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James Ellroy on the Rodney King Scandal

February 13, 2012

Conversations with James Ellroy features three previously unpublished interviews that I have conducted with Ellroy. In my first interview with Ellroy, I quickly found him to be gentlemanly and very pleasant, occasionally displaying flashes of the eccentricity readers have come to associate with his Demon Dog persona. Ellroy is an eloquent speaker, but he shocks his listener by inserting or interrupting his intellectual assessments with idiosyncratic, sometimes foul-mouthed  urban speech patterns. Ellroy can be combative in conversations, and he is not afraid to express controversial opinions. When I asked him if there was any contradiction between his portrayal of corruption in the LAPD of the 1940s and 1950s in his LA Quartet novels, and his present amicable relationship and high regard for the LAPD, to my surprise, he came out with a vigorous and convincing defence of the LAPD Officers involved in the Rodney King beating.

On March 2, 1991, Rodney King was driving on the Foothill Freeway in the Greater Los Angeles area. He had been drinking and was over the legal limit, two police officers spotted the car speeding and gave chase. When King finally stopped the vehicle there were five police officers at the scene. The two passengers in King’s car were taken into custody without incident, but King resisted arrest. In their efforts to restrain him, the officers shot King with a taser, hit him with their batons and kicked him. The incident was caught on tape by a citizen who just happened to be in the area, and when the video was seen by the public it caused outrage at the apparent police brutality. None of the police were found guilty of using excessive force at the subsequent trial, and news of their acquittal sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which 53 people were killed.

You can read Ellroy comments from the interview which pertain to Rodney King below:

Interviewer: Would you say that current, or moderately current LAPD scandals like Rodney King or O.J. Simpson are more beyond the pale compared to the good work the LAPD does in the majority?

Ellroy: Well a couple of things. First of all, I wouldn’t call O.J. Simpson a scandal, it’s just, it’s not even a botched murder case—it’s a bad acquittal. And the second thing, Rampart wasn’t much of a scandal when truly dissected. Same thing with Rodney King if you see the entire three-minute tape. The fifty-six hammer blows that put Rodney on the ground, and the contact slash don’t look good, but moment to moment the entire three minute tape leads me to say, and I realize this is revolutionary, I don’t think they did anything wrong. There’s a moment when one of the policeman, and it might have been interestingly enough a man named Powell, kicked Rodney King in the head, which was the only out-of-line and out of policy thing that they did. Yeah he attacked Stacy Koon. The other people in the car were led to safety. He kept attacking: he took a taser, he kept getting up, getting up, getting up. He’s six foot five, two hundred and fifty pounds, and on angeldust, and you don’t engage people like that in one-on-one fights. And I think it was an aesthetic call that people made: they could either see this in the context of white racism and police corruption or overall police misconduct, or they could see it in a more localized context, which in this case, I think, is also a more broader context—that these are the exigent factors of police work, ad hoc, day to day. And you can’t let angeldust-addled shitbergs drive around at one hundred and ten miles an hour on the freeway, where they will kill people: interdict and suppress them. It doesn’t look good, the footage a million people have seen, many millions of people have seen. In a larger context, it reveals itself to be something entirely different, and so pointing to these things, and Rampart’s a crock of shit, and accepting them as historical fact is very dangerous and specious. And so what I’m morally obligated to do with interviewers is try to give them a different view of these speciously alleged facts.

Reading Ellroy’s comments I am struck by how cogently he argues his position, but it does not shake my belief that the police involved used excessive, even criminal force. Still, Ellroy has studied the case in far more detail than I have, and I grew up with a cultural understanding of the events which is in danger of seeing things out of context. For instance, I first saw the beating on video during the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), a highly manipulative piece of filmmaking considering Malcolm X died nearly thirty years before the incident took place. However, I’ve pasted the video below and watching it again it is undeniably brutal and harrowing.

Conversations with James Ellroy is available to buy on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 7:33 pm

    Ellroy is flat out WRONG on this. It is excessive force plain and simple. Chief Gates and the DA’s Office were right to pursue it criminally. The actions were not even close to being “within Department policy.”
    LAPD Detective III Steve Hodel (ret.)

    • February 13, 2012 8:57 pm

      Thanks for your comment Steve. I especially appreciate your perspective as you were working for the LAPD at the time. Could you tell us a little about the shockwaves that went through the department as a result of the scandal?

      Best wishes,
      Steve

  2. February 14, 2012 1:48 am

    Steve:

    Actually, I had been retired five-years when the Rodney King incident occurred in 1991.
    I was working as a P.I. on a high-profile LA murder investigation in 1992 when the verdict returned and then the LA riots broke out. [A sequel for me, as I was there working uniform patrol for the original Watts Riots in 1965]

    It was a very difficult time for LAPD. Historically, the Department was used to lots of scandals. Ever since the 1920s they would surface, bob around a bit like a fishing cork, then submerge back into forgetfulness.

    But the RK incident was different. Different, because, caught on tape, it remained in a constant media-loop from the day of the arrest through the trial, a year or more later. Every time his name was mentioned they would play the tape.

    Because it went viral– worldwide; the 99% of LAPDs “good cops” were viewed in-mass as all being brutal. The bright klieg lights blinded most of the Public to the fact that it was just a few officers who were using excessive force, and not the entire police force.

    “The Chief,” Daryl Gates tried to act swiftly and decisively in condemning the acts of “the few.” He hoped to contain the damage, but that was not to be. The negative PR had a life of its own, which ultimately resulted in a terrible cost to all Angelenos. The 1992 riots resulted in 52 deaths, 2500 injuries and 446 billion in property damage along with severe body blows and bruises to LAPD’s reputation.

    Thanks to the hard work and dedication of LAPD’s 99%, those officers that have always and remain true to their sworn code of “To Protect and To Serve” the Department’s image has finally been repaired and restored to a well-deserved “World Class” status again.

  3. Steve permalink
    February 14, 2012 9:57 pm

    Let’s talk about context. Let’s talk about how Gates declared war on gangs, and by extension, South-Central L.A. African Americans. What African Americans saw on TV was, from their POV, a window into their daily confrontations with the LAPD. So I wouldn’t look at Rodney King as an isolated case as Ellroy has. Because if African Americans were not suffering from daily mistreatment by the LAPD, then the spark of the Rodney King incident would have fizzled instead of igniting a powder keg. People seem to think that African Americans were outraged by a single incident of abuse inflicted upon “one of their own”, but the reason the King video resonated is because it represented a widely shared experience. This is also why it was believable to the jury that a racist detective would tamper with evidence to convict a successful African American like OJ. The Rodney King incident and the OJ acquittal were a collective wake-up call to the LAPD, and they have come a long way since the early-to-mid 1990s.

    • February 15, 2012 10:05 am

      Thank you for your comment Steve. Perhaps Ellroy’s comments, although made with the best of intentions, might do more damage to the department than good. I think his pro-LAPD stance is a brave one nonetheless, especially in an age when celebrities are perceived as adopting causes for cynical reasons. I remember seeing footage of Ellroy’s acceptance speech when he received the Jack Webb award. He paid tribute to two officers who had been recently wounded in the line of duty. It was a moving, honest speech.

      Best wishes,
      Steve

  4. June 6, 2013 11:20 pm

    The word you transcribed as “shitberg” should be “shitbird.” It’s one of Ellroy’s favorite insults.

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