Well before he heard the first siren, Rodney King knew he never should have slipped that key into the ignition. They had been having so much fun, he and his buddies Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, just kicking back, sipping some inexpensive 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor at the local park as they jawed and laughed while the daylight ebbed away. Afterward, they had stood in front of Allen's mom's house trying to croon a few tunes. King wasn't much of a singer but, when he switched to rapping, his buddies felt he was almost in a groove. And then it was after midnight, and suddenly King was driving his car, flying down the highway at 80 miles per hour, the radio blaring, he and Allen singing again, and then there it was—the flashing light atop the highway patrol car bouncing off his rearview mirror, filling his car with a red light that King had learned to dread.
King knew, as he later testified, that he was drunk and that if the police caught him speeding he'd soon be back in prison for violating parole. The fact was that liquor had tempted and cursed him for years. His father, an alcoholic, died at age 42, and King himself had built up quite a tolerance for "eightballs," the street name for Olde English 800, a high-alcohol beer. That evening King had consumed enough eightballs—roughly the equivalent of a case of regular 12-ounce beers—to put his blood alcohol level at twice the legal limit. But he wanted still more: When he spotted the highway patrol car behind him around 12:40 a.m., he had just exited the freeway on his way to another liquor store. Once the chase began, he ran red lights, pushed the speedometer up to 80 mph in 35 mph speed zones and ignored the hollered pleas of his childhood friend Allen to please "pull over." By the time King finally stopped, nearly 8 miles later, a small army of cop cars had joined the chase and a Los Angeles Police Department chopper was whirring overhead.
A Los Angeles jury decided last month that nothing King did justifies his manhandling by the LAPD. But even those who testified against the police described an encounter that was complicated by King's drunkenness. They say he responded slowly or not at all to commands to lie down and place his hands above his head. He smiled and danced a little pitter-patter, waving to the helicopter; he threw a kiss and wiggled his butt at a female officer who had ordered him, at gunpoint, to lie down; finally, he heaved four male officers off his back who tried to handcuff him and seemed to shrug it off when police stunned him with a Taser. King's behavior so alarmed the arresting officers that they mistakenly assumed he was on PCP. A second Taser dart fired by Sgt. Stacey Koon failed to incapacitate the 6-foot, 3-inch, 225-pound King. Then, across the street, an amateur videotaper named George Holliday turned on his camcorder and taped the conclusion of what soon became the most infamous beating in history. George Bush later called the footage "revolting." Afterward, as King lay hogtied on the ground, the bloodied, angry victim alternately laughed and cursed into the chilly night air. "F--- you!" he screamed. "F--- you!"
The story of how the worst American riot in this century began is a little like the story of Rodney King's beating: By now it has been twisted into a series of half-truths and misconceptions. Just as King was not simply a speeding motorist who was beaten after a routine traffic stop, so, too, the analyses of the roots of the Los Angeles riot require some revision. The official version runs roughly as follows: Angry blacks, indignant over a suburban jury's decision on April 29, 1992, to acquit four LAPD cops in the King beating, started the riot by pulling white trucker Reginald Denny from the cab of his truck and then beating him brutally to avenge the King beating. The subsequent riot was bred out of decades of racism and police brutality and nourished by the enraging conditions of ghetto life: unemployment, poverty, family breakdown, gangs, drugs, welfare and Reagan-era cutbacks in aid. When it was over, more than 50 people lay dead, 2,300 had been injured and $1 billion in property had been damaged.
No one doubts that deprivation and bitterness fill many neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles or that outrage at the cops' acquittal set the stage for the riot. But there are two core premises to the official version of the riot that are wrong in some instances and exaggerated in others. The first is that the grim conditions of South Central and the surprise acquittals combined to make a riot inevitable. The second is that the Los Angeles riot was fundamentally a massive protest over social injustice. Many liberal commentators, as well as prominent black and Latino Angelenos, now insist that the riot should be referred to as a "rebellion" or an "uprising." The men accused of beating, trampling and robbing Reginald Denny have thus been dubbed the "L.A. Four"—a moniker usually reserved for political martyrs.