Lou Cannon's Analysis Of The L.A. Riots Is One Of The Most Important Books To Hit The Shelves In Years.
By Christopher Weir
Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the L.A.P.D., by Lou Cannon (Times Books/Random House). Cloth, $30.
FROM THE UNNERVING videotape to the maddening trial to the subsequent riots, the Rodney King case was projected as a matter of black and white. With Official Negligence, veteran journalist Lou Cannon delivers long-overdue shades of gray. Armed with superior analysis and rock-solid research, Cannon navigates the Los Angeles Police Department's simmering institutional dysfunction, ultimately exposing the Rodney King incident as an inevitability. Along the way, he depicts the sad evolution of political and social forces destined for implosion. In so doing, he deconstructs the jarring events that have, to date, inspired a puzzling dearth of book-length investigation.
From the outset, Official Negligence establishes Cannon's refusal to engage the politically correct sophistry in which the Rodney King incident has largely been mired. He explores the King beating and surrounding events with a sharp eye for subtleties and complexities. The usual demonization--whether of King or the arresting officers, of Chief Daryl Gates or the rioters--is mercifully absent.
While Cannon flirts with interpretations that will strike many as excessively conservative or establishmentarian, he also sketches a sympathetic portrait of an embattled South Central Los Angeles community where justice had become increasingly elusive in the years preceding the riots. Particularly compelling is his exploration of the Soon Ja Du trial, in which a Korean shopkeeper was granted probation for fatally shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back after a brief skirmish over a bottle of orange juice. Rodney King may have been a spark, Cannon demonstrates, but the fuse was already primed.
Cannon also convincingly indicts the mass media as unwitting conspirators in the dangerous oversimplification--from selective editing of the videotaped beating to deficient trial analyses--of issues surrounding the King case. (To his immense credit, he doesn't shy away from calling into question his own reports for the Washington Post.) Through their natural limitations--and inclinations--the media fueled what was to become the South Central tinderbox. And media influence, Cannon argues, also hastened the subsequent conflagration: "The televised scenes of violence advertised to criminals that the L.A.P.D. would not stand in their way, and almost certainly fanned the spread of the riots."
Official Negligence is especially adept at illustrating the L.A.P.D.'s breathtaking impotence during the first hours of the riots, revealing a police force paralyzed by ill-preparedness followed by ineffectual execution.
But strangely, Cannon's treatment of the riots falls short. Instead of a street-level chronological approach that would have palpably communicated the uprising's desperation and violence, Cannon opts for a reportorial style, frequently jumping from perspective to perspective while continually citing post-riot reports to justify his narration. Such allegiance to the daily-newspaper conception of objectivity sacrifices clarity, atmosphere and narrative intensity, and reveals his outsider status to the community which he aims to explain.
Most egregiously, Cannon leaves out the rioters. We learn what it was like to be a police officer and a victim amid the mayhem, but what was it like to join the fury, to torch a grocery or beat innocent bystanders? Aren't there participants willing to express--beyond courtroom claptrap--the allegedly justified rage that commenced and sustained the terror? Such crucial perspectives are essentially absent.
Despite its few shortcomings, however, Official Negligence is perhaps one of the most important books to hit the shelves in years. Its scope is sweeping, its message clear: Both the Rodney King incident and the riots could have been averted. And by delivering this message, Official Negligence testifies that if warning signs are heeded rather than ignored, history isn't necessarily doomed to repeat itself in Los Angeles.
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