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105,829. ‘Four male Negroes in a fifty-two Chevy white colour with sawn-off shotguns. Watts area.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) LA92: The Riots, National Geographic 2017, rozzers’ radio
105,830. August 1965: Watts district of Los Angeles: ‘It was the most widespread, most disruptive racial violence in American history.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. news
105,831. ‘Neither the police nor the suspect knew that a home video camera had captured the scene.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. Dan Rather
105,832. ‘The incident early Sunday morning was not an isolated incident: the difference this time is we have the proof.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. Ramona Ripston ACLU
105,833. ‘Like they had a little toy and wanted to see how it worked.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. Rodney King
105,834. Rodney King is released from custody without being charged. (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. caption
105,835. ‘I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. beating rozzer
105,836. Public forums are held throughout the city to address the issue of police brutality. (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. caption
105,837. The jury finds Soon Ja Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter: the recommended prison sentence is 16 years. Judge Karlin reduces the sentence to community service, a small fine and no jail time. (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid.
105,838. ‘The venue was changed to the Simi Valley, a mostly while suburb of Los Angeles where many police officers live. (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid.
105,840. ‘Why is this tragedy happening to us? Could it be that God is punishing us?’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. store owner
105,841. ‘This is America!’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. store owner
105,842. ‘It was worse than being in Vietnam.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. rozzer
105,843. ‘This is not fair!’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. store owner
105,844. To avoid further delay, Governor Wilson orders the guard into the streets with limited ammunition. A citywide curfew is declared from dusk to dawn. (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. captions
105,845. ‘We all can get along.’ (Los Angeles & Riots & Police & Miscarriages of Justice) ibid. Rodney King
105,839. Not long after midnight on March 3, 1991, Rodney King was beaten by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. King was hit by two high-voltage tasers and then struck dozens of times by metal batons, as well as being kicked, over a period of several minutes. More than 20 police were present at the beating, which was illuminated by floodlights from a police helicopter hovering overhead.
This event probably would have become just another arrest statistic except for the fact that a portion of the incident was captured on videotape by an observer, George Holliday. After the video was screened on television, the ‘Rodney King beating’ became the most well-known case of police use of force in history, with serious adverse effects for the police. The reputation of the LAPD took a battering, as the force was widely perceived to be tolerant of brutality. There were vociferous calls for LAPD Chief Daryl Gates to resign. The four officers directly involved in the beating were charged with assault and brought to trial. Media attention was intense over the following months, with thousands of newspaper articles published as well as extensive coverage by electronic media. Morale in the LAPD was seriously damaged (Cannon 1999; Skolnick and Fyfe 1993, pp. 1-22).
The King beating is an ideal case study for social analysis given the great amount of documentation of the incident and the subsequent media coverage, trials, and riots. Among the studies undertaken are assessments of the context of racism and social control (Gooding-Williams 1993a), examination of the discursive practices of professionals, namely the police (Goodwin 1994), narrative analysis of media stories about the beating (Jacobs 1996, 2000), and study of the effects of the beating on public opinion about racial discrimination (Sigelman et al 1997). Here, the King beating is analyzed using an original framework: the dynamics of backfire.
If the beating is conceptualized as an attack on King, then it is reasonable to say that the attack backfired: it recoiled adversely on the attackers. That the beating ended up being damaging to the police has been attested by observers of diverse persuasions (e.g. Cannon 1999 p228; Skolnick and Fyfe 1993 p10) and confirmed by research (Lasley 1994). Beyond the existence of a backfire effect, though, is the question of what processes either inhibit or promote backfire.
To gain insight into the dynamics of backfire, it is valuable to look at other attacks, even though they appear on the surface to be qualitatively different from a police beating. By examining violent assaults are made on peaceful protesters, such as the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa in 1960 and the Dili massacre in East Timor in 1991, it is possible to perceive five principal means by which attackers can inhibit a backfire effect:
Covering up the attack; devaluing the target; reinterpreting the events; using official channels to give the appearance of justice; using intimidation and bribery.
Challengers can augment the backfire effect by countering these five methods of inhibition, for example by exposing the attack.
Backfire analysis is built on the assumption that reality is socially constructed (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Although the video of the King beating has often been assumed to be self-explanatory, in practice it must be interpreted (Butler 1993, p17; Gooding-Williams 1993 b p165). Defenders of the police interpreted the events as a fully justified use of force. Reactions to the King beating were part of a struggle over perceptions of reality and what to do in response to those perceptions. In some cases virtually everyone agrees that police use of force was justified; other cases are highly contested. Due to its prominence and the high level of disputation, the King beating provides exceptionally rich case material for examination.
The analysis here is also compatible with, but different from, the political process model of Ross (2000) for police violence. This model, consisting of the stages of media initiation, arousal, reaction, and outcomes, is descriptive of what can happen after a public case of police violence; backfire analysis draws attention to tactics used by those who stand to gain or lose from outrage over police violence.
In the next section, several historical examples are used to illustrate the five main methods for limiting or amplifying backfire. Subsequent sections apply this framework to the King beating, drawing especially on evidence from a number of books, written from distinctively different perspectives, about the beating. This analysis shows that the framework of backfire is quite fruitful in placing a range of apparently diverse phenomena into a unified picture …
The King beating offers an exceptionally rich and vivid case study showing how what is perceived as an attack can backfire. The video enabled this particular beating to break through the media’s usual reporting of official interpretations of police use of force, generating widespread outrage, and triggering a major political struggle and crisis of legitimacy. The case provides ample evidence of five methods for inhibiting outrage: covering up the attack; devaluing the target; reinterpreting the events; using official channels; and using intimidation. This evidence shows that the backfire model, developed out of the study of violent attacks on nonviolent protesters, can usefully be applied to police use of force.
Cover-up is a highly potent technique of inhibiting outrage. This suggests that reformers and activists should devote attention to means of exposing abuses. Skolnick and Fyfe (1993, p. 266) adopt openness as a key principle of police reform, arguing that ‘we should routinely videotape police conduct during those occasions where propensity to excessive force are most likely to occur: high-speed chases, interrogations, protests, and riots,’ a recommendation endorsed by Ross (2000, p126), though it is important to remember that all videotapes are open to manipulation and interpretation. Other means of challenging cover-ups are to support investigative journalism and encourage whistleblowers, something especially challenging and important for police departments where the code of silence reigns.
Devaluing or stigmatizing the target is a familiar technique; it is now commonplace to hear activists called ‘terrorists’, a generic term of abuse. More long-standing is devaluation of groups such as people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, the poor, the unemployed, and people with criminal records (Ryan 1972; Wolfensberger 1972). Opposing devaluation is not easy. Those who are concerned about justice to all, regardless of status or stigma, need to be aware of techniques of devaluation, to be prepared to expose it, and to argue that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and fairness.
Struggles over interpretations of events are a central feature of communication, from news to gossip, so it is not surprising that interpretation struggles are central to backfire dynamics. What is important to note is that interpretation struggles can persist long after an apparently uncontestable documentation such as the Holliday video. News stories and interpersonal communications – from backyard conversations to chatrooms – are all part of interpretation struggles, which can carry on for months, years, or decades. For many activists, participation in protests seems more real and substantial than writing a letter to the editor; looking at backfires suggests that interpretation struggles can be as crucial to the impact of social action as the immediate action itself.
Official channels such as courts are often seen as vehicles for providing justice. Analysis of backfire dynamics leads to a rather different view: official channels can be potent tools for dissipating popular outrage against injustice. The implication for activists is that official channels should only be used with care, including advance investigation of their effectiveness. Someone studying the fate of complaints against the police – nearly all of which exonerate the police of any wrongdoing – might conclude that it would be far more effective to write a letter to the newspaper, circulate a leaflet, or call a meeting. As argued by Lawrence (2000), mobilization of popular concern is a key reason why the King beating received such intense media coverage.