Recently, the death of former L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates inspired a smattering of recollections of the Rodney King riots, in which 53 people died. That loss of life, which included horrific murders of good samaritans trying to save others, is largely forgotten in favor of a narrative that exculpates — even celebrates — the rioters, while blaming police for both causing the violence and failing to quell it once it started.
In other words, the police were guilty because they used too much force against King after he weaponized his car, but they were also guilty because they didn’t use enough force against the rioters, though they would have been just as guilty had they used more force to stop the rioters. The police are guilty no matter what they do, not just in America, but everywhere. And in this strange rubric of culpability, they are deemed more guilty when the crime rate increases but also more guilty when the crime rate decreases.
Conversely, rioters are rarely held responsible for the crimes they commit, which may be why they often look so happy hurling bricks through store windows, while the policemen look so grim. Riots are holidays from even small amounts of social responsibility for people who carry that burden lightly enough to begin with, and the worst violence is usually committed by criminal hangers-on just looking for any excuse to break things and steal and beat people while posing for the cameras.
In 1992, this dynamic had ugly consequences in Atlanta. The Rodney King riots in Atlanta were a weird, wannabe event, a manufactured spectacle, though the violence was real. Looking back, I can’t avoid a creeping suspicion that the riots got as bad as they did in Atlanta because CNN is headquartered in the area where they occurred. CNN reporters often illustrate their stories by taking their cameras to the streets below their studios: anyone familiar with the area will recognize the CNN food court in footage from countless stories on countless subjects. CNN “man on the street” interviews are often something quite a bit more specific, as in: “the man on Forsyth Street between Luckie Street and MLK, in downtown Atlanta at lunchtime.”
So after the riots broke out in L.A., CNN did what they always do and went looking for footage in downtown Atlanta just beneath their studios (any other news network would do the same). What ensued was strange mini-riots in which youths were obviously acting out for the cameras.
You can’t deny the excitement of news reporters when they’re jostling for position in a big national story like that one. Is it fair to say that they egged the rioters on? I’m not sure I would go quite that far. But I do remember this: uninvolved people got off the streets pretty quickly, leaving little pockets of rioters fighting little pockets of police, being shadowed by little pockets of the media, all in the shadows of the CNN headquarters. In L.A., it was far too dangerous to report from many portions of the city: police helicopters were actually taking fire over populated areas. In Atlanta, the street scene arose symbiotically with the television cameras.
And the losers, as usual, were the police. As Jack Dunphy writes in an interesting article here, Daryl Gates’ recent death has become yet another occasion for the media to single him out for blame for the damage done to Los Angeles by the rioters. The way I remember it in Atlanta, the police were exasperated hall monitors trying to keep gangs of young men from doing more damage to downtown businesses and innocent pedestrians while the reporters aimed their cameras at the policemen, hoping one of them would make a wrong move, and the story would explode.