Rethinking Rodney King and the night of his beating

Mona Charen

February 16, 1993|By Mona Charen

THE second "Rodney King" trial is underway. As someone who, at the time the videotape became public, wrote, "This evidence of home-grown viciousness stands as a rebuke to the nation," I have now had second thoughts.

It seems to me entirely possible that this jury may come to the identical conclusion the first jury reached -- acquittal. Moreover, it seems to me that honorable, conscientious, non-racist people could reach that verdict.

That is not to say that such an outcome is the only possible interpretation of events -- but it is a plausible one.

The popular characterization of Rodney King has been incomplete, to say the least. He has been elevated to the status of civil rights hero, which is absurd. This is no Medgar Evers. One unnecessary bit of fudging is the euphemistic description of King as a "motorist." In point of fact, on the night in question, Mr. King led a number of police cars and California Highway Patrol vehicles in a chase topping speeds of 115 miles per hour. When ordered by the CHP to pull over, Mr. King gunned the engine instead. At one point, his car crossed three lanes of traffic at over 80 mph to make a right turn.

The benign image of Rodney King pleading for civil peace as riots consumed Los Angeles is familiar. Only the impious would point out that on the night of the beating, Mr. King was out on parole after a conviction for robbery. In 1989, using a tire iron as a weapon, he had robbed a Korean store owner. Earlier in his career, he had pleaded no contest to assaulting his wife and once attempted to run her down with his car following an argument.

None of that, of course, justifies police brutality. And indeed, the police were ignorant of those facts at the time. What they did know was that they had been led on an extremely dangerous chase by a man who refused to follow instructions to stop. What they further knew is that police officers are shot and killed all the time by suspects who are pulled over for traffic violations.

Sergeant Stacey Koon, one of the defendants, writes in his book "Presumed Guilty" that the nature of the chase led to the suspicion that something more might be going on. "In 15 years as an LAPD cop, I'd been involved in about 50 high-speed pursuits, most of them at night. Of these, only one or two had been a speeding offense only. All of the others had involved unrelated felony violations."

When Mr. King's car was finally stopped, his two passengers got out and were handcuffed and taken away by the police. Mr. King refused to get out of the car. At length, he did emerge. But again, he ignored police instructions to get down on the ground.

One of the things that puzzled me two years ago -- and contributed to my belief in the policemen's guilt -- was that the videotape never showed the cops attempting to simply jump Rodney King. There were a dozen or so officers, and only one suspect. Why continue to beat him with batons?

According to Mr. Koon, four officers had attempted to jump Mr. King -- the LAPD calls it a "swarm" -- before the videotape began rolling. Mr. King had thrown all four men off. Moreover, in an attempt to use only graduated force, the police had first attempted to subdue Mr. King with a TASER gun, an electric dart gun. It is supposed to deliver sufficient electric shock to temporarily disable the suspect without doing lasting harm. Mr. King was "tased" twice, with little effect.

Nor did the videotape capture the moment when Mr. King rushed Officer Powell or waved his fanny at the woman officer who demanded to see his hands.

It still seems to me that the police got carried away with their violence against Rodney King. But I will understand if a jury, seeing all the evidence, comes to a different conclusion.

It's interesting that no one has protested the fact that these officers are clearly facing unconstitutional "double jeopardy" for this offense. That's because it's a political prosecution, undertaken to buy civil peace. It may succeed, but will it be justice?

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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