Art, Books and Culture
The legacy of
Rodney King for Latinos
By Tony Castro
VOXXI Blogs (June 17, 2012)
The untimely death of Rodney King Sunday brings some closure to a sad chapter for Los Angeles - not only to its black residents for whom he came to symbolize the worst of law enforcement but also to Latinos who became a much larger part of the story than anyone might have imagined could happen.
The 1992 acquittal of four white police officer for the brutal beating on King captured on video, led to some of the worst rioting in U.S. history. Perhaps the most surprising development of the looting near downtown Los Angeles was seeing that many of the looters were Latinos - men, women and even children.
"It may have begun as a black rebellion, but we're all brothers in this," black activist Deacon Alexander observed as he watched the violent protests that reduced countless strip malls and businesses to smoldering rubble.
That might have been putting it mildly. In fact, what unfolded over the King verdict was as much a Latino riot as a black urban unrest - something that the city's Latino leadership has never fully addressed or come to grips with.
When it was over, a majority of people charged with crimes in the riots turned out to be Latinos. According to a RAND Corp. study, 51 percent of the offenders arrested in connection with riot-related crimes were Latino, most of them young men. By contrast, African Americans accounted for only 36 percent of those charges with crimes related to the rioting and looting.
"This was clearly not a black riot - it was a minority riot," said RAND criminologist Joan Petersilia after examining more than 5,000 cases after the riots.
Latinos leaders were speechless - and helpless - in explaining the frustration and outraged unleashed by Latinos on an issue that had begun with the police beating of an African-American, and then grew into something much bigger than the initial black-on-white violence in the heart of South Los Angeles shortly after the verdict.
Ironically, it would be another Latino - an actor, not a politician - who in the two decades since the riots has been hailed by many as having led the turnaround to civility after six days of senselessness.
On the Friday of that week of violence, with the governor calling for federal assistance to restore order and King asking "can we all just get along," Edward James Olmos drove to West Adams Boulevard near the First AME Church in South Los Angeles and, taking a big industrial broom out of his car, did something that he now realizes "was so stupid."
"I was standing in all this mud and water and trash," he recalled years later. "I was pushing dirt onto dirt. Then I looked over and I saw this elderly African-American lady standing in the doorway of her house. She sees me sweeping, and then she slams the door.
"But a few minutes later, she comes back out, and she starts to sweep the sidewalk in front of her house."
About that time a television news crew drove by and spotted Olmos sweeping the street.
"Think that's gonna to do any good?" one of the crew asked.
"At this point," said Olmos, "I have no idea what is good and what is bad anymore."
It was the strangest sight to see on television. One person, an actor perhaps best known for playing the rebellious Pachuco on the stage play "Zoot Suit," sweeping the riot-torn, trash-strewn streets. But soon dozens, then hundreds joined Olmos, all with their own brooms.
"I went to sweep the parking lot," says Olmos. "I started walking right down here, down Adams and towards Western, sweeping. I just started sweeping, and I'm not quite sure what I was thinking... But by 8 o'clock, there were at least 400 of us, and by 10, there were 800 of us, like a mass of ants.
"It was an incredible feeling of power and strength. It was a bunch of people with brooms taking the city back."
Now, 20 years later, the death of the man so closely identified with the 1992 riots brings back that period to the public forefront. At best, he was an enigmatic individual, hardly one to represent any community. But life sometimes has a way of making symbolic figures out of the least likely of souls.
In the time that Rodney King has been a part of our consciousness, much has changed in the city he so profoundly impacted, especially in South Los Angeles. The one-time bastion of black civilization in L.A. is now a predominantly Latino community. Even in a recession, there are strong signs of a thriving economy where the city once burned.
Most notably, though, the police force once responsible for the attack on Rodney King has changed. As a result of the riots, the Los Angeles Police Department was placed under federal monitoring while a slew of changes were implemented to dramatically alter the culture of a once almost all-white, paramilitary police force.
"Rodney King has a unique spot in both the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD," Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement Sunday. "What happened on that cool March night over two decades ago forever changed me and the organization I love.
"His legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence wrought on this city and its police department."
About Tony Castro
Los Angeles-based writer Tony Castro is the author of the critically-acclaimed "Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America" (E. P. Dutton, 1974) and the best-selling "Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son" (Brassey's, 2002). His rite of passage memoir, "The Prince of South Waco: Images and Illusions of a Youth," will be published in 2013.