It was April 1992 and the pained look on the face of Los Angeles’ first African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, was agonizing to see. The man whose record five term reign at City Hall was marked by so many pioneering firsts for black elected officials expressed his dismay and anger that a jury with no blacks had just acquitted the four white Los Angeles Police Department officers that beat black motorist Rodney King of nearly all charges.
This display of anger was clearly out of character for the always placid, soft spoken Bradley, whose trademark style was moderation and building consensus among his coalition of white liberals, corporate businesspersons, Jewish, and non-black ethnic voters. But Bradley’s forceful assertion that an injustice was done in the acquittal captured the mood of the city’s (and indeed that of the nation’s) blacks.
In the two days that followed the verdict, Los Angeles suffered the worst urban civil unrest in the nation’s history. As the death toll mounted and property damage from the burning and looting soared into the tens of millions, Bradley stood at the center of the storm.
In the post riot assessment of what went so terribly wrong, Bradley took much of the blame for variously inflaming the rioters with his criticism of the verdict and for letting the city drift into a dangerous malaise. L.A.’s poverty, unemployment, drug, murder rate, and gang violence had soared during the early 90s. During this time, the LAPD had come to be regarded as the nation’s prime poster agency for police abuse, brutality, violence and racism. The shots at Bradley were hurtful, malicious and unfair. But Bradley, as one of the nation’s most visible and best known black elected officials, took the heat.
The King beating verdict and the L.A. riots were a sad and tragic taint on the Bradley legacy. Yet, it was a legacy that, for much of the two decades he served as mayor, charted a path for how to successfully govern a major urban city and had become an earmark for the future of black politics.