Everything is related to everything else, they say (quoting ecologist Barry Commoner). This is proven to be true in cities every day. If a driver slows on on an expressway, there’s a chain reaction back a few miles which slows everybody down. When this causes 1,000 people to be late for work, there’s a loss of economic activity.
There are also positive chain reactions. More public transit results in less pollution. More walking is both healthy and reduces traffic.
There are also tragic chain reactions. Miscommunication in crowds and at protests lead to tragedy. Rumours spread that a protester has died and this leads to violence. This is why the current state of thinking in police circles is to be in and with the crowd, not in riot gear or bunched up, in order to report to other cops what’s going on without relying on rumours.
Over in America, where everything is mechanized, the tragedy is amplified. It’s astounding how many full-scale riots result from a routine traffic stop, or other un-noteworthy police action. Detroit, Watts in Los Angeles in 1965 and the 1992 Rodney King riot in Los Angeles all began with minor police actions. In Detroit it was a raid on an unlicensed pub. Watts began as an arrest for drunk driving. Motorist Rodney King was stopped by the California Highway Patrol in March 1991. There had been a high-speed chase and King was tasered, hit with batons and beaten while lying on the ground. This was all video-taped.
A year later three Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon. Race came into play since Mr. King was Black, the officers were White and nine of the twelve jurors were White. African Americans protested and were soon joined by Hispanics. There was tension between these groups and Korean businesses. This got worse when a Korean shopkeeper shot and killed a 15 year old Black girl in an argument over a bottle of juice. He was not jailed.
There were random attacks on motorists. There was looting, arson, 2,383 injuries, 8,000 arrests, 51 killed, 700 businesses burned, and billion dollars in damages. Half the arrests and more than one-third of those killed were Hispanic.
Armed Koreans protected their businesses, resulting in gun battles on the streets. Curfews, the National Guard, regular soldiers and some US Marines finally stopped the riot.
The US Justice Department said it was going to investigate, and when the riot ended the officers were charged with violating Rodney King’s civil rights. In April 1993, two officers were convicted and imprisoned. Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in damages from the city and died in June 2012.
Various reports placed blame and suggested solutions. Unlike the riots of the 1960s, this one was said to have been fueled partly by a backlash by African Americans against those moving into their communities. But some reports also blamed economic isolation of the inner city. Poor police-community relations was cited. One solution suggested was more emphasis on foot patrol, and making patrols criteria for promotion. One report called for more police to report assaults by other police officers.
There was also a call for better emergency response planning and training in the police force and in the city as a whole.
Training, experience on the street, and a better economy are worthy goals. There’s also the philosophical question of how important routine traffic stops or pub raids are in our society. Police can use discretion, knowing how these things get out of control. But then there’s the danger of the drunk driver in the back of the cop’s mind. The one you let go might kill a pedestrian. Tough calls.