You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Closing of the American City

Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD
By Lou Cannon
(Times Books, 698 pp., $35)

Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration
By Tamar Jacoby
(Free Press, 624 pp., $30)

The Watts riot in 1965 and the Rodney King riot in 1992 both had as their immediate cause public beliefs about police behavior. In Watts, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, the arrest of a motorist led to an angry confrontation with a crowd. Over six days, 34 people were killed and the center of Watts was burned to the ground. After the acquittal of officers accused of beating Rodney King, there erupted the nation’s most deadly urban riot in over a century. Fifty-four people were killed, over eight hundred buildings were destroyed, and thousands more were damaged or looted.

There remain profound differences of opinion about whether the behavior of the police in the Watts arrest or the King beating justified the tumultuous response. But there can be little doubt that what the police and public officials did after these incidents made matters vastly worse. Lou Cannon, a distinguished reporter, has produced an extraordinary book, and its central message is nicely captured by its title: official negligence.

Cannon’s account cannot be understood without first understanding how Los Angeles is governed. It is a city founded by white, middle-class Progressives who wanted clean, efficient government uncontaminated by party politics. They put in place a charter that made elections nonpartisan, they sharply restricted how much political patronage can be handed out, and they conferred authority over a variety of government institutions, including the police, to part-time citizen commissions. As a consequence of these commissions, and of the great powers given to the city council, the mayor of the city is weak.

So long as the reformers who created this structure were prepared to run it, and so long as the city’s population shared the Progressives’ values, the system worked. The first police chief, who was appointed in 1889, established professionalism as the goal of the department. Some succeeding chiefs, notably August Vollmer, William Worton, William H. Parker, and Edward Davis, maintained that goal, and they worked hard to make the department into an honest, carefully selected, and well-trained force strictly obedient to the chief. Beginning in 1923, the chief occupied a civil service post from which he could only be fired for cause.

Between the terms of these effective chiefs, however, some scoundrels held office. Chief Louis Oaks, who ran the department in 1922-23, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; his department was involved in gambling and bootlegging. Many of these failures can be attributed in part to the fact, the central fact, that creating a reform government is easier than running one. The Progressives had no party organization, and therefore no way to recruit their own members. The reliance on volunteer commissions to run the government put power in the hands of people who often did not know much about the city, or who used their commission post to increase their personal influence.

IN CITIES SUCH as Chicago and New York, party organizations often dominated police departments. This did not happen in Los Angeles. Most Angelenos thought that this was a good thing, because it spared the city a tradition of corrupt officers and a massive influx of organized crime. Yet these gains were purchased at a price. The absence of parties also meant that serf-serving politicians, such as Mayor Frank Shaw, could gain power while the reformers were attending to other matters. And the lack of parties meant that even when the Progressives regained authority, there were no mechanisms for inducing the police to pay much attention to ethnic differences and neighborhood concerns. When good chiefs were in office, the police attracted able officers, but each of them quickly learned to respond to orders from above and not to cues from outside. It created what one LAPD veteran described as a “military paradigm”—a useful model, except for its failure to recognize that it was policing, not occupying, a city.

All of this was made worse by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, a ballot measure that also flowed from the old Progressive vision that the people and not the parties should make policy decisions. By cutting property taxes, restricting the rate at which they could be increased, and requiring a two-thirds majority before voters could approve in subsequent elections any new expenditures, Proposition 13 sharply reduced the chance that the LAPD could get much new money. As a result, the police suffered from too few officers, police cars that were driven until their axles fell off, a communications system that was hopelessly inadequate, a crime lab that began to deteriorate, and station houses that were ramshackle or worse.

IN 1960, THE city had reported to it three violent crimes for every LAPD officer. By 1990, there were ten such crimes for every officer. The “thin blue line” of the LAPD was now a heavily overworked, poorly equipped line. When the Rodney King riots broke out, the officers in the nearest station did not have a television set with which to watch what virtually every other Angeleno was seeing. To make matters worse, Chief Daryl Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley were not on speaking terms. In a different city, the mayor would have fired a chief whom he did not like. In Los Angeles, again, that was not possible.

It has been many years, moreover, since Los Angeles had a culture supportive of Progressivism. Its population is amazingly diverse, with white Anglos a distinct minority. The LAPD had worked hard to adapt to this change; and in the early 1990s, it had done better than any of the other big-city departments in hiring African American and Latino officers in rough proportion to their share of the city’s population. But its efforts to reach out to the city through community-oriented policing models, such as the “basic car plan” of former Chief Edward Davis, were scotched by Mayor Bradley and Chief Gates.

You may wonder why an African American mayor would kill an idea designed to make the police more responsive to neighborhoods. So do I. Cannon’s best guess is that the mayor, backed up by liberal activists such as Stephen Reinhardt (now a federal judge in the Ninth Circuit), feared that having police officials exercise some kind of local leadership would be a political threat to the mayor and a source of opposition to court decisions restricting police powers. Gates concurred in this view for different reasons, probably because community policing had never won the hearts of many LAPD officers. As a result, the LAPD was not only undernourished, it had also lost much of its connection with local neighborhoods.

WHEN GEORGE WILLIAM HOLLIDAY, in the middle of the night of March 3, 1991, taped the encounter between Rodney King and several officers, he recorded one of the most famous images in modern American history. Unfortunately, as Cannon reports, the tape was edited before it was broadcast. Gone were the few seconds in which King, at the start of the episode, charged at the officers. What viewers saw was only officers beating a crouching King with metal batons. And the absence of pictures of King’s charge led many people to believe that King was simply and gratuitously the victim of police torture. In fact, as the records show, he was very drunk, had led officers on a wild chase through the streets, had refused to submit to orders to lie down, had resisted two electric charges from a Taser, and had thrown off officers who tried to subdue him.

Even allowing for these facts, however, the beating that followed was sickening. Sergeant Stacey Koon later described it as the most violent encounter that he had ever witnessed, and Chief Gates described the scene as an “excessive” use of force that left him “sick to my stomach.” Over 50 blows were directed at King, and 31 blows struck him. In an attempt to get a fair jury, the trial of Koon and three other officers was moved to Simi Valley, a largely white suburb in nearby Ventura County. Though most people expected convictions, three officers were acquitted; and one, Laurence Powell, who had delivered most of the blows, had a hung jury. Shortly after the verdicts were announced, the riots began.

Cannon set out to understand why the Sinai Valley jury acted as it did. His account is the most balanced that I have read, and it offers three reasons. For a start, he suggests that suburban Simi Valley had a pro-police culture. But surely this is offset by the fact that every public opinion poll taken at the time of the trial showed that huge majorities of all races, in Ventura County (where Simi Valley is located) as well as in Los Angeles, thought that the officers had used too much force. It is doubtful, therefore, that the culture of Simi Valley was the decisive explanation.

A second reason proposed by Cannon is the trim use of the videotape. Most people thought, quite reasonably, that the edited version unmistakably revealed policy brutality in operation. But at the trial, the complete tape, not the edited tape, was used; and as even prosecution lawyers admitted, this version shed a somewhat different light on the incident. It became a powerful tool for the defense in two ways. In choosing jurors, the judge excused any prospective juror who, on the basis of seeing the edited tape, had decided that too much force was used. This odd jury selection rule effectively screened out jurors who might have convicted. And during the trial, the complete tape showed King charging the officers who had asked him to submit. Jurors began to think that whatever the officers did, it was prompted by King’s behavior.

CANNON’S THIRD REASON for the verdict is that the policy of the LAPD about the use of force was already a major issue. Prior to the spring of 1982, officers had been told to subdue unruly suspects with “choke holds,” or arm pressure on the carotid artery. In some circumstances that hold may have had merit, but in the LAPD it led to disaster. In the seven years ending in 1982, 15 people had been killed by choke holds, and seven of them were African Americans. Other police agencies had used choke holds, including New York, San Diego, and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department, but in those organizations hardly any deaths occurred. This suggests that LAPD training may have been defective. In 1982, the Police Commission and the City Council banned the further use of the choke hold.

Like so many reforms, this one produced its own unanticipated harm. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the accepted alternative to the choke hold became blows from a metal baton. When it was put into use, the number of complaints about excessive LAPD force shot up. Astonishingly, the LAPD never trained its officers to subdue an unruly suspect by having a few officers drag him to the ground, which is a common police practice in many other cities. Such a practice might produce bruises, but few serious injuries and certainly no deaths. And even the baton techniques were not well-taught in the 1980s. Many officers had not been adequately trained in the use of this instrument. LAPD Sergeant Charles Duke, who had taught self-defense at the Police Academy, testified that there were better ways to subdue King but that these alternatives were not LAPD policy. “It sounds cruel,” he added, but baton blows were the only approved method. The judge told the jurors to apply the law, and not LAPD policy, to the accused officers, but they were reluctant to convict people who seemed to be following an official (albeit inadequate) policy.

THE VERDICT WAS read at 3:15 PM. Within about an hour, the riot had begun with the robbery of a liquor store near the intersection of Florence and Normandie, in South Central Los Angeles. Many theories have sprung up about what happened: it was an “urban insurrection” or a “gang conspiracy.” Cannon believes that the riot was not any one thing, but a series of many related riots. It began with a robbery in which the robbers used the King verdict as a justification to the liquor store owner from whom they stole some beer. Many people joined in a racial protest. When the police did not respond to the first outbreak, many people who cared nothing about King joined in a looting spree. Korean merchants were singled out for attack, in part because (like Jews before them) they sold merchandise in black neighborhoods, and in part because a Korean woman had received only probation for killing an innocent African American girl not long before the King verdict. (The Korean woman had wrongly thought that the girl was trying to rob her store.)

This complex array of partially related events got completely out of hand because of the near-collapse of any kind of political or police leadership. Mayor Bradley and Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had objected to any visible police presence while awaiting the verdict, because they believed that it would be “provocative.” When the verdict was announced, Mayor Bradley’s first statement was inflammatory: it was “senseless,” he said, and it left him “speechless.” And the police did no better.

After the verdict was announced, Chief Gates spent three hours in his office without taking charge of the police or issuing a tactical alert, and then he went off to a fund-raising meeting in fancy Brentwood. The Metro Division, which includes the SWAT team, was spread all over the county, and nobody authorized it to deploy in battle gear. Two armed personnel carriers, purchased to deal with disorders, were kept out of sight. There were no rubber bullets to use in crowd-dispersal weapons. The police could not use tear gas because that took the permission of a commander, and there was no such officer on duty at the riot scene. When the incident at Florence and Normandie got out of hand, the lieutenant in that district (many of the captains were off at a training seminar) ordered his officers to withdraw from the scene, and kept them away while the rioting spread. Officers were called to a command post, but they found no computer, no television set, and scarcely any telephones. The officers on the street were often instructed not to engage or to arrest rioters. Many higher-ranking officers seemed worried about protecting their careers or reputations, and so felt that doing nothing was a prudent course. The LAPD even had difficulty in accepting help from other agencies. The Sheriff’s office and the California Highway Patrol offered personnel, but the LAPD did not seem to know what to do with them.

Most rank-and-file officers were angry or frustrated by this lack of preparation and direction. The result was a catastrophe. An understandable racial protest was allowed to multiply into a widespread pattern of looting. A study by the Los Angeles Times showed that hardly any looters who were arrested even mentioned King. And most of those arrested for looting were not black, but Latino. More than 2,000 Korean stores were destroyed, often one by one. I recall driving through Koreatown, seeing stores with Korean names destroyed between non-Korean buildings that were left intact. Firefighters, rightly afraid of being shot while trying to put out blazes, had trouble getting adequate police escorts.

Throughout the city, however, there were far more good people than bad ones. Countless African Americans helped people threatened by rioters. After the rioting, Los Angeles voters were asked to approve two measures, one to upgrade the LAPD’s communications system and the other to add 1,000 new officers. African American voters supported both measures. Most African Americans never riot and never loot. But a significant fraction of them remain deeply alienated from the American system; and many, out of a variety of motives, are ready to express that discontent whenever an incident—typically, a police encounter with an African American—sparks a flame.

IN HER SPLENDID BOOK, Tamar Jacoby has written a detailed and troubling account of how that discontent has guided politics in New York City, Detroit, and Atlanta. She confronts the central question that must govern any discussion of African American life today: What happened to integration? Over 30 years after the passage of the first significant federal civil rights law, a law that most people hoped would produce a society that was legally color-blind, color dominates American politics. Recently a number of books, notably one by Ellis Cose, have been written about what it is like to be black, many focusing on the tendency of the police to question innocent, middle-class blacks. Two recent books, by Randall Kennedy and Orlando Patterson, have defended integration and individualism. A large book summarizing black progress has come from Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. But none of these quite succeeds in portraying the extent to which many African Americans no longer regard integration as the central goal of race relations. That is Jacoby’s melancholy accomplishment.

COURT DECISIONS AND civil rights laws banned racial oppression, but they did not describe the kind of world in which we hope to live when oppression ends. Do we want schools to be open to all children regardless of race, or each school to have a racial mix? Do we want restrictive real estate practices ended, or blacks and whites to live near one another? Do we want jobs and contracts passed out without racial favoritism, or blacks to get their “fair share” of both? Is affirmative action a meaningful effort to recruit African Americans, or a set of racial preferences?

Jacoby provides a vivid account of how three cities struggled to answer these questions. In New York, Mayor John Lindsay, working with McGeorge Bundy, the president of the Ford Foundation, tried to make integration real. He failed. In Detroit, Mayor Coleman Young rejected the integrationist goat in favor of a flamboyant, black-power style that won him loyal followers, but he left the city a fiscal and social wreck. In Atlanta, Mayor Maynard Jackson put in place a systematic pattern of racial preferences in jobs and contracts that conferred real benefits on only a few people.

Some of those who followed in the footsteps of these mayors—Rudolph Giuliani in New York, Dennis Archer in Detroit, Andrew Young in Atlanta—tried to reclaim the integrationist goal by working with leaders of all races and trying to minimize racial claims from any group. Jacoby’s story stops well short of Giuliani or Archer, but it shows how Young, who brought impeccable civil-rights credentials and extraordinary negotiating skills to the task of forging black-white alliances, still lost much of his support from black voters.

The common theme in Jacoby’s account of New York and Detroit is easily stated: white elites often chose to listen to the most angry (and therefore, they thought, the most “authentic”) African American leaders, ignoring the opinions of those who had a stake in preserving an orderly society. She tells again, and in poignant detail, the absurd story of school decentralization in New York, a Lindsay-Bundy attempt to provide “community control” of neighborhood schools that produced not control by the community but control by radicals. She reminds us that the New Detroit Committee, led by Max Fisher and Joe Hudson, devoted its time to “ventilation”—that is, to listening endlessly not only to real complaints from serious people, but as much or more to empty bluster from self-anointed “leaders.”

What a few black leaders learned from these efforts was that, in the words of Al Sharpton, “confrontation works.” And confrontation may indeed work. But to what end? It works to end a legal barrier to progress, but progress will not follow for everyone unless everyone is ready to make progress. If history, the legacy of slavery, the effects of migration, or the collapse of public services impedes those not equipped to seize the opportunity, they will be left behind. And for them the next round of confrontation will be mounted not to achieve any goal, but to denounce their condition.

Many of the confrontational agitators portrayed by Jacoby were animated by a hostility to “the system.” But no decision could have altered “the system,” because no action, public or private, determines what the system is. Sonny Carson, Roy Innis, and Herman Ferguson were New York street fighters, and they had no program, other than “ending oppression”; but they became part of the school community control program. A lot of Ford Foundation money went straight into their pockets. Some of Lindsay’s aides spent days courting these people in order to promote peace, apparently never grasping the point that the street fighters thrived on the opposite of peace. Nor did the fighters represent the people. Most blacks, when interviewed, shared many grievances about white society, but they felt that neighborhood riots did more harm than good. And the slogan of “black power” did not have much public resonance. About four-fifths of African Americans said they wanted to work, live, and school their children among whites. Lindsay listened to the street fighters and not to the people.

AN EVEN SADDER story unfolded in Detroit. The massive tints in 1967 moved the city’s business leaders to organize a New Detroit Committee that not only listened to, but also spent money on, the street fighters. It was Lindsayism transplanted to Michigan, and even less effective there. Frank Ditto, who led a street gang and wrote newsletters urging that police officers be killed, got $250,000. Jacoby estimates that much of $10 million the Committee spent was for “thinly disguised riot insurance.” Little of the spending helped ordinary people.

The Detroit Police Department had a sorry history. It was often heavily tainted by racism, and much in need of serious reform. But the real changes that occurred tended to make matters worse. Judge George Crockett, later a member of Congress, made a practice of releasing arrested blacks who came before him, on the grounds that “the law is [a] camouflage … for racism.” When Coleman Young, a tough union radical who detested Walter Reuther, became mayor in 1974, he made police reform his highest priority. Reform was needed, and Young did some useful things (such as abolishing some controversial police programs), but his real agenda was not to make the police better, it was to make the police blacker. (There, too, reforms were needed, since blacks had long been kept in all-black precincts and denied much chance of promotion.)

Yet Young was not content with ending abuses. He ordered that police living outside Detroit (they were almost all white) be fired. He divided promotion lists into two parts, one white and one black, and directed that for every white promoted, a black had to be promoted as well. He insisted that the department be half black, and within a few years it was headed in that direction. Some of these gains were made by loosening or ignoring recruitment standards. Many applicants were allowed to take the same exam repeatedly until they passed, or were given the answers.

Meanwhile the city’s crime rate shot upward. So did crime rates in almost all American cities, but the Detroit rate went up faster and higher. The murder rate rose by over 50 percent in just three years. Whites fled the city. A majority of blacks said they wanted out, too, though their suburban living choices were fewer. And when an all-black police unit was sent to control a black riot, the officers were ignored and assaulted as if they had been white. “The police,” whatever their color, were the enemy to restless youth. Already weakened by economic forces and population movements, Detroit collapsed under Young’s leadership. But his hold on his voters never wavered. He was a street fighter elected to be mayor; and by affirming black pride, he survived every challenge.

IN 1950, ATLANTA and Birmingham, just 120 miles apart, were the same size. By 1970, Atlanta was the capital of the New South, and Birmingham was still struggling to overcome its national reputation for racism. Atlanta had grown in part because white and black leaders had worked to make it the city “too busy to hate,” a thriving economic area with middle-class whites and blacks making rapid progress and supporting a common political system. Black leaders, of course, were junior partners in this collaboration, since white leaders controlled most of the wealth and power; but African Americans seemed willing to bide their time and let rewards flow to their patience. With six predominately black colleges and a well-established black business center, African Americans in Atlanta had some resources to make their patience bearable.

In 1973, Maynard Jackson, a black, became mayor. Like almost every other mayor, he made police reform his highest priority. To Jackson, reform meant race—that is, putting blacks in charge. The effort was controversial, especially since his first choice as chief, Reginald Eaves, was constantly in trouble for various scandals, and since crime rates in Atlanta, as in Detroit, shot upward. For many of his followers, however, race was in fact as important as crime. When, between 1979 and 1981, dozens of black children were found murdered, many assumed that the suspect was white. The Atlanta police were denounced, even though they were led by a black chief who reported to a black mayor. And then, unexpectedly, a largely black jury convicted a black man named Wayne Williams of the murders. Opinion among many African Americans did not change. Williams was called a “scapegoat” for white villainy.

BUT ATLANTA HAD an opportunity—and a problem—that Detroit lacked. Money poured into Atlanta, and increasingly it had to be spent under strict affirmative action guidelines designed by the mayor. Many new buildings, and stations along a new commuter rail line, and Atlanta Underground (an inner-city shopping and entertainment area) were built under agreements that required extensive black participation. Many people hoped this would recruit hundreds of new black businesses, but in fact most of the money either went to a small number of black contractors or was funneled through black fronts (what Atlantans call a “rent-a-skin” program) to white firms. In 1980 the Atlanta Journal reported that over half the affirmative action money never got to legitimate black businesses. One black firm provided the minority quota for two-thirds of all the big building projects. Few new firms were formed; and of those that were, few lasted.

When the Supreme Court ruled that public contracts could not be awarded on racial grounds except when necessary to compensate for clearly established past patterns of racial discrimination, Atlanta commissioned a study to prove that racism had influenced contracting in the past. The study showed (wrongly, according to Jacoby) that racism had determined contracts—at which point Atlanta passed a new ordinance that repeated a law that seemed plainly at odds with the Court’s ruling. So have countless other cities.

THESE FINE BOOKS raise a fundamental question: Can the political will be summoned to pursue a strategy of making skin color less relevant in public life? The answer, so far, is no. Race may have become less important in private affairs; race may dominate fewer private judgments about human conduct; and a growing economy may now be contributing to the increased material well-being of members of all races. For many middle-class blacks, however, race remains a constant reminder of their difficulty, in being judged solely as individuals, and for many low-income (and young) blacks, race is an explanation for the gains that they have not made. And since they confront angry or frightened people at the moment of their deepest anger or their greatest fear, the police are the most likely public agency to be caught up in the whirlwind of racial passion. For Los Angeles to have a black police chief, even one as competent as Bernard Parks, is no guarantee that rage and rioting will not occur again.

Cannon infers no future policy from his trenchant analysis, and Jacoby can only offer possibilities. She calls, naturally, for “better leadership,” but she offers no reason for thinking that our political system will provide it, even assuming that we knew what it meant. She believes that incentives work better than heavy-handed engineering, and of course she is right—but affirmative action is an incentive, and it, in her account, did not work. She alludes to incentives that might work better (such as school choice), but she does not explore them. And she thinks that integration cannot succeed without acculturation. This, I suspect, is quite true. She points out that “acculturation,” that suspect word, does not mean the abandonment of racial pride or ethnic tradition. It means learning to speak and to write good English, and growing up in families where everyone learns to expect a job.

Yet Jacoby also reminds us of the famous, prescient words of Du Bois, who diagnosed the ambivalence of American blacks about integration: “One feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.” Not only do many African Americans today suffer from “two-ness,” a desire to be both black and American; but a part of that community stands wholly apart in a desire for oneness, a desire to be entirely black, enraged at what America, in their view, has done to them, and eager to support anyone who denounces it.

We are at mid-stream in our efforts to produce a society in which whites and blacks can live together decently well. Such a transformation is still decades away, and in this time there will be more riots, more suspicion, and more political manipulation. The vast gains that many African Americans have made—the gains portrayed at length in the Thernstroms’ book—coexist with a deep layer of anger, distrust, and confusion, and this deeper discontent claims as its chief victims young people who lack fathers, schooling, and a belief that the future will be shaped by their own efforts and not by a shadowy and threatening Them.

These books are reports from the nation’s halfway house, perilously balanced between extraordinary accomplishments and thinly controlled rage. My grandchildren, I believe, will inherit a different world, a world in which more Americans will have learned to live peaceably. The increasing rate of interracial marriages is a sign of what may happen: more individual acceptances of difference that presage wider group tolerance. Perhaps there will then fade the historically flawed view that whatever afflicts blacks, whites are the cause of it. That view simply cannot be true, for if whites are so powerful as to have caused all black problems, they must also be so strong as to cause all black successes; and as Orlando Patterson has pointed out, that is absurd.

In the troubled meantime, it would be useful to remind ourselves that most people, white or black, especially the great majority who never get on television, want tolerance, and are alarmed by street fighters in or out of office. And to remind ourselves also that, whatever people want, electoral politics often brings out the worst in us.

James Q. Wilson is the author of Moral Judgment (BasicBooks) and The Moral Sense (Free Press). This article appeared in the May 11, 1998 issue of the magazine.