On Thursday afternoon, April 30, my wife and I stood on our front lawn and watched while the worst urban riot in modern American history made its way toward us. We live in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire district, which is, by the standards of the city, an older neighborhood. Most of its houses and apartments are set along the tree-lined streets that flank Wilshire Boulevard at about the halfway mark in its progress west from downtown to Santa Monica and the sea. April is high spring here, and the air usually carries a slight scent of jasmine and mock orange.
But all that day, the air was heavy with the smell of burning. Twenty-four hours before, some thirty-five miles away in Ventura County’s Simi Valley, the jurors in the Rodney King case had voted to acquit the four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating him. The case had been moved out of Los Angeles County because, according to an appellate court, the political atmosphere produced by the incident there had precluded a fair trial. Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg, the trial judge, had chosen nearby Ventura County as the alternate venue, partly because it was the site most convenient to his house in Los Angeles’ well-to-do Brentwood section. The prosecutors failed to object to the choice of new venue despite the fact that fewer than 2 percent of Ventura County residents are African Americans, and Simi Valley is where large numbers of Los Angeles police officers and fire fighters live. The LA district attorney, Ira Reiner, decided not to object to Weisberg’s decision because he wanted to avoid setting a precedent that might be used by defense lawyers with black and other minority clients to challenge the racial composition of jury panels.
Reiner, whose tenure in office has been marked by a series of failures in highly publicized cases, himself had selected Terry L. White, a black prosecutor with an undistinguished record, to try the King case. The Los Angeles County district attorney is an elected official, and Reiner faces stiff competition in the June primary from two of his deputies. When he chose Terry White he seems to have had his eye on potential black voters; in any case, he had chosen him before the change of venue was granted, not anticipating that a black prosecutor would face a jury without any blacks. Of course it was also assumed that the videotape played in court would make the King case, as criminal lawyers say, a “slam dunk.” That may have been the main reason Reiner himself decided that King, who has a criminal record, would not be called to testify.
Within hours after the acquittals were announced at 3:15, young African Americans began to throw stones at police cars at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in South Central Los Angeles. Some were members of a street gang who had been in an abandoned house nearby. Yet in the first of what became a …