah, when I first saw the video, I mean, I don’t want to say what I was thinking at the time, but I thought it was screwed up. It was bad, not even knowing that it was him. I was like, They beat the out this person, you know, it was bad.

S2: And then when you found out it was Rodney, like, what did you think about it?

S5: When I found out it was Rodney? It set me on fire. We were thinking of ways of getting back at the police. You know, that’s how bad it was when, you know, when I found out it was him, we was actually kids on a suicide mission, wanted to kill police. That’s how bad it was. Yeah. And a lot of people felt that the same way that grew up in the neighborhood I grew up in when they found out it was him, you know? But during that time, it was all about revenge by killing cops.

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S1: How did you connect with Kelly? And I mean, looking at obviously, Rodney had friends and relatives. But but how did you connect with Kelly and why did you decide to include this particular friend out of all the people you could have chatted with?

S2: Johnny Kelly was one of Rodney’s best friends, and he was his bodyguard, right? So they were raised together. And then, after Rodney suffered the beating, Johnny Kelly actually lived with Rodney King and looked after him. He was hired by his attorneys to keep a look on Rodney. Because, you know, Rodney. I mean, I guess the language he would say today is he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, right? He was really messed up. And so Johnny Kelly was there with him for the whole time. And when you talk to Johnny Kelly and given what I know about Rodney King, you can understand like why they were friends. They were a couple of big brothers from, you know, Pasadena Area California. They both like fishing and they both like dirt bike. And they were really just country dudes who happen to live in L.A.. And so he was about as close as you could get to Rodney King at that time. Post-meeting, he knew him before he knew him after. And I think one of the big pieces of this story that we’ve been talking about and thinking about since this, you know, we pursued this project is like humanizing Rodney King because I thought of Rodney King is not a tragic figure, but sort of a comedic one. Like, I thought he was a joke. Growing up, you know what I mean? Like, we make fun of him in Cameo. Can we all just get along? And I saw him on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, you know, like a decade ago or whatever. And and so I just thought of him as a joke, and I’m coming back to this work. I’m like, OK, we have an opportunity to find out who he really was and get to the heart of him and humanize him in a way that I don’t think that I’ve seen in a lot of other projects or when people talk about this story.

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S1: I remember being influenced by the press and thinking that he wasn’t a great guy. And I remember feeling like, I mean, the cops are bad, but I don’t know if I want Rodney King to be my neighbor, either. What do we know? You know, when you were talking to people about this, what do we know that the media got, say extra wrong at that time about what happened and about Rodney King? And what did they get right?

S2: Well, I mean, I think there’s a couple of things at play here. One, I guess what happens when a black person is victimized, whether it’s by police or somebody else, to make them have to defend themselves? Right? And so it was really easy to sort of caricature Rodney King because he had been to prison before, right? And after that, he did have repeated run ins with the law. I mean, from domestic abuse to DUI, all of these are the thing. So in some ways it was fair to say that he was a troubled person. But I think the thing that mediate didn’t do and probably still couldn’t necessarily do today was empathize and humanize him like some of the problems he was having as a result of. In addition to, you know, the trauma he had of growing up. He had an abusive father, an alcoholic father, so he had that to deal with. But after that, I mean, once you get your ass kicked on camera like that, there are plenty of people that I’ve spoken to. They knew him. They said if Rodney King had been a smaller person, he probably would have died, right? I was beat up really bad. And so like to recover from that and to try to recover from that with all these other things going on to alcoholism that he had not great impulse control. And so it was really easy to sort of villainize him. But I think that people, you know, one thing we needed to do is like, sort of contextualize like the source of all these issues and say, we’re right, the king is a problem. You know, he’s having all these problems, but they didn’t say why. This is a guy that clearly is suffering in the wake of suffering a huge national embarrassment, and he was really embarrassed about getting beaten like that on camera.

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S1: Can you tell our audience a little bit about the latasha Harlins story and how that played into the L.A. riots?

S2: For sure. Yeah, no. I’m glad you said that. So a couple of weeks after the Rodney King beating Latasha Harlins, 15 year old black girl lives around the corner and South Central L.A. goes into a convenience store and was accused of stealing a bottle of orange juice by the woman behind the counter, a Korean immigrant named Sujata, and only a few seconds. The confrontation escalates to the point with Sinjar. Do shoots Latasha in the back of the head. And so it was not a huge story nationally at this point, right? Because, you know, this is not a common occurrence, but it’s not an infrequent occurrence that there’s some sort of a fight and murder involving, you know, shopkeepers and black people in South Central L.A.. But when the trial came around, the surveillance tape from the Korean store comes out and it shows literally shows soon. Ojodu holding a gun a. Make it at the back of a 15 year old girl’s head in shooting it, pulling the trigger like that really inflamed a lot of people. And so like, just think about that, like I’ve told you these basic facts about the case. Well, what if I told you? The jury found Sujata guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The judge does not send sort of any jail time, right? And it’s such a huge miscarriage of justice in that way, right? Black people who have been living in this city for years and have seen so many acts of brutality. And just like this remorseless violence against them. And you can’t even get jail time for something like that. Of course, it inflamed people. And I would argue and having talked to the people that we have, that the shooting of Latasha Harlins played as much of a role and why L.A. went up in flames as Rodney King, it’s viscerally jarring even today. Like, I’ve had to look at that video to write these scripts and stuff and to report, and it’s shocking to see a girl just get shot in the back of the head and fall to the ground like that. It’s just it’s really heartbreaking. It’s as bad as any of the videos that we see today, like the Philando Castile, the George Floyd’s. It’s like, you know, it’s pretty damn bad.

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S1: Latasha Harlins is really, as you’re saying, the catalyst to the level of anger and frustration that people felt so that, you know, yeah, the flame was already starting with Latasha Harlins. It was Rodney King, the sort of lit the match. I want to ask about this as you’re talking to people who were again living the experience of the riots. One of the other things that I remember getting from it is all of these discussions is the first time that I remember public discourse about black Asian relations. Did you have the opportunity to talk to any members of the Korean-American community about how their lives or how they perceive what happened in Los Angeles?

S2: Absolutely. We talked to several, including one of the founders of the Black Korean Alliance, Edward Chang, who is a academic at UC Riverside, which is in Southern California. You academics where you see Riverside is, you know, for years there had been this tension between black folks and, you know, immigrants, particularly Korean and Korean-American immigrants, because in these neighborhoods, there are these convenience stores. Black people didn’t necessarily have the capital or the opportunity to avail themselves of opportunity to invest in their own communities and run these convenience stores. And so you’ve got people that are coming in, immigrating to this country, buying up these business opportunities, you know, and they weren’t necessarily I don’t want to make too broad of a statement here, but there was some cultural differences like people just don’t kind of understand each other like, for instance, you know, talking to some people looking somebody in your face like if you were coming to a store and look somebody in the face like, that’s like, come, that’s growing respect. But in Korea, that’s not necessarily that’s disrespectful to look somebody in the face to touch their hand when you give them money, like, that’s something that’s like, OK, you know, that’s something that’s a normal transaction here in Korea to touch somebody’s hands and put their money directly into the hand. That’s, you know, not something we do. That’s a sign of disrespect. So there was all of these like little, you know, conflicts and misunderstandings that sort of built it into a rage. And so when, as I do, kills Latasha Harlins, like that’s a real inflection point in the relationships between black folks and Koreans. And so, you know, after the Tasha Harlan’s verdict and even really the shooting, then you’ve got the bouquet that fell apart, essentially because at that point, the tensions were so bad, the anger was so bad within the communities that it was really sort of beyond repair. But yeah, it was. It was symbolic of a diversifying city, a diversifying area, and people are fighting for these resources and they want to be heard and they’re trying to stake their claim to the American dream or whatever. And of course, you know, minorities, people from marginalized communities have very limited resources and they’re fighting against each other for it instead of gifts against white folks, right?

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on slow burn season six. The L.A. riots were Joel Anderson. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word Will Jason Johnson. We’re talking about slow burn season six, the L.A. Riots, the podcast debut this week, and our guest is host Joel Anderson. So for a lot of people, the Rodney King beating the tape, the fact that the cops were let go, all of this was a revelation. And even now, though, videos of police brutality are circulating constantly on social media, there’s still no expectation of justice. And most of these cases, and you remember what black people who are aware of police violence had always said is, Man, if we could only get this on tape, if we could only get this on tape, then the world would finally know. So. How did having something on tape looking back on it now when you’re talking to people who lived through it? How did having something like that on tape and it bringing no justice change the conversations then about police brutality, did it make people more despondent or to make them more determined?

S2: I think very despondent initially, at least because I mean, there’s a couple of things that go at play here. So there are a lot of people that look at that video, reasonable people that can look at it and say, Oh, with the police there are doing is bad. There’s another group of people that believe in quote, law and order. And, you know, believe in the concept of the thin blue line. And they say, Oh, well, this is how we maintain peace in this country. You know, somebody that’s he was drunk, you know, of course, the police officers, you know, accused him of being high on PCP, which later proved not to be true. But you can see even today with the way these cases go, like how they were able to start marshalling these arguments back then at the time, oh, he wasn’t compliant. He wouldn’t get down. He was drugged up. We were afraid. And it was real easy to take that video telling you, you’re not seeing it all. There’s more to the story, and that happens today all the time, right? And so that’s how they were able to sort of manipulate people not only in the jury pool but into the public and to make this a debate to think that, well, you know what, sometimes police got to put people in their place, right? So that part of it is something that we see play out over and over again. And in L.A., you know, they see this and they’re like, We’ve got the tape. People are telling us that what we see is something that didn’t actually happen. Will, who’s going to protect our life, like, like, who’s accountable to the law again, like if we have this on tape and it still doesn’t matter, then does the law actually matter? Why should we respect the law? I mean, that’s a real question. That’s an open question even today, right? So, yeah, I mean, I definitely think it was. It made people despondent. And as far as determined, I mean, look, the police chief at the time, Daryl Gates, who I think of sort of was like a precursor to Trump in a way like just sort of a shock jock, just a racist, you know, all that sort of thing. He was a guy that said at the time, You know what? I think that videotape having cameras on cops, that will be helpful. There was this, you know, this illusion that like having things on camera would change the way people that would change people’s priors and it would change the way that they still would fundamentally look at how black people are policed and it just has not is, you know, you and I both know is not quite bare it out that way.

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S1: What do you want a 21 year old who half of her life has been spent with Trayvon and Walter Scott and Sandra Bland? What do you want her to get from this podcast about the L.A. riots?

S2: I mean, I think one thing is that none of these debates, none of these issues are new. Like, you know, these are things that have been going on generation after generation and that it takes sustained effort, activism, political action, whatever to try to hold people accountable. And gradually we’ve been able, you know, there was a conviction Derek Chauvin went, you know, went to prison. He was convicted. But I definitely think that like knowing that this is not new and that it requires just determination and that, you know, the fight to hold police accountable for the violence they inflict upon black and brown communities is still going on. I mean, I hate to say it, but I’ll probably be going on the rest of our lives. So you can’t get tired. You can’t think things have changed. Like whenever you whenever we ease up, you know, I’m saying people are willing to pull us backwards. And so I think the one thing about this is that you look at this, the people were just really naive about what this might mean for the country or what it might that this might change everything. We’ve got it on tape. The officers were indicted. We put them on trial. Even, you know, later the officers were convicted in a federal trial. Right. But you know, all these things that like you think that are going to be landmark events and they’re going to really be an inflection point. Police accountability. And it just happens over and over again. And so another thing I guess to add on to that is that maybe there’s another way to like think about, is there another way to do this? Whether you know, there’s people that believe in defunding the police, there’s people that believe in, you know, maybe not calling it quite that, but redirecting resources, whatever. But maybe it just thinking about like, have we tried anything else in terms of holding police accountable for the violence? Things like that would be something that if I was talking to some young folks that are really riled up and this discourages them because they see this has been happening for year after year after year and like, maybe that would be something I would want them to think about, like, well, what can we do to move forward and change this dynamic here?

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S1: Joel Anderson is a veteran journalist and the host of Slate’s slow burn season six, the L.A. Riots. It premiered this week and is available at Slate or wherever you listen to podcasts. Joel Anderson. You know, I love talking to you, man. Thanks so much, man.

S2: Appreciate you saying that my mama going to be so hype. I talk to you. So thanks so much for having me on the forum.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Saluja is the managing producer of podcasts at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcasts. It’s late June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.