Responsibility of elected officials against a backdrop of violence

Volokh, Eugene VOLOKH at
Wed Apr 7 10:35:22 PDT 2010

Since this is apropos the discussion we were having recently, any thoughts on Rep. Maxine Waters' statements during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles?  As Taranto points out, Waters was speaking the backdrop of actual rioting, in which dozens of people were killed, thousands were injured, and over $1 billion in property was vandalized; so it might well be that Waters' statements were improper but similar statements against the backdrop of far less violence would be permissible.  But I take it that if Waters' statements were indeed proper, then it's hard to see how other officials' considerably milder statements against the backdrop of much lesser public misbehavior (from both sides) could be condemned as improper.


'Riot Is the Voice of the Unheard'
Tea-party foe Maxine Waters once made excuses for real political violence.

"The Tea Party emerges as not only outrageous, but they have turned up the volume in ways that even Code Pink have not been able to do," Rep. Maxine Waters said the other day on MSNBC<>. A video (warning: some adult language) from<> has been making the rounds interspersing quotes from that MSNBC interview with clips from a 2007 "antiwar" rally where Waters fulminated about then-President Bush and other members of his administration.

The Breitbart video very effectively makes the case that Waters is guilty of hypocrisy. Her behavior at the rally is at least as unattractive as her description of the tea partiers' conduct. On the other hand, so what? When has a politician ever complained about the other side's incivility without being guilty of hypocrisy?

But a look further back into Waters's history reveals her hypocrisy to be far worse than is typical. The last time America experienced political mob violence--the Los Angeles riots of 1992--Waters was there offering excuses and justifications.

The L.A. riots began on April 29, 1992, after a jury returned a not-guilty verdict in the trial of four Los Angeles policemen charged in connection with the videotaped beating of Rodney King. By the time the riots wound down, six days later, 53 people had been killed and thousands injured.

Maxine Waters was a freshman representative from California's 29th Congressional District (now the 35th), which covers areas of southern Los Angeles where the rioting was centered. Her own district office was burned to the ground. She quickly emerged as an advocate on behalf of the rioters.

"I accept the responsibility of asking people not to endanger their lives," the Associated Press quoted her as saying on April 30. "I'm not asking people not to be angry. . . . I have a right to be angry."


James Taranto on Maxine Waters and the L.A. riots.<>

The same day, in an interview with Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" show, she described the rioting as "a spontaneous reaction to inequality and injustice." She added: "I am extremely . . . angry, and I have no problems with saying that. You know, there comes a time when it's all right to be angry, when it's all right to say this is absolutely unbelievable. That's how I feel. And I'm sure that the people that you see, no matter what you think about what they're doing, and no matter how we would not like to see that kind of violence, you can understand the anger."

Couric asked her, "What do you think needs to be done to restore calm to the city?" She replied by issuing demands to the administration of George H.W. Bush:
I think there needs to be a statement from the president of the United States of America, who will talk about working with the Justice Department to bring about some justice. We met with the Justice Department right after the Rodney King beating. They promised to get involved and to investigate. They did nothing. And this morning we're going to meet with them again. And they are now talking about getting involved. The president needs to make a commitment to this country and to the people in that community that America can do better than it's doing. Hopefully, that will help to stem the tide of anger and frustration that you see going on down there.

That night, in an interview on ABC's "Nightline," she offered further excuses for the rioting:
The anger that you see expressed out there in Los Angeles, in my district this evening, is a righteous anger, and it's difficult for me to say to the people, "Don't be angry." When people are angry and enraged, they do do senseless things, they do act even sometimes out of character, and that's why it is the responsibility of America to try and avoid putting people in these kinds of situations.

On May 1, 1992, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted her as warning of wider violence if the administration did not do what she wanted: "Many other cities could go the way that Los Angeles went last night unless the president is willing to step in and take some strong action in terms of letting people know that he cares about this issue."

The same day's Washington Post quoted her as follows: "I think we have to say it's okay to be angry. It's not all right to be violent. I know it would make people happy if I said I could wave my hand and make people behave less violently. I am not that presumptuous. We have a moral responsibility to share the resources of this country."

By May 1, when she gave another interview to Couric, she was referring to the riots as "the insurrection." A 2007 Los Angeles Times<> article quotes her as having said in 1992, "If you call it a riot, it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason. I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable. So I call it a rebellion." On May 4, 1992, the L.A. Times quoted her as saying, "Riot is the voice of the unheard."

Yet while she explained the impulse toward violence in terms of what she saw as legitimate grievances, she explained away the actual violent acts by suggesting her constituents were helpless victims of their "environment." From the May 1 "Today" interview:
Couric: But what about the arsonists and the looters and the people who are beating others to death, in fact? What about those individuals?
Waters: Well--well, what do you mean what about them? Obviously they are breaking the law. Certainly there are some people out there who are going to take advantage of a situation, and no one condones that. That certainly should not be happening. But, when people are frustrated, they act out of hopelessness, they may do anything. I don't think it's a plan that was put together by people to do this kind of stuff. I think that this environment that has been created helped to attract those who could and would take advantage of the situation.

When the National Guard arrived to restore order, Waters complained, as the New York Times<> reported on May 4, 1992:
"I think the occupation is complete," said Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat whose district includes South-Central Los Angeles. "They've got the National Guard and God knows who stationed all over the place. People are being contained with this security, but they are still just as angry. The problems won't just go away."

The Justice Department did eventually prosecute the four policemen involved with the Rodney King beating. In 1993, two of them were convicted of federal civil rights charges; the other two were acquitted.

There are some similarities between the events that triggered the L.A. riots of 1992 and the anti-ObamaCare protests of 2010. Both were triggered by governmental decisions that struck a significant proportion of the population as unjust. And in both cases, the procedures that led to those decisions seemed to the dissenters to have been rigged. The officer-defendants in the Rodney King beating had successfully sought a change of venue from downtown Los Angeles to Simi Valley. The jury that acquitted them was mostly white. As for ObamaCare, that ugly process is fresh in everyone's minds, so we won't rehearse it.

There was one big difference, though: While the anti-ObamaCare protests were boisterous--perhaps even "outrageous," as Rep. Waters says--they were not violent. There were a scattering of phone threats and acts of vandalism on both sides, but nothing even remotely resembling a riot.

The tea-party protesters are angry, and as Maxine Waters said in 1992, it's OK to be angry. But she has no business lecturing anyone on political civility.

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