James Ellroy on the Rodney King Scandal
Conversations with James Ellroy features three previously unpublished interviews that I have conducted with Ellroy.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.