Story and video by Thomas K. Pendergast
(Originally posted on July 14, 2016, at SFBay, a news website for the San Francisco Bay Area.)
During the summer of 1965 in the Los Angeles suburb of Watts, racial tensions exploded after a white police officer roughed up 21-year-old black motorist Marquette Frye during a traffic stop for suspicion of drunk driving, and angry onlookers began throwing rocks and concrete at police.
The resulting mayhem over the next few days prompted the deployment of nearly 4,000 National Guardsmen. When the fires had died, and the smoke cleared, 34 people were dead and about 4,000 had been arrested.
Almost two years later, John W. Smith, a black taxicab driver in Newark, New Jersey, was arrested after a minor traffic violation. Witnesses said police beat him severely and then dragged him from the police car into the police station, leaving him with serious injuries.
A protest followed, at first peaceful, then violent, with citizens hurling Molotov cocktails at the police station. Chaos ensued and over the next few nights 26 people were killed, about 1,500 were arrested and around $10 million in property was damaged.
Decades later, in 1991, police pulled over black motorist Rodney King, 25, for reckless driving in Los Angeles. This time there was just one witness — but that witness had a powerful new tool, a video camcorder.
The resulting images of police officers mercilessly beating King shocked the nation when the videotaped brutality hit the evening broadcast news.
A year later, a jury acquitted three officers directly involved and deadlocked on charges against a fourth. Within hours, the biggest uprising in any 20th-century American city engulfed Los Angeles, with more than 50 deaths, thousands of arrests, and an estimated $1 billion in property damage.
Now, more than 24 years later, another grim confrontation between police and a black driver has not only repeated itself, it once again preceded a whole new level of lethal violence.