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The Berkeley Rodney King Story You Haven't Read

By Ted Friedman
Friday June 29, 2012 - 02:04:00 PM
1992 Telegraph riots after Rodney King verdict, from Oakland Tribune. Clipping courtesy Berkeley Library Berkeley History Room.
Ted Friedman
1992 Telegraph riots after Rodney King verdict, from Oakland Tribune. Clipping courtesy Berkeley Library Berkeley History Room.

Rodney King's recent death at the bottom of his swimming pool near Los Angeles has spawned mostly stories about King, but little, if anything, on the Berkeley connection. 

Surely some media source has discovered Berkeley's historic role in the Rodney King Verdict riots, after acquittals in Rodney King's assault case against the Los Angeles Police Department twenty years ago. 

Two years before Rodney King, Berkeley was seething (Friday, May 19, 1989), That's when Berkeley radicals, anarchists, and drunken frat boys (reportedly) savaged Telegraph, claiming the title, "The" Berkeley Riot--the Berkeley riot to end all Berkeley riots. 

Riot-rankings were to need re-ranking in the face of subsequent events. 

The King Verdict Berkeley Riots of 1992 surpassed in damages the People's Park volley-ball riots, a year earlier, the rampage on telegraph three years earlier, and even--according to participants-- surpassed the Battle for People's Park, 1969, and the Free Speech Movement riots, 1964, when "the world was watching." 

At the epicenter of 1992's King Verdict Riot, a fire engine was set afire at Telegraph and Dwight, and a car torched at Dana and Bancroft. 

An estimated 2,000 Berkeleyans marching from a rally at San Pablo and University got as far as the Freeway, but were blocked by Berkeley police. 

Along Telegraph, twenty years ago (Wednesday, April 29, 1992), merchants with long memories of being trashed began boarding up and closing early after the King-beating acquittals. The Med across from Moe's books on Teley was open sporadically, but Moe's was closed the day of the riots (Thursday). 

Berkeley, which thought it had seen it all, was on the verge of a world class riot--the aftermath in Berkeley of the acquittals in the Rodney King LA assault-by-police-case, when an entire nation had seen the brutality on T.V. 

During the People's Park riots, Moe's on Teley was reportedly untouched, but Moe's could no longer survive on the kindness of strangers from Oakland and Richmond, headed to Berkeley to loot. 

A writer for the Daily Cal noted, "looters not only came to loot, they brought shopping lists." 

When the Thursday night riot had played out (Berkeley police said the riot had to be allowed to play itself out), twenty-three businesses were looted and badly damaged. Some of these businesses never re-opened. Cost to the city was set by the city at a million 1992 dollars. 

One-hundred adults and thirty juveniles were arrested the night of the riots, according to press reports at the time. 

Although "The" 1989 (May 19, 1989) Telegraph Avenue rampage was bad, the King riot was badder. Or did it just seem so because of wide-scale looting, and Berkeley's first-ever city-wide curfew? 

Berkeley's then Police Chief, Dash Butler, reportedly said the 1991 People's Park volley-ball riots paled in comparison to the magnitude of the Berkeley Rodney King Verdicts Riot a year later. 

(The volleyball riots, even with more than 200 protestors against volley-ball courts in People's Park, failed to penetrate police lines barring them from Telegraph Avenue, but continued three more nights in the park). 

Meeting after Thursday's riot, in emergency session at city hall, the city council voted to impose Berkeley's first-ever curfew, in a curfew averse town. Three council members voted against the 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, the terms of which which were vaguely understood by most Berkeleyans. Police subsequently arrested 20 alleged curfew violators, and for a time blocked off South side foot-traffic from North side. 

The day after the riot, police put 140 officers on the streets to enforce the curfew and maintain order, Friday. By Saturday, then Mayor Hancock pronounced the curfew a success, and said "peace" had been restored. 

But controversies surrounding the city's actions would continue for months. 

The curfew lasted two days, Friday, and Saturday, and apart from spawning a post-riot soul-searching about civil rights, inconvenienced and threatened Berkeleyans, who had never lived through a curfew; weren't curfews southern? 

Eventually the council, and Mayor Loni Hancock wound up defending curfew violators, who were caught up in the city-sponsored curfew. 

Mayor Hancock pulled out of Berkeley in the wee hours two days after the riots, commandeering a county bus, and headed for for Santa Rita county jail to bring back nearly four hundred released U.C. Berkeley protesters, arrested trying to shut down the Bay Bridge. 

Although police conduct would be questioned later, at least one city official praised police efforts the night of the riot. Hancock, the city council, and police could claim credit--and tried--for saving Berkeley from a fate similar to the burning of Atlanta. 

It is a matter of conjecture as to what permanent effect the Rodney King Telegraph riots had on the declining future of Telegraph, but one embittered businessman, who lost his business to looters, declared that, "anyone with a business elsewhere would not want to be here {on Telegraph]." 

No one could successfully argue against the claim that Telegraph's decline dates from the devastating Berkeley King Riots. 

How could a story this big go unreported? 


Part 1, of a three-part series. Next: Background of the Biggie.