It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but there are times when a word can be worth an entire video when it comes to revealing what is in the mind of a speaker.
That was the case when it came to revealing what was in the minds of the Los Angeles police officers who were shown beating Rodney King in the notorious video taken by George Holliday. The sensational video was shown unceasingly on local, national and international television. It went viral even before going viral was hip.
The police were shown beating Rodney King, but because of the background noise, it was not possible to discern all of what the police were saying to King. Revealing what is being said, often under the most extreme circumstances, is part of my expertise. Hence, I analyzed the sounds on the Rodney King video, and then played the results to the jury in the civil trial Rodney King v. the City of Los Angeles.
Let me remind you of the context.
On the evening of Saturday, March 2, 1991, Rodney King and a couple of his friends were at another friend's house watching a basketball game and drinking malt liquor. At about midnight, King and his buddies Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms piled into King's 1988 Hyundai Excel and drove westward on the Foothill Freeway as it skirts the San Gabriel Mountains at the northern edge of Los Angeles.
In spite of overpasses that enshroud it and interchanges that entangle it, the Foothill Freeway is the most attractive freeway in Los Angeles, particularly as it traverses the Vertugo Mountain Pass and swoops by the highest hills in the Los Angeles area. However, given that it was dark at that hour, we may assume that King and his friends were not sightseeing. They said they didn't know where they were going. They were just driving. Because the Foothill Freeway generally has less traffic than other freeways in the Los Angeles area, it seems to encourage, or at least allow for, higher speeds than other freeways.
At about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, they were spotted in the rear view mirror of a California Highway Patrol car driven by Officer Melanie Singer. Because they were approaching at high speed, Singer exited at the next off-ramp and then returned to the freeway behind them. She turned on her red emergency lights and her siren to signal them to pull over. King did not pull over. Instead, he led the CHP on a chase of up to 110 miles an hour on the freeway and then from 50 to 80 miles an hour on city streets, nearly causing numerous accidents along the way. Singer called for help. With sirens blaring, other police cars, and then a helicopter, joined in.
After nearly eight miles of city streets, King's car was cornered. All three men were ordered to get out of the car and lie face down on the ground. Passengers Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms complied and were taken into custody without incident.
King, however, initially refused to leave the car. When he first attempted to leave, he didn't unhook his seat belt so he got half way out and then lurched back in. He then unhooked his seatbelt and managed to leave the car. When he emerged, he seemed to be giggling. He slapped the ground and waved to the helicopter. He leaned against the hood of the car as instructed, and then he grabbed his buttocks. Why? Only Rodney King knew.
Officer Singer, who thought King was reaching for a gun, drew her weapon and pointed it at him. She ordered him to lie down on the ground, which he did. Then, with her weapon still drawn, she approached King, intending to make the arrest.
By this time additional police cars, with additional personnel, had arrived at the scene. The ranking officer among them, Sergeant Stacy Koon, took charge. He ordered Singer to holster her weapon and back off. It is LAPD doctrine, and in general standard police procedure, not to approach a suspect with a drawn gun because the suspect might gain control of it. Koon wanted to avoid the possibility of a dead suspect, let alone a dead police officer or a dead bystander.
Koon proceeded to order King to turn over and put his hands behind his back so he could be handcuffed. When King did not comply, Koon ordered other officers to strike King with batons to force him to comply.
Why did King not comply with Koon's commands? Yes, he was drunk (over twice the legal driving limit) and had traces of marijuana in his system. But there was a deeper reason. Throughout his youth he had been beaten by his father. In his biography King reports that for infractions or in bad moods or in drunken fury, his father beat him often and viciously. The worst was when his father made him get soaking wet and then beat him with a thin electrical extension cord that raised welts that would make it miserable to sit down. To prevent them from cracking, his mother smeared them with Vaseline.
King ascribed his continued defiance in the face of the pain of the LAPD beating to the pain he had felt when his father beat him. He said he "actually got used to the extension cord whippings, which were the worst pain. Learned to just shrug it off. Fuck that old drunk anyway." The beating by the LAPD officers was a "tolerable level of pain that I had felt plenty of times before, that's for sure."
As Rodney King saw it, the beating by LAPD officers was another opportunity for defiance.
He reported that when one of the officers tauntingly asked him after the beating "How do you feel?" he defiantly replied "I feel fine."
[The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption with Lawrence J. Spagnola, Harper Collins, 2012 pp. 18, 19.]
In the end, the verdict of the trial turned on the attitude of the police officers and that in turn came down to a single word. I had electronically filtered out the sounds of the helicopter and other noise so the jury could hear the words.
I was King's final witness.
I told the jury that the recording contained the phrase "Nigger, hands behind your back!" and I played the recording for them.
The Los Angeles Times said, quote "Papcun played a filtered tape for the jurors and many in the courtroom said they heard the epithet." unquote More importantly, I saw the jurors nod in agreement.
To Rodney King the n-word was worth $3.8 million dollars.
Not that it ever really did him much good. He died at the age of 47 by drowning in his backyard pool.