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My East Coast Perspective on 'LA 92,' a Hauntingly Raw Documentary by National Geographic 

I was a kid when the beating of Rodney King happened and as someone who has never been to Los Angeles, King's encounter with the LAPD is among the first things that come to mind when picturing the city, aside from Hollywood Walk of Fame, Universal Studios, Skid Row, N.W.A, Tupac, bouncing lowrider cars and the blood/crip gangs.

Still, I didn't know much about the Rodney King incident except for that infamous video clip of LAPD officers repeatedly hitting him with batons, etc. and the "can't we all just get along?" phrase he's known for uttering in an attempt to end the civil unrest that followed his trial.

Aside from brief scenes in the movie Straight Outta Compton, I knew even less about this wave of violence, looting, arson and protests that lasted several days in what became known as the L.A. Riots.

All I knew was that it happened.

That's why I'm glad Academy-Award winning directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin combed through more than 1,500 hours of rare and unseen archival video footage to reconstruct what happened 25 years ago in Los Angeles, in their documentary LA 92, which has its broadcast premiere tonight at 9/8c on the National Geographic channel. Days after attending one of several screenings for this film held recently in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C and Charlotte, it's still not easy figuring out how to best share my initial thoughts about a movie that left me with so many mixed emotions. The gist of it can be summed up by some of the phrases heard throughout the movie.

Can't We All Just Get Along

I found King's position on the incident to be especially interesting because his legal depositions shown in the film appear to convey that he never once expressed suspicion that the beating was racially motivated. Instead, the racial component seems to have grown from the African-American community's frustration and anger with the police brutality taking place in Los Angeles around the time of Rodney King's violent run-in with the LAPD. The racial aspect was also a heavy focus in the media; local and national news stations just took that angle and ran with it, fueling the flames that were already brewing underneath the surface in a city where decades earlier in 1965, the Watts Riots left many people either dead or injured -- most of whom were black.

The Watts Riots that broke out after a traffic stop involving black male motorists and the LAPD turned violent, is another controversial part of U.S. history that I was unfamiliar with prior to watching LA 92. Speaking of violence and failings of the justice system I didn't know about, there's the matter of 15 year-old Latasha Harlins, a black teenager who was shot dead by Soon Ja Du, a Korean store owner who accused the teen of stealing orange juice. Surveillance footage of the shooting show Harlins holding money in her hand and police even clarify this publicly. Yet, the judge in Harlins' trial rejected the jury's recommendation of the maximum 16 years in prison and instead issues Du a $500 fine, 400 hours of community service and five years’ probation. No jail time for shooting and killing a teenage girl....on videotape.

To understand the L.A. Riots is to also have an understanding of not only the Watts Riots but the Latasha Harlins case as well, coupled with the LAPD's habit of blatant disrespect and mistreatment of black people, particularly black men including using the n-word, engaging in excessive force when making arrests and harassing them with regularity. The police chief and state government officials' refusal to hold officers accountable for their misconduct added insult to injury. That Soon Ja Du could get away with murder even after video footage shows her shooting a teenager in the head, made the Rodney King trial ripe for scrutiny.

Learning about the extent of Rodney King's injuries were a maddening discovery for me. Yet, considering the fact that his trial was moved to a predominately white neighborhood where some of the LAPD officers charged for beating him resided, the verdict doesn't surprise me. In light of King's injuries and the fact that one of the officers is shown in court shrugging the incident off as a days work -- exclaiming "cop work is brutal" -- there is something seriously wrong with our society when a jury can watch the videotape of the beating, later view evidence of his facial fractures, chest burns and damage to one of his eyes and still not come to the conclusion that the the cops on trial were completely out of line.

Burn, Baby, Burn

The parts of LA 92 where random people are being pulled out of their cars and pummeled to death were very difficult to watch. I could also empathize with some of the merchants whose shops were looted, vandalized and in many cases, destroyed. Through the archive material Lindsay and Martin obtained from cameramen, radio reports, news footage, police files, home videos of Los Angeles First AME Church parishioners and other sources, it's obvious that no one was prepared for the city of Los Angeles to be on fire -- literally and figuratively -- when the verdict in the Rodney King trial was announced.

It is sad that things got to a point where Los Angeles residents started fighting each other and turning their own neighborhoods into ruins while the law enforcement, government agencies, President Bush and news outlets sat back and watched it play out for days on end. That said, I understand how people who have had enough of being forced, yet again, to tolerate an unjust legal system, police misconduct and other systemic issues can lash out in ways that are unproductive and tragic. The very cops who referred to black people as "lizards" and expressed a history of violent behavior towards civilians, got off scot free for kicking and severely beating a man with batons on the highway. On the way to the courtroom for the Rodney King trial, one of the cops facing charges even joked about having clothes in the car for a barbeque, indicating his belief that the trial would turn out in his favor.

During the L.A. Riots, I believe members of the Korean community and other ethnic groups got to experience a little bit of what it’s like to be black in the United States. When you call the police for help, no one shows up and if they do, they don't do anything to resolve an out-of-control situation because at the end of the day, they place their own bias and self-interest above protecting and serving you.

No Justice, No Peace

One of the biggest takeaways from LA 92 is that although the court system didn't do right by Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, members of marginalized communities in Los Angeles showed the rest of the country that there are consequences for brutalizing and murdering people. I do not condone the violent, bloody and overall destructive actions that took place there. I am merely pointing out that at least residents did something more than marching, preaching, praying to the sky, crossing their fingers and hoping community leaders and politicians will speak up and seek justice on their behalf.

In 1992, a jury of the LAPD's peers (let's be real here) told the world that a group of cops were justified in beating up an unarmed motorist during a traffic stop. Los Angeles erupted in a fit of rage because this is unacceptable behavior for officers of the law, or anyone for that matter. Now here we are 25 years later, and the judicial system continues to fail the Trayvon Martins and Walter Scotts of the world because no consequences have been brought forth by the citizens of this nation who are horrified by the killings of these and other young, unarmed people at the hands of vigilante wanna-be cops, lone soldiers and actual police who are still on the job and terrorizing entire communities.

Where are the "gangstas" who are being paid millions to pump out rap songs glorifying drugs, gang culture, prison, sex, money, alcohol, cars, hot women, jewels and all of the people they robbed, fought, shot at, pulled a drive-by on, kidnapped, stabbed, strangled, killed and whatever else will sell lots of downloads in the iTunes store? These are the same gangstas who would rather poison the mentality of their own communities than actually get out in the streets, or in the board room, or at the bank, or at the polls, and fight for change.

On May 1st, immigrants in this country are participating in a nationwide strike. They will not go to work. They will not go to school. They will not shop at stores, restaurants, etc. until they are treated fairly by the leaders and people of this nation. Those are consequences that have an immediate, measurable, and non-violent impact on everyone. They get it and they're doing something about it. In no way am I advocating for people across the country to burn down their cities. There is a lot of work that can be done in between that extreme and doing nothing at all, such as choosing the places we do business with carefully and shopping at places that value our dollars and refusing to vote for political officials who provide nothing more than lip service and empty promises, and pushing for the removal of community leaders and people in office whose actions bring harm to large portions of the population.

I thought Sean King was onto something when he started the Injustice Boycott but it's turned into a joke of a movement. What it has in focus, it lacks in consistency and power. Although I had high hopes for the possibility of the Injustice Boycott to mobilize people into actions that would bring positive results, it is turning out to be little more than an online group of social media warriors who hound political officials until the moves they make on laws and practices that impact our communities are in the best interest of the people. We will not affect real change until our collective actions have an impact beyond the keyboards.

By showing the events of 1992 from many different points of view, LA 92 challenged what I thought I knew about the beating of Rodney King, his trial, the civil disturbance that followed and how the city of Los Angeles and U.S. Government responded to the situation.

It also helped me better understand the social and political climate at the time of the Rodney King trial and also how our present-day issues regarding police brutality and the behavior of our nation's leaders mirror past events. It's eerie in a sense, to say the least, but should be required viewing for every man or woman who is part of a community struggling with oppressed by the judicial system and government officials.

I appreciate the filmmakers' decision to make this film without narration or talking head interviews. As an East Cost dweller looking in from the outside at the how the Rodney King trial and L.A. Riots impacted our country and still resonates with what's happening today, there was a lot of vital information that I was missing out on. Using only the raw footage they gathered and an orchestral score by composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, LA 92 fills in those gaps and taught me more than I expected.

In order to deal with present injustices, we must understand those of the past and learn from them so we can come up with better solutions moving forward. We all need to come together and treat each other better. It's one of the only ways to stop history from repeating itself because civil unrest brings death and destruction. As Raheem DeVaughn made clear on his third album, nobody wins a war.

Tune in to the National Geographic channel at 9/8c tonight for LA92!

Where were YOU when the verdict was announced for the Rodney King trial?

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Reader Comments (1)

1992 - I was a teenager living in one of the nicer housing projects of the city of Little Rock but it was still tainted with violence. The Rodney King verdict wasn't a huge surprise at the time. It was a little surprising to me since I was still a bit naïve about the justice system and actually thought that the police would receive some kind of reprimand. But what was more confusing for me was that the rioters attacked and destroyed stores and homes and other businesses in their own area. I got the outrage. I got the need to express something about the injustice, but I always wondered why they chose to tear apart their own neighborhoods.

May 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Brown

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