Moments after the 1992 not guilty verdict came down in the Rodney King trial, the first violence I witnessed at the Los Angeles county courthouse came from a white man. He ran out to the courthouse parking lot screaming "You've got to be kidding me!?" He then busted a car window with his well-made briefcase. It was a sign of things to come.
That night, we'd planned on using CNN's van to transmit live shots from the streets of Los Angeles back to our Bay Area viewers. Our best laid plans unraveled as quickly as an angry South Central Neighborhood. Suddenly, a mob of young people poured gasoline on rags as they made an arsenal of Molotov cocktails.
The CNN crew got spooked, slammed the doors on their "live van" and left us for dead with the crowd. We stayed with the angry mob for 48 hours and saw firsthand that, although the riots may have been sparked by the verdict in the Rodney King trial, King's memory was little more than a dying ember in a bonfire of misdirected anger and unrequited rage.
The LA riots were about racism double squared to the third power -- no doubt about it. The melting pot was boiling over. White police, Black police, White people, Black people, Korean people, Chinese people, Mexican people, Vietnamese... all the people seemed to have as many grudges as guns. The black and white racism of Blacks and Whites, stoked by a long history of police brutality, faded to gray during the hours of chaos that followed.
People of different races became targets of arson and random violence. Economic fault lines rumbled as it became clear other dramas were moving to center stage. A hatred-soaked environment of poverty laid the foundation of anger long before the verdict. The Los Angeles riots had become an all-encompassing, broad brushstroke, time for payback.
The racism blew me away, but it was the legion of television and police helicopters overhead that, quite literally, whipped it all up into a frenzy. If there was an organizing force to this chaos... a single element egging on the rioters... it was the half dozen noisy helicopters following the roving mobs' every move. Like a competent cattle herding dog, the helicopters gathered the crowd and propelled it into a larger and meaner force of nature.
When people on the ground cannot hear themselves think, forget about them reasoning with one another. The warzone feeling of mayhem created by the helicopters practically dares people to become more reckless. The noise drowns out their voices... giving the impression that authority is forcing them to shut up. What is a person without voice? There's no greater sign of disrespect than to take a voice away.
Imagine helicopters so loud your ears ring. Imagine lights so bright it hurts to look up. Imagine helicopter blades swirling so fast they fan the flames of discontent... herding and goading young people with reality TV culture mentalities to do just about anything to get on camera.
Are you getting the picture?
Let's be smart following the Mehserle verdict expected this week.
If local television stokes anger with uncontextualized images, turn off that station forever. Those who run it care more about profit than the communities they promised to inform.
Get experienced reporters on the ground. Keep the over bearing, loud, chaos provoking helicopters out of the sky. At least we can do that for our beloved Oakland.
Without all that noise, we might even hear the voices of our future leaders.
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