Racial Riots

by Liana Stinson

March 3, 1991: Rodney King, recently paroled felon, was involved in a high speed chase with police through the streets of Los Angeles. Riots erupt in Los Angeles (1992), https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/riots-erupt-in-los-angeles. He eventually surrendered, however, he was visibly intoxicated and uncooperative with police. Id. Unbeknownst to the police, a citizen videotaped King resisting arrest and four police officers brutally beat King with their batons and kick him a significant amount of time after he was capable of resistance. Id. The video was subsequently released to the press which sparked national outrage and shed light on police brutality. Id.

King was later released without charges. Id. The four police officers, Powell, Wind, Briseno, and Sergeant Koon, were indicted in connection with the beating. Id. Koon was not an active participant in the beating of King, however, he was charged with aiding and abetting by being the commanding officer present on the scene. Id. In addition, Powell and Koon were charged with filing false police reports. Id.

The police officers were subsequently acquitted of any wrongdoing by a mostly white jury. Id. A few hours after they were acquitted, the L.A. riots began. Id. Hundreds of people were so filled with rage surrounding the acquittal, they had to express it. Traffic was blocked, one hundred fires were set, store were looted, and motorists were beaten. Id.

Henry Keith Watson stood trial in 1993 on charges of “aggravated mayhem, felony assault, robbery, and attempted murder” for the beating of Reginald Denny during the L.A. riots. Anthony V. Alfieri, Defending Racial Violence, 95 Colum. L. Rev. 1301 (1995). Watson was one of four men convicted for beating Reginald Denny. Riots erupt in Los Angeles (1992), https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/riots-erupt-in-los-angeles.

The defense of Watson presented the defense of diminished capacity under a “group contagion” theory of mob violence. Anthony V. Alfieri, Defending Racial Violence, 95 Colum. L. Rev. 1301 (1995). The group contagion theory “applies to a ‘crowd situation’ of ‘impulsive thoughtless action’ marked by an emotional ‘outpour’ of frustration, anger, and violence in a given community. Id. Watson’s lead attorney described the riots as “total and complete anarchy, an abrupt explosion of anger, utter chaos, conflict, disorder, confusion and explosion of tempers, mass hysteria, people scrambling, a spontaneous form of activity, sudden violence, screaming, turmoil, cursing, yelling … any human being who suddenly found himself feeling violated, humiliated, confused, in despair and totally hopeless in the same chaotic situation and circumstance may have found himself caught up in the civil unrest of April 29th, 1992.” Id. at 1301-1302. The group contagion theory was used by the defense not to exculpate or excuse Watson’s acts, but to explain the acts in regards to the racial context and to mitigate claims of retributive punishment. Id.at 1302-1303.

The theory does not explain the utter violence that took place in the Los Angeles riots. Outrage must have filled many citizens, if not all, that the police officers were acquitted after brutally beating an African American. However, the group contagion theory as a defense in this situation was warranted. The African American community, as a whole, must have felt violated and beaten by those officers themselves after watching the video and after hearing that the officer got away with it. The justice system has not been kind to the African American community in years past, still isn’t today, so the acquittal was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.