The events over the last week in Ferguson, Missouri look very familiar to those of us who have lived through the 1960s and 1990s in Los Angeles. The National Guard, the militarized police response, the fires, the looting, the tense confrontations between citizens and police officers, the media caught in the middle while trying to cover the story (and sometimes, just being obnoxious and in the way). And while the situation in Ferguson developed, L.A. had its own potential crisis: the case of Ezell Ford, the 25 year old, unarmed, mentally challenged black man shot and killed by LAPD officers south of downtown. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck met with the community this week in an attempt to diffuse the situation, but he was often shouted down by the crowd.
Ford was accosted by officers near 65th and Broadway on Monday, August 11th. According to several witnesses, he complied with the officers’ directives but was shot in the back while lying face down in the street. The officers involved said he fought with them and was shot only after he grabbed an officer’s gun. At the meeting in a local church, Beck tried to calm and reassure residents who feel Ford’s killing is just one more terrible injustice in a city with a long history of racial conflict involving the LAPD. The incident spawned a number of protests throughout the city including a large gathering and march in downtown L.A.
The Watts’ Riots during the summer of 1965 are often cited as a watershed moment for Los Angeles in the Civil Rights Movement. On August 11 through 17 of that year, the city erupted in flames over the treatment of motorist Marquette Frye and his mother. Frye was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol for reckless driving, and upon failing a field sobriety test, was arrested. A friend brought Frye’s mother to the scene where a scuffle ensued. Residents on the street began throwing rocks and chunks of concrete at responding officers and the incident quickly escalated into violence. Approximately 46 square miles of Los Angeles turned into a war zone with LAPD Chief William H. Parker calling in close to 4000 National Guard troops to supplement 934 LAPD officers and 718 sheriff’s deputies. The Chief declared martial law and instituted a curfew citywide. In a week’s worth of violence, 34 people were killed with 1,032 injured. Law enforcement officials arrested 3,438 people. In the end, damage totaled $40 million with widespread looting and arson, much of it targeting white-owned businesses. Parker, himself, fanned the flames, referring to participants in the rioting as “monkeys in the zoo.” Rioters blocked fire fighters from putting out flames, and beat white motorists who drove through the area.
Twenty-seven years later, the city erupted again with the Los Angeles Riots. The chaos in the streets began after officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King were acquitted by a mostly white jury in the bedroom community of Simi Valley. The civil unrest again originated in south-central L.A. and resulted in $1 billion in damages. In a repeat of the past, Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, asked Governor Pete Wilson to call in the National Guard and federal troops to quell the violence. A curfew was put in place but looting and arson spread across the city. In the end, 53 were dead including 10 shot by law enforcement. Two thousand were injured. In total, fire fighters responded to 3600 fires with 1100 buildings destroyed.
The LAPD claimed that King resisted arrest and was under the influence of PCP, yet his bloodwork turned up negative for the drug. A citizen by the name of George Holliday videotaped King’s beating from the balcony of his apartment and his tape quickly became familiar to people around the world. The flashpoint for the violence was at the intersection of Florence and Normandie where again, motorists were pulled from vehicles and beaten, and bystanders began looting markets and businesses in the area. Many were owned by Koreans or Asian-Americans. White truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his vehicle and nearly beaten to death on live television. Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant was also pulled from his car and beaten. His ear was nearly severed from his head by a suspect who assaulted him with a knife. Both men were rescued by African-Americans. At one point during the violence, Koreatown was fortified by business owners who armed themselves and came together to stop looting. It was a tense and deadly chapter in Los Angeles history.
The roots of 1992 go back to Watts in 1965. Both incidents were the result of racial tensions and police brutality. It appears the shooting and murder of Ezell Ford may be yet another incident involving race, although it is not clear if Ford was targeted because he was black. That definitely appears to be the thinking of the crowd that showed up to voice their complaints and concerns to Chief Beck. In this latest incident, people have taken to the streets to protest but have yet to resort to violence. However, the tension and potential for another explosion remain high.
Many of the pundits interviewed on cable news this week about the events in Ferguson claim that the blame for these incidents falls on law enforcement and the increasing militarization of city police departments. Much of this weaponry and equipment was given to these organizations by the federal government as a way to fight off possible terrorist attacks. So the question must be asked: do we need our police departments to be armed like an army? President Obama announced this week that this policy would be reviewed in the future and military hardware grants to local law enforcement may be curtailed. There is an argument, given some of the desperate situations police officers have found themselves in recently, that such equipment is necessary to protect citizens. The LAPD has faced some violent and well-armed advisories over the years, including the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in a shootout May of 1974 and the North Hollywood bank robbers in February of 1997. Should police officers approach their jobs as social workers who keep the peace or as militia who protect lives and property with violent confrontation if necessary? Do they have a choice? More to the point, how do officers view the people they police? When they encounter a situation on the street, they have no idea who to trust, and therefore must treat every situation as hostile and every person present as a potential suspect or source of violent attack.
It is very easy to categorize others by appearance, and that is a temptation we all must resist. In a dangerous world with potentially armed suspects lurking around every corner, the police face the difficult job of protecting themselves as well as their fellow citizens in situations that are never clearly defined. When officers exercise caution with an active shooter or perpetrator of violence, we say they waited too long to take action and neutralize the suspect. When they act decisively, if erroneously, we are horrified by the results which are often tragic. How do we find the middle ground, where law enforcement has the ability to react and keep innocent people from getting killed while simultaneously avoiding prejudicial mistakes where someone with mental illness or even an innocent bystander is hurt or killed? The answers will not be easy to find.