In The 20th Century: A United State’s Problem
Nightline Looks At This Century’s Worst Riots
Nightline aired a segment dealing with the Los Angeles riots following the first verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case. We thought it would be of great interest to our readers, who may have missed this broadcast, to print a transcript of this segment. This report is living history in its truest sense, showing how nations react at a time of strife. This report on cultural history shows that no matter how strong the lessons of History are, we are condemned to forever repeat mistakes unless we as a people act to change it.
Nightline : The Los Angeles. Riots and a View of History
Ted Koppel: For President Bush, a close-up view of a riot’s aftermath, and plenty of unsolicited advice.
Los Angeles Riot Area Resident: If we’re going to rebuild this devastation, it’s going to have to be billions of dollars, billions of dollars, and the only place where that’s going to come from is Washington, and it didn’t come 28 years ago, and I doubt if it will come now.
Koppel: Tonight, lessons from past racial unrest, and how the L.A. riots played in Pretoria, Beijing, and other foreign capitals.
Among the costs of the Los Angeles riots that no one has, as yet, calculated, is the loss in U.S. prestige. There is, after all, scarcely a corner of the world so remote that it does not receive instantaneous satellite transmissions from the United States. And particularly in these countries that resent America’s strength and its claims to global leadership, there is a certain glee, what the Germans call “schaden-freude,” taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.
Washington does, after all, take pride in holding other governments to the high moral, legal, and human rights standards that the United States claims as its own. It was probably to be expected, then, that other governments which have bridled under U.S. criticism would relish turning things around.
What other countries are saying about what happened in Los Angeles is not necessarily fair; it’s going to make a lot of you angry, but if you’re wondering how others see us these days, here are several brief updates from ABC News correspondents stationed around the world.
Dean Reynolds, ABC News: (voice-over) The Israelis have been fighting the Palestinian uprising for more than four years, and are now watching with interest how their often-critical American friends handle disturbances of their own. The riots in Los Angeles received extensive coverage here, just at a time when the Israeli army was fending off charges that it was following a shoot-to-kill policy against protesters.
Josef Goell, Columnist, “Jerusalem Post”: Perhaps an Israeli would be justified telling his well-intentioned American friend, you know, “Come off it, ha-ha, we’ve both got problems.”
Renolds: In Iraq, the government, which has repeatedly been condemned by the United Nations, quickly called for a Security Council debate on the Los Angeles disturbances.
Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi said the verdict in the Rodney King trial proves that the two Libyans accused in the Lockerbie bombing would never get a fair trial from an American jury.
And Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khameini, said the Los Angeles uprising, as he put it, shows that the United States has no business pointing its finger at others.
Ayatollah Khameini: (through interpreter) The leader refuted Washington’s claim to be the forerunner of human life in the world, as millions of Americans have been deprived of their basic civil rights in the U.S. society.
Renolds: There is a lot of smirking now in the Middle East, as the nation which people here call “the world’s policeman” has to deal with trouble in its own front yard.
Todd Carrel: ABC News: This is Todd Carrel. China has reported the rioting in Los Angeles to make a case to its people that there are violations of human rights in the United States, and asked what right America has to act as “the world’s human rights policeman”. One newspaper said the riots showed the hypocrisy of democracy, and the morbid state of American society. The reports created a chilling sense of an American city under siege.
Beijing President: I know [Los Angeles] is controlled by the army, so it is really dangerous, of course.
Carrel: Television news ran factual reports stressing the victimization of Blacks, them took more potshots at racism in America. The Chinese want to deflect criticism of their own extensive violations of human rights, perhaps believing that images of National Guard troops moving into Los Angeles neighborhoods are somehow equivalent to the Chinese army’s massacre of peaceful protesters in Beijing, or that the brutality of the Rodney King beating might somehow offset China’s systematic beatings and persecution of Tibetans who have agitated for independence. One difference is that this footage was never shown on Chinese television.
Don Kladstrup, ABC News: (voice-over) This is Don Kladstrup in South Africa, where racial violence and tensions between the police and community are not the exception, but the norm. People are used to riots, used to running battles with police, used to death. But when they saw it happen in Los Angeles, they were shocked.
1st SOUTH AFRICAN: I’ve seen that racism is still there in America.
2nd SOUTH AFRICAN: You know, I didn’t think something like that could happen over there, I thought it was only something that, you know, we saw here in South Africa, not over there.
Don Kladstrup, (voice-over) Commentators played the story straight, as did most newspapers, though one asked, “How many times has the United States, that paragon of virtue, read us the riot act on civil rights and treatment of Blacks? It should clean up its own back yard before it tries to clean up ours.”
Aggrey Klaaste, Editor, “Soweto”: It’s a terrible letdown, really, for people who have held up America as a land of freedom and the land of democracy, you know, to see this kind of thing.
Don Kladstrup: (voice-over) For some, however, it is cold comfort. “Now we know,” said one person, “that this kind of violence doesn’t only happen in South Africa.”
Jerry King, ABC News: (voice-over) This is Jerry King in Berlin. German TV had planned to lead with domestic news, a major national strike. The riots changed that. Los Angeles overshadowed everything when the rioters hit the streets.
Lothar Loewe, Newspaper Columnist: People looked at it incredibly, to see Los Angeles, an American city, like a war zone.
Jerry King: (voice-over) According to one newspaper, this was “Hatred in America. It looked like Kuwait on fire, it disturbed Germans.”
Berlin President: We saw America as a state of freedom, and this is a real revolution, you know.
Jerry King: (voice-over) His conclusion? Los Angeles is not very far away, and it certainly was not very far from the minds of these young Germans taking part in the traditional May Day
David Ensor, ABC News: (voice-over) This is David Ensor in Moscow. Russians have seen the same pictures Americans saw, of what Russian television calls “the calamity in the United States.”
But the sharpest comments are in the print media, several newspapers using the riots as grist for America-bashing, cold-war style. The newspaper Izvestia wrote, “In America, they still lynch Negroes.” Said Sovietskaye Rossia, “The American melting pot is just propaganda, a myth.”
Russian Information Agency: They want to stress the ills of the capitalist society, especially in the United States, which many democratic newspapers portray now as an example we
all have to follow.
David Ensor, (voice-over) Halfway around the world from Los Angeles, in the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan, anti-government demonstrators were warned by the regime, “Stop your protest or we will use Los Angeles measures against you.”
For those opposed to reforms here, the news from America provides a political opportunity, a chance to argue that democracy American-style is no model for Russia. I’m David Ensor for Nightline, in Moscow.
Kopple: When we come back, we’ll take a look at the lessons of racial unrest from the past, but first, when we return, we accompany President Bush as he ventures into urban America for a survey of the damage in Los Angeles.
(“Times Mirror” poll 5 /3 /92. Who would do the best to improve conditions for poor people? Clinton 41%; Perot 22%; Bush 15%)
Kopple: It was a day of discovery for George Bush. The President, who has been criticized for being out of touch with urban America, got a firsthand look at the destruction in Los Angeles. Still, as Jackie Judd reports, interaction with the victims was limited.
Jackie Judd, ABC News: (voice-over) President Bush saw up close, but not very personal, the devastation of south central Los Angeles. City leaders were his guide through the day. Some business people shared stories about the loss of their livelihoods, and apparently the President had a sympathetic ear.
1st Los Angeles Riot Area Resident: He said he’s going to-he definitely put it on his agenda to come back again.
Jackie Judd : And if he forgets, you’re supposed to send him a note?
1st Los Angeles Riot Area Resident: I’m supposed to send him a note if he forgets, and hope he gets the note.
Jackie Judd :(voice-over) But the people who live in these neighborhoods didn’t get near the President. They stood on the sidelines with more than a little skepticism.
2nd Los Angeles Riot Area Resident: And then first come words, then comes the action.
3rd Los Angeles Riot Area Resident: It took for our community to get destroyed for him to come down here.
Jackie Judd : (voice-over) The White House insists the trip here was not a political visit for the President. Still, appearances like this one with local police have become regular features of the Bush campaign. It didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated by the police commander.
Michael Bostic, Police Commander: The press has taken a pretty good heyday on beating us up for the last few days, so it’s kind of nice to hear somebody in charge say something nice about all the hard work that a lot a of good police officers have done.
Jackie Judd : (voice-over) Later, at a church, Mr. Bush seemed moved by the destruction he had earlier seen.
Pres. George Bush : And we are our brother’s keeper, not to keep him back, not to keep him down, but to keep him well, and to keep him safe, and to give him a shot at the American dream.
Jackie Judd: (voice-over) Outside the church, a moment of unbridled emotion, unseen and unheard by the President.
Rodney White, Carpenter: Him and Reagan are the ones that caused this. Then they come-they’re gonna come down here and see and tell you guys how he’s gonna make it better. He’s gonna make it better, and what he’s gonna do, he’s gonna do what he’s been doing for the last four years, nothing but making it worse.
Jackie Judd: (voice-over) Hispanic leaders, including City Councilman Mike Hernandez, say that a great untold story about the ’92 riots is how much their community suffered. There are estimates that 40 percent of the property and businesses destroyed were Hispanic-owned.
Mike Hernandez, Los Angeles City Councilman: You had a mini-mall across the street, that’s been destroyed all around. You have this corner destroyed. So you have three intersections destroyed, and in between the blocks, we have destruction. So it’s going to take major rebuilding.
Jackie Judd: (voice-over) A mile from here, and a world away, in the elegant Bonaventure Hotel, Hispanic business leaders gathered to meet Mr. Bush.
David Lizarraga, The East L.A. Community Union: I will tell him that here stands before you a product of the Great Society. I was educated as a result of it, and there’s good things that happened through the War on Poverty, things that – some of which continue to be implemented even during his watch.
Jackie Judd: (voice-over) A few pictures were allowed before the group went behind closed doors. At the end, Lizarraga was pleased. No promises, he said, but some honesty.
Mr. Lizarraga: I was really heartened by the fact that we had a President who said, “You know what? I don’t have the answers. I need help.”
Jackie Judd: (voice-over) There was a time when this neighborhood was prosperous, a fashionable address. Renaldo Rodriguez, an auto mechanic and 20-year resident, has seen it go downhill, and he would have liked to have told the President about it.
Roddriguez: Poverty is the number one factor, and certainly people around here, you know, seem not to care anymore what the American dream is all about. For one thing, for sure, I guess there is no more American dream anymore.
Jackie Judd: (voice-over) That sort of despair followed Mr. Bush almost everywhere today, with only occasional expressions of hope. It was the Rodney King verdict that unleashed all of this. The verdict is still out on the success of the President’s efforts here.
Diane Watson, State Senator: You know, he made us feel good, but I haven’t heard a specific, I don’t hear a plan, I don’t hear the time-line, I don’t hear the blueprint, and until we have that, it’s nice to feel good and we certainly all need that.
Jackie Judd: (voice-over) This is Jackie Judd for Nightline, in Los Angeles.
Koppel: When we come back, a look at this century in urban America and the lessons taught – and forgotten – in the history of racial violence.
(ABC News / “Washington Post” poll, 4 /30/92. “Washington only pays attention to black problems after blacks resort to violence.” BLACKS: 1981, Yes, 64%; 1989, Yes, 66%; 4/30/92, Yes, 79%. WHITES: 1981, Yes, 28%; 1989, Yes, 30%; 4/30/92, Yes, 39%)
Koppel: Urban America has learned the hard way that racial rage does not take place in a vacuum, nor does it lie dormant after its first eruption. If there is a sense of unease after the explosion in south central Los Angeles, blame it on history. (voice-over) “The scenes by now are all too familiar, the violence, the anger, the bloodshed, and the senseless destruction of property. What has also become only too familiar is the analysis, linking, as this report does, the mob spirit and its murderous manifestations to the bitter race feelings that had grown up between the Whites and the Blacks.”
If that sounds just a little off-key, a tiny bit dated, you’re right. The quote comes from an analysis written in 1918, by a group of experts commissioned by Congress to study the riots of 1917 in East St. Louis, and to draft a report. At least 47 people died in the riots of 1917. Almost all of them were Black.
Hallister Kennedy witnessed what happened when he was a boy.
Hallister Kennedy: The next day, when all the Black men went to work, a riot started, and I was nine years old at the time, and the news came that they were beating up the Blacks downtown.
Koppel: (voice-over) The commission appointed by Congress filed its report, blaming “bitter race feelings”.
A year later, in 1919, there was another attack by White mobs on Blacks in Chicago. This time, 38 people were killed, and this time it was the governor of Illinois who ordered the formation of a commission to study the problem. In this instance, Blacks were actually included in the commission, and the report made some progressive recommendations, urging changes in the way that Blacks are treated, but Chicago officials ignored the items on changing the social agenda, and focused only on beefing up the police force.
Harlem, 1935. What turned out later to have [been] a false rumor swept through the Black New York neighborhood. The rumor involved a charge of police brutality. There was an outbreak of violence in which businesses were targeted and at least two people were killed. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed a commission. That commission issued a report which was quite profound and sensitive to Black concerns. It urged addressing discrimination in employment, welfare, and health care. The report was never released to the public. Its recommendations were ignored.
Detriot, 1943. Whites attacked a Black neighborhood. Thirty-one people were killed, almost all of them Black. The governor of Michigan appointed a commission. Once again, the report identifies social problems and makes appropriate recommendations, which were ignored. What was identified publicly was the problem of law and order.
Then came the ’60s, the worst decade of the century in terms of racial disorder. Watts in 1965. For six scorching days in August, there is rioting and killing and looting in the predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood. The spark that set it all off? The arrest of a Black man accused of drunk driving. California Governor Pat Brown appoints a commission. It focuses on the need for more law enforcement, but there are also recommendations for new housing and health care facilities, which are actually built in Watts.
But the embers of social unrest, of Black discontent, are still smoldering in ghettos across the country. Sparks jump from city to city, igniting violence in 1966 and 1967, from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, and some 50 cities in between. In what seems like a masochistic rage, Blacks set fire to their own neighborhoods, and over the two summers, some 80 people die.
By the time Martin Luther King is assassinated in 1968, the racial atmosphere is already ripe with tension. Violence breaks out in 125 cities. Forty-six people are killed. Property damage is enormous. And throughout, there are more commissions, more reports.
By far the most significant, perhaps the most thoughtful, report ever drafted on civil disorder in this country was what came to be known as the Kerner Commission report, named after the former governor of Illinois who headed the investigative body. One of the first witnesses to testify before the Kerner Commission was the distinguished Black scholar, Kenneth B. Clark.
“I read that report of the 1919 riot in Chicago,” said Dr. Clark, “and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the investigating committee on the Detroit riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again, in candor, say to you members of the commission it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland, with the same moving picture re-shown, over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendation, and the same inaction.”
Anthony Platt, The Politics of Riot Commissions: If you look back over the history of riot commissions that have studied situations in different cities, you find that they are predominantly White, they are predominantly men, they are predominantly people who come from the business community or from political office, or they come from elites that are already in power. They are not representative of the larger community. They rarely represent the populations that damage.
Roger Wilkins, George Mason University: We’ll have a lot of flurry, we’ll have a lot of papers written, we’ll have a lot of commissions. In the end, because we’re stuck with our ideology and because we are afraid to look at the enormity of our problems, the problems will just get more enormous.
James Corman :
Member 1966 Kerner Commission: One of the brightest, most articulate and angriest witnesses we had started out by saying “Twenty-five years from now, another witness will be testifying before another commission on the same problems,” and she was right.
Koppel: As yet, no commission has been named to study the causes of the riots in south central Los Angeles last week, but that’s probably just a matter of time. I’ll be back in a moment.
Koppel: That’s our report for tonight. I’m Ted Koppel in Washington. For all of us here at ABC News, good night. u
Copyright 1992 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. ABC NEWS, 47 West 66th St., New York, NY 10023, Transcripts: Journal Graphics, Inc., 1535 Grant St., Denver, CO 80203, contact: Laura Wessner (212)887-4995. Transcript #2859, May 7,1992, Nightline with Ted Koppel. This transcript has been edited for print clarity.