The Rodney King Legacy
and a Testament of Hope
by Robert García
Director, The City Project
Center for Law In the Public Interest
Reproduced by permission from: American Bar Association, Goal
IX, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 2002, all rights reserved. (see bottom
The riots and rebellion after the Rodney King beating expose
evils deeply rooted in the structures of this society. They
were a reaction not only to the police beating one more black
man. They demonstrate that police abuse and urban issues like
transportation and parks and recreation are genuine civil rights
issues of race, poverty, and democracy that are interrelated
in Los Angeles and the American economy.
People turn to violence in the streets when access to justice
through the courts is closed off. In the face of this reality,
the U.S. Supreme Court is making it more difficult to right
the wrongs that lead to riots and rebellion. In Los Angeles,
we nevertheless continue the struggle for equal justice, democracy,
and livability for all.
Police Abuse and Corruption
The Rodney King beating, like the Watts Riots in 1965 and
the Rampart police corruption scandal in 1999, shows that a "relatively
simple though serious problem such as police racism" is
anything but simple. On March 3, 1991, four police officers
beat and arrested King while some twenty other law enforcement
officers stood by and did nothing. George Holliday captured
the beating on videotape from his apartment across the street.
A television station broadcast the beating the next day. The
beating set off a chain of events that enflamed racial and
social tensions, including six days of multicultural riots
and rebellion, structural reforms of the Los Angeles Police
Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department,
and the resignations of the chief of police, the first black
mayor of Los Angeles, and the district attorney.
By the time the riots and rebellion were over, forty-two people
had been killed, more than 2,000 had been injured, 700 structures
had been destroyed by fire, hundreds of people had lost their
jobs, 5,000 people had been arrested and Los Angeles had suffered
nearly $1 billion in property damage. Of those arrested, 51
percent were Latino, 38 percent were black, 9 percent were
Anglo, and 2 percent were Asian American or "other."
Many who see the tape of the beating with their own eyes think
this is a slam dunk case of police abuse. The culpability of
the officers who beat King nevertheless remains ambiguous in
the eyes of the law. This is illustrated by the history of
the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The jury in
Simi Valley acquitted the four officers who beat King, setting
off the civil unrest.
The jury in the federal trial in Los Angeles subsequently
convicted officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell of criminally
violating King's civil rights, and acquitted the other two.
The judge imposed relatively light sentences of thirty months
in prison, departing from the seventy to eighty-seven months
mandated by federal sentencing guidelines. The judge justified
the lower sentences on the grounds that the victim's misconduct
contributed significantly to provoking the offense; that the
convicted officers were unusually susceptible to abuse in prison;
that they would lose their jobs and be precluded from jobs
in law enforcement; that they had been subjected to successive
state and federal prosecutions; and that they presented a low
risk of committing future crimes.
A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the
sentences citing they were too lenient, in violation of the
guidelines. The officers then sought review before the full
court of appeal, which refused to hear the case. The U.S. Supreme
Court reviewed the case. Applying a mechanical interpretation
of the sentencing guidelines to arrive at a mixed result, the
Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeal in part and reversed
in part. The Court remanded the case for resentencing. The
trial judge reimposed the original sentences.
In the meantime, in King's civil suit against the City of
Los Angeles, the LAPD, Koon, Powell, and others, the city conceded
liability, and went to trial solely on damages. The jury awarded
King $3.8 million in actual damages for loss of work, medical
costs, and pain and suffering, but denied any punitive damages.
Efforts to reform the LAPD to prevent systemwide corruption
and violence have been even more difficult and complex than
determining the moral and legal culpability of the officers
who beat King. The Christopher Commission, the independent
commission headed by Warren Christopher (who later became secretary
of state), documented the fact that the use of excessive force
and racial harassment was not just a problem with individual
officers, but a systemic management problem in the LAPD caused
by the lack of supervision, discipline, and accountability.
The report condemned the culture of the LAPD, which created
a siege mentality that isolated the police from the people
and shielded bad cops through a code of silence. The report
called for structural reforms including community policing.
Another commission reached similar conclusions about the Los
Angeles County Sheriff's Department in the wake of a class
action charging the systemic use of excessive force and illegal
searches and seizures. A third commission led by William Webster,
the former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and
the Central Intelligence Agency, analyzed the performance of
the LAPD during the riots and rebellion. The Webster Report
recommended community policing and stressed the need for police
officers to treat all individuals with dignity and respect.
It became apparent that Los Angeles was still incapable of
policing itself even after the King reforms when the Rampart
police corruption scandal erupted in 1999, and the U.S. government
finally stepped in to take over through a court-ordered consent
decree under federal laws prohibiting patterns and practices
of police misconduct. In the first weeks of the scandal, Police
Chief Bernard Parks called for the mass dismissal of cases
against ninety-nine defendants who were framed by the police
through a pattern and practice of unjustified shootings, beatings,
drug dealing, false arrests, witness intimidation, perjury,
planting of evidence, and wrongful convictions. Officers planted
evidence to frame innocent people and lied in court to gain
convictions. The local district attorney admitted that innocent
people were convicted and punished for crimes they did not
Equal Access to Urban Transit
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his essay A Testament of Hope,
recognized that urban issues like transit, parks, and police
abuse raise genuine civil rights concerns. The Governor's Commission
on the 1965 Watts Riots found that inadequate and prohibitively
expensive bus service in Los Angeles handicapped minority residents
in seeking and holding jobs, attending schools, shopping, and
fulfilling other needs, and contributed to the riots and rebellion.
In Labor/Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan
Transportation Authority (MTA), 263 F.3d 1041 (2001), plaintiff
bus riders charged that MTA operated separate and unequal bus
and rail systems that discriminated against communities of
color and low-income communities. MTA settled the case in 1996
through a consent decree and agreed to invest over $2 billion
into the bus system-the largest civil rights settlement ever.
Building Community and Diversifying Democracy Through Parks
Following the 1992 riots and rebellion, 77 percent of the
neighborhood residents most affected ranked improved parks
and recreation as "absolutely critical" or "important" to
their communities, giving them higher priority than health
care or business development, according to a report by the
Trust for Public Land.
Los Angeles is park poor, with fewer acres of parks per capita
than any major city in the country. There are also unfair disparities
in access to parks and recreation. In the inner city, there
are .3 acres of parks per thousand residents, compared to 1.7
acres in relatively affluent areas. The National Recreation
and Park Association standard is ten acres.
The fact that low-income people of color disproportionately
live in areas without adequate access to parks is not an accident
of unplanned growth but the result of a continuing history
and pattern of discriminatory land use planning, restrictive
housing covenants, federal mortgage subsidies restricted to
racially homogenous neighborhoods, and discriminatory park
funding policies and practices in Los Angeles.
However, an extraordinarily diverse alliance of civil rights,
community, environmental, religious, business, and civic leaders
is creating urban parks in the communities that need them most.
-The Chinatown Yard Alliance stopped a federally subsidized
thirty-two-acre warehouse project and secured $35 million in
state funds to create a park in the Cornfield, an abandoned
rail yard that is the last vast open space in downtown Los
-An alliance stopped a power plant and saved the community
and the planned two-square-mile state park in Baldwin Hills,
the historic African American heart of Los Angeles, that will
be bigger than Central Park and Golden Gate Park.
-The state has allocated $80 million for the fifty-one-mile-long
Los Angeles River Parkway, and has purchased the first thirty-acre
parcel after the Coalition for a State Park in Taylor Yard
stopped an industrial project there.
The City of Los Angeles and developer Majestic Realty sought
$12 million in federal subsidies towards the $18 million purchase
of the Cornfield to build thirty-two acres of warehouses. Relying
on civil rights and environmental claims, the Chinatown Yard
Alliance persuaded Housing and Urban Development Secretary
Andrew Cuomo to withhold federal subsidies for the warehouse
project unless the city prepared a full environmental impact
statement that analyzed the impact of the warehouses on communities
of color and low-income communities, and considered the park
alternative. The city and Majestic withdrew their proposal
and settled a related state suit, and the State of California
bought the Cornfield in 2001 to create a state park. As a result
of similar organizing efforts and legal challenges, developers
withdrew a proposed power plant in Baldwin Hills and an industrial
project in Taylor Yard.
The Cornfield, Baldwin Hills, and Taylor Yard will be the
first state parks ever in the heart of Los Angeles. In March
2002, California's Proposition 40-the largest natural resource
bond in U.S. history that will provide $2.6 billion for safe
parks, air, and water-passed with the support of 77 percent
of black voters, 74 percent of Latino voters, 60 percent of
Asian American voters, and 56 percent of white voters. Proposition
40 enjoyed the support of 75 percent of voters from families
with an annual income of below $20,000, and 61 percent of voters
with a high school diploma or less-the highest among any income
or education levels. Proposition 40 demolished the myth that
a healthy environment is a luxury that communities of color
and low-income communities cannot afford or do not care about.
Proposition 40 will help ensure that environmental benefits
and burdens are shared equally.
Equal Justice After Sandoval
Enforcement of civil rights protections remains as important
today as ever. A conservative 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme
Court in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), took a
step to close the courthouse door to individuals and community
organizations challenging practices that adversely and unjustifiably
impact people of color, such as police abuse and racial profiling
of drivers on the highway, transportation inequities, and the
lack of parks. The majority led by Justice Antonin Scalia held
there is no right for private individuals like Jose Citizen
and groups like the Chinatown Yard Alliance under Title VI
to enforce the discriminatory impact regulations issued by
federal agencies under the Title VI statute. Title VI prohibits
intentional discrimination on the basis of race, color, or
national origin. The regulations prohibit unjustified adverse
discriminatory impacts for which there are less discriminatory
alternatives, even if there is no direct proof that the impacts
were accompanied by discriminatory intent.
Although the holding is a serious blow to civil rights enforcement,
it is more important to keep in mind that intentional discrimination
and unjustified discriminatory impacts are just as unlawful
after Sandoval as before, and that recipients of federal funds
like the City of Los Angeles remain obligated to prohibit both.
Even now, after Sandoval, individuals still can sue a recipient
of federal funds under Title VI to challenge intentionally
discriminatory practices. Known discriminatory impact continues
to be among the most important evidence leading to a finding
of discriminatory intent. Additionally, individuals can sue
to enforce discriminatory impact regulations against state
and local government recipients of federal funds through the
Civil Rights Act of 1871, a matter not decided in Sandoval.
Aside from private lawsuits, there remain other ways to enforce
discriminatory impact regulations. Recipients of federal funds
are still bound by the regulations under Title VI, and every
recipient signs a contract to enforce Title VI and its regulations
as a condition of receiving federal funds. This provides an
important opportunity to use the planning and administrative
process to resolve discriminatory impact issues, as Secretary
There are important strategic considerations in the quest
for equal justice after Sandoval. Elected officials should
be increasingly sensitive to and held accountable for the impact
of their actions on communities of color, especially now that
people of color are in the majority in forty-eight out of the
100 largest cities in the country. Los Angeles is about 50
percent Hispanic, 70 percent people of color, and only 30 percent
non-Hispanic white. Congress should reinstate the private cause
of action to enforce the discriminatory impact standard. State
civil rights protections can be enforced and strengthened.
Civil rights and environmental claims can be combined in environmental
justice matters like the Cornfield. Similar kinds of evidence
are relevant to prove both discriminatory intent and discriminatory
impact. The same kinds of evidence can be as persuasive in
the planning process, administrative arena, and court of public
opinion, as in a court of law.
The complexities of equal justice after Sandoval require far-reaching
strategies that include legislative and political advocacy,
strategic media campaigns, building multicultural alliances,
and strengthening democratic involvement in the public decision-making
process aside from litigation. Societal structures and patterns
and practices of discrimination are significant causes of racial
injustice and should be principal targets of reform.
Rodney King posed the simple question "Can't we all just
get along?" The Chinatown Cornfield is a testament of
hope that we can. The riots and rebellion show that we must.
Los Angeles is synonymous with race riots, white flight, freeways,
congestion, sprawl, dirty air, and the destruction of the natural
environment. Los Angeles can also be synonymous with diverse
coalitions working together to build the kind of community
where we want to live and raise children. What is past in Los
Angeles is prologue for the rest of the country. Discrimination
harms not only communities of color, it diminishes all of us
as a people and a nation. We can promote equal justice, democracy,
and livability for all. We cannot allow the current Supreme
Court to stop our progress.
Robert García ( firstname.lastname@example.org ), a civil rights
attorney and director of The City Project at The City Project in Los Angeles, worked on the
MTA, Cornfield, Baldwin Hills, Taylor Yard, and Proposition 40
matters discussed in this article, and is author of Riots and Rebellion:
Civil Rights, Police Reform and the Rodney King Beating (1997).
He served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District
of New York.
(c)2002 American Bar Association. Reproduced by permission.
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