[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to a special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On two mid-20th century riots that collectively anticipated the Rodney King story.
On Christmas Eve, 1951, a pair of Los Angeles policemen got into an extended altercation with seven young men (five of them Mexican American) at the Showboat Bar, a conflict that by Christmas morning had turned into violent arrests of and subsequent police brutality directed at the seven men. The LAPD initially attempted to sweep that police violence, which came to be known as Bloody Christmas, under the rug, but significant pressure from the city’s Mexican American community forced an internal investigation that resulted in a record number of indictments, suspensions, and other punishments for police officers. The incident, fictionalized in the James Ellroy novel L.A. Confidential (1990) and the 1997 film of the same name, reflected a police department that seemingly felt empowered to exercise extreme brutality against private citizens, particularly those from minority communities. Thanks to pressure from local communities the officers and department did not get away with that brutality in this case, but such incidents made clear that the relationship between these elements of Los Angeles society was a fraught and fragile one at best.
Such mid-century tensions in the city were not limited to any particular communities, however, as illustrated by another violent event: the June 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. This complex historical event originated in part out of a pair of specific World War II trends: the striking number of servicemen stationed in Los Angeles, most of them from other parts of the country; and the narrative that zoot suits, a popular form of apparel for young people (especially from minority communities such as Mexican, Filipino, and African Americans), represented a waste of precious wartime fabric. Certainly exclusionary bigotry and prejudice also played into the riots, however, which featured sailors and other servicemen attacking groups of young men and attempting to strip them of their zoot suits. While the police were not the direct sources of violence in this case, their principal roles across the six days of rioting seem to have been aiding and abetting the white supremacist rioters, both by refusing to stop or arrest them and by instead arresting more than 500 Mexican Americans on charges such as “rioting” and “vagrancy.” Which is to say, while the Zoot Suit Riots reflected particular WWII-era communal tensions, they certainly anticipated the forms of police profiling and brutality that would come to the fore less than a decade later in the Bloody Christmas incident.
Half a century later, the Rodney King incident and riots reflected and extended both sides of these histories: police brutality that targeted minority citizens in particular; and related but even more overarching communal tensions that exploded into days of destructive violence. Among the many ways in which better remembering the earlier histories might affect and shift our sense of the more recent ones, I would highlight this in particular (about which I’ve written elsewhere as well): far too often, if not indeed all of the time, when we refer to an event with the phrase “race riot” in our media or collective conversations we mean a riot featuring Americans of color. Yet while of course each of these historical riots did include such communities, they were driven, as so many of our historical riots have been, by both white mobs and white supremacist ideologies and systems. And those systems often include law enforcement and other official institutions in leading roles, not only in helping define the riots in very particular and exclusionary ways, but even in providing the impetus for the conflicts in the first phrase. The more we remember events like Bloody Christmas and the Zoot Suit Riots, the more equipped we are to recognize when and how those histories repeat themselves, as was the case with the Rodney King beating and riots to be sure.
Next King context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?