Now on Netflix (3.5 Stars)
Police Departments do a splendid job of keeping the peace in America’s cities with their selflessness, bravery, and vigilance. And Police Departments contain some officers who fear and prejudge black people and use degrading language and brutal force.
These are the facts of our society. One wonderful thing, one terrible thing.
What if these are not contradictions? What if they are two sides of the same coin?
My best friend argues that the answer is to disband Police Departments. But that might be the worst answer of all. Because if there is one thing worse than systematic racism, it is a riot.
We want to believe that firing racist cops is the answer. And I definitely wish that Police Unions wouldn’t spend so much energy defending bad cops. But what if you can’t field a full police force without racist people? What if, even worse, being a city cop inevitably makes people more racist?
“LA 92” is a harrowing and thought-provoking documentary. It doesn’t have a narrator and it doesn’t have a clear point. It is just two hours of video footage of the nightmarish riots that destroyed a good portion of Los Angeles in 1992.
Most of us know that a quartet of white cops beat Rodney King unnecessarily and unmercifully. Around the same time, a Korean store clerk named Soon Ja Du shot a 15 year-old black girl in the back of the head following an argument over shoplifting.
Soon Ja Du was convicted of Voluntary Manslaughter, but the judge only sentenced her to community service. When the four officers in the King beating were acquitted, the black community in central LA took to the streets.
While most available cops were holed up at the station dealing with a semi-peaceful protest, large portions of the city were left unpoliced. That is when things started to get horrible.
At the corner of Florence and Normandie, rioters began hurling rocks and bottles at passing cars. Whenever a car with a non-black man was stopped, the rioters dragged him out and beat him until he was unconscious or dead. “LA 92” shows it all.
In the LA riots, the tension between the Korean and black communities came to a head. Rioters eagerly looted Korean businesses and then burnt them to the ground.
We see an incredibly brave old Korean lady stand in front of her store demanding that the looters stay out. She fails. We see a group of heavily armed Korean guys guard their family store by firing at anyone who comes near it. They succeed.
As total lawlessness descended, rioters became less discriminating and began looting and burning down any business, regardless of ownership. One upsetting scene shows a traumatized black man scolding the looters and breaking down over the sorrow of seeing his life’s work disappear in front of his eyes. An unavoidable reality of riots is that the black community always suffers the brunt of it.
Some will say that the courts should have saved the day by convicting Soon Ja Du and the cops who beat Rodney King. Maybe so. But if you need show trials to keep the peace, that is a tenuous peace at best.
Blaming the violent cops or the racist court system for the riots is easy but it isn’t the whole truth.
There are people all over the country who didn’t care for the Rodney King verdicts. But most of them didn’t riot, of course.
Displeasure with racism is universal. But riots happen in central Los Angeles because the city was designed with apartheid as a main goal. When black people began moving from the south to Los Angeles, they were met with a new kind of institutional racism. Black residents were only welcome in certain neighborhoods. They were systemically harassed in white neighborhoods and prohibited from buying houses there.
Overpopulated and underserved black neighborhoods are the main reason for riots. The Rodney King verdict was just the match that lit the fuse.
“LA 92” is a bleak, grim reminder of some ugly truths about America. The fact that courts value black lives less is terrible. The fact that black men suffer violence at the hands of police is terrible. And riots may be the worst thing of all. And there are no easy answers.