Exactly 26 years ago today (Apr. 29, 1992), three white police officers charged with using excessive force in arresting a black motorist named Rodney King on Mar. 3, 1991 was acquitted. A verdict was not reached on a fourth officer. This was all despite the fact that there was clear footage of the four Los Angeles Police officers repeatedly beating Rodney King. In fact, on the day of the verdict, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley called for a news conference, where he questioned the verdicts, thus:
Today, the jury told the world that what we all saw with our own eyes was not a crime. My friends, I am here to tell the jury . . . what we saw was a crime. No, we will not tolerate the savage beating or our citizens by a few renegade cops.

The verdict did not even satisfy the mayor of L.A. Suffice it to say, the verdict did not allay the frustrations of the black population, which prompted what would be called the L.A. Riots.

Black citizens were enraged, and rioting erupted in South Central Los Angeles on Apr. 29, 1992, and lasted six days. 63 people were killed and 2,383 were injured. As many as 3600 fires were set, which destroyed 1,100 buildings. Estimates of property damage were far over a billion dollars. Local police were overwhelmed, and the rioting was only brought under control after the California Army National Guard, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Marine Corps were called in. A variety of lawlessness occurred, including looting, assault, arson, and murder. When it ended, more than 12,000 were arrested.

It was a terrible moment in America’s history. The riots certainly did bring police brutality, and the discrimination of black Americans to the forefront of the national debate. What not many people do not know about the riots is that it also spilled over to affect other racial/ethnic lines. A year prior to the riots, there was an incident in Compton that involved a Korean storekeeper Soon Ja Du who shot a black ninth-grader, Latasha Harlins, over a bottle of orange juice. Soon Ja Du was prosecuted and convicted of voluntary manslaughter but got away with a sentence of five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. The inordinately lenient sentence without any time in prison angered the black community who already felt that they were disrespected by the many wealthy Korean merchants who bought up stores in South Central Los Angeles. The riots seemed to present a license for many disgruntled black people in the area to loot and destroy the many Korean businesses in Koreatown during the L.A. Riot. The Korean store owners decided to take things into their own hands by arming themselves with rifles and shotguns, and stood guard on the roofs of their establishments to protect their investments.

Another development of the L.A. Riot was the involvement of many Hispanics. According to a report prepared by the Latinos Futures Research Group, a third of those killed and half of those arrested during the riots were Latinos. And, at least 30% of
businesses that incurred looting and damage were owned by Latinos. Gloria Alvarez of EGP News spoke with Dr. Hayes-Bautista who said that Latinos were both participants and victims of the riots. Dr. Hayes-Bautista said that, “It wasn’t until the third or fourth day, when the social network had collapsed and people could not get goods or other things they needed, that you really saw Latinos involved in the looting.” Apparently, many Latinos who looted businesses were not in the least aware about the Rodney King case, and did not know that it was the acquittal of white police officers that triggered the riots.

As you can see the dynamics of the L.A. Riot was not simple. Each group of people that I have mentioned chose a path of violence. Yet, each group had a slightly different motivation for taking the action that they did. Interestingly, they can be categorized into four different Buddhist states of mind. Let us begin with the four white policemen who were charged with using unreasonable force. Why they took the action that they did is incomprehensible, but they seemed to be consumed with pure ignorance and hate. For whatever reason that they pummeled this man, they were convinced that they were superior, and could get away with what they did. For this, they can be understood to have been in a state of jigoku or hell. For those Latinos who took advantage of the anarchy to plunder and steal to their content could be categorized as being in a state of gaki or in a state of incessant hunger. When law and order deteriorated, they felt a free reign to take a chance that they normally would not have taken. They did not need to loot but did so, lest they be left without a piece of the pie. Greed overcame their better judgement. The Korean merchants who took up arms in a spate of unbridled vigilantism did so motivated seemingly without reason. They reacted in a state of chikusho, or like an animal led by instinct alone. Their zealous desire to survive clouded their reasoning. Preserving equity was so important to them that brandishing and using their firearms to scare and provoke prospective looters suddenly became acceptable. Finally, no one can deny the black community’s angst and frustration over the acquittal of four policemen who were captured on video, mercilessly beating an unarmed black man. As great as the wrong done to Rodney King was, civility must always be maintained. That some black protesters chose to react with violence suggests that they fell to a state of shura or anger. Ten basic states of mind are described in Buddhism. I will not discuss them all here, however these four, shura, chikusho, gaki, and jigoku, represent the lowest and most miserable states of mind. Whenever one enters any of these four states of mind, he or she becomes vulnerable in causing harm to oneself and others.

(Eisei Ikenaga)