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The City Project Equal Justice, Democracy, and Livability for All

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 of page)

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 commit.

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 Angeles.

-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 Cuomo did.

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.

Conclusion

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 ( rgarcia@cityprojectca.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. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.