Civil Society and Crisis: Culture, Discourse, and the Rodney King Beating

by Ronald N. Jacobs
Civil Society and Crisis: Culture, Discourse, and the Rodney King Beating
Ronald N. Jacobs
The American Journal of Sociology
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Civil Society and Crisis: Culture, Discourse, and the Rodney King ΓΏ eat in^'

Ronald N. Jacobs University of California, Los Angeles

Narrative methods are used to analyze the cultural dynamics of civil society through a comparison of African-American and "main- stream" newspaper coverage of the Rodney King crisis in Los Angeles. The newspapers' different narrative constructions affected the selection and interpretation of significant crisis events, shaped social expectations about how the crisis would be resolved, and constrained the range of symbolic strategies available to local politi- cal elites. Through an application of narrative methods, this case demonstrates how the analysis of plot, character, and genre can help explain the interplay between the analytic and concrete forms of culture and the dynamics of social problems and social change more broadly.

Recent works in sociology have turned increasingly to the concept of civil society as a way to discuss issues of social transformation and citizenship (Alexander 1991, 1992; Bryant 1993; Calhoun 1993; Cohen and Arato 1992; Gellner 1991; Seligman 1992; Somers 1993; Taylor 1991; Wolfe 1989). These studies, while following Habermas's (1989) concern for the discursive realm, typically reject his assumption of a single public sphere grounded exclusively in rational discourse.' Instead, contemporary theo- rists argue that civil society consists of multiple, frequently nonrational, and often contestatory public spheres (Eley 1992; Eraser 1992). Estab- lished and maintained by communication media, these public spheres

' I wish to thank Jeffrey Alexander, Walter Allen, Anne Kane, Andy Roth, Steve Sherwood, Philip Smith, and Eleanor Townsley for helpful comments on previous drafts of this article. Comments by Loi'c Wacquant and Craig Calhoun were particu- larly helpful. Direct correspondence to Ronald K.Jacobs, Department of Sociology, Rice Vniversity, Houston, Texas 7725 1.

Habermas has been criticized for conflating the bourgeois and plebian public spheres (Calhoun 19921, for overemphasizing the rational nature of public discourse (Lash 1985; Schudson 1992), and for the patriarchal assumptions behind his normative theory of civil society (Fraser 1992).

O 1996 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved 0002-9602196110105-0002S01.50

1238 AJS Volume 101 Number 5 (March 1996): 1238-72 support many different (but overlapping) communities of discourse (Cal- houn 1991, pp. 108-11). The new model of civil society that is emerging is one of a multiplicity of public spheres, communities, and associations nested within one another and also within a putative larger "national sphere" of civil society (Taylor 1995, pp. 207-15).

For all of this theoretical revision, however, little empirical research exists that compares how different communities actually represent partic- ular events or how they understand the relationship between their com- munity and the larger civil society. In this article I address these questions of comparative representation by drawing on data from African-American and "mainstream" newspaper coverage of the Rodney King beating and its aftermath. I examine how the event of the beating was constructed into a crisis, analyze the attempts to resolve the crisis by political elites, and compare how these attempts were interpreted by two newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Sentinel. I demonstrate that the two newspapers used multiple and overlapping narratives in their coverage of the Rodney King crisis, that the character of their narratives was subject to change, that the newspapers responded to external events, and that there was an interaction between the narra- tion of the crisis and the sequence of events. Before presenting the analy- sis I provide some historical information about the case in question, describe the data and methods employed, and discuss the theoretical importance of narrative for explaining the dynamics of civil society.


On March 3, 1991, an African-American motorist, Rodney King, was pursued for pee ding.^ After a brief chase, King was met by 21 police officers, including members of the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In full view of all present, King was severely beaten by three white LAPD officers as a sergeant and the remaining 17 officers looked on. Unknown to the police officers, the event was videotaped by an amateur cameraman, George Holliday, and sold to a local television station. The videotape, which was broadcast thou- sands of times, provoked a public crisis over police brutality and racism in Los Angeles. Interest in the crisis died down about a month after the release of the Christopher Commission report on July 9, 1991, but ex- ploded again in April 1992 with the return of not-guilty verdicts for the four police officers who had been indicted for the beating. By the end of the crisis Police Chief Daryl Gates had resigned, Mayor Tom Bradley

See the appendix for a more detailed summary of events related to the crisis between March and September 1991.

had decided not to run for reelection (for the first time in 23 years), and the city had experienced the most costly civil disturbance in the nation's history. Given that the city of Los Angeles had paid more than $20 million between 1986 and 1990 as a result of judgments, settlements, and jury verdicts against LAPD officers in over 300 lawsuits dealing with the excessive use of force, how is it that the Rodney King crisis came to be seen as defining racial tensions in Los Angeles? How did the events surrounding the crisis affect political elites and other public actors in civil society? How did they affect social understandings about race relations? Answering these questions, I argue, requires an examination of the cul- tural dynamics of civil society.


In recent years social scientists have adopted the concept of civil society and modified it by trying to make it more frankly sociological. They have argued that civil society is composed of not one but many public spheres and communities (Calhoun 1994, 1991; Taylor 1995), that the study of civil society should supplement its focus on institutions with a consider- ation of overarching symbolic codes and narratives (Alexander 1992; Al- exander and Smith 1993; Jacobs and Smith 1995), that theories of civil society should dispense with the idea of a "presocial self" in favor of a community-situated self (Etzioni 1995; Walzer 1995), and that events in civil society should be seen as having a cultural significance of their own (Kane 1994; Sewell 19923). Yet important questions remain for these theoretical revisions if they are to have an empirical payoff. How are the different public spheres related to one another and to the putative "national" sphere of civil society? How do different communities use the overarching codes and narratives of civil society to construct social identities? How do events influence these narrative constructions?

I argue that a more sociological explanation of the dynamics of civil society can be organized around the central concept of narrative. As Abbott (1992) and Sewell (1992~) have noted, narrative analysis has be- come an increasingly important tool for social scientists interested in explaining social process and social change. There are two main reasons for this. The first has to do with the role narrative plays in constructing identities and enabling social action. Narratives help individuals, groups, and communities to "understand their progress through time in terms of stories, plots which have beginnings, middles, and ends, heroes and antiheroes, epiphanies and denouements, dramatic, comic, and tragic forms" (Alexander and Smith 1993, p. 156). As studies of class formation (Somers 1992; Steinmetz 1992), collective mobilization (Hart 1992; Kane 1994), and mass communication (Darnton 1975; Jacobs 1996; Schudson 1982) have demonstrated, social actions and identities are guided by nar- rative understandings. Furthermore, by connecting their self-narratives to collective narratives, individuals can identify with such "imagined communities" as class, gender, race, ethnicity, and nati~n.~

As Steinmetz (1992, p. 505) has noted, these collective narratives can be extremely important for how individuals evaluate their lives, even if they did not participate in the key historical events of the collective narrative.

A second useful feature of narrative for studying the dynamics of civil society is that it enables the analyst to consider the significance of events. As Somers (1995, p. 127) has noted, theories of civil society too often fail to consider how events have cultural significance "on their own terms." Depending on how they are defined, how they are linked together in a story or plot, and what determines their selection or exclusion into a particular narrative, events can have important consequences for social identities and social actions (Steinmetz 1992, pp. 497-98). Some events "demand" narration and therefore have the power to disrupt prevailing systems of belief and to change understandings about other events in the past, present, and future (Kane 1994, pp. 504-6; Sewell 19923, pp. 438- 39). Other events get called up from the past, pointing to a foundational point of origin for a newly mobilizing community (A. Smith 1991, pp. 125-45; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). The point is that events do not have a unitary causal meaning: they contain multiple plot structures, multiple narrative antecedents, and multiple narrative consequences (Ab- bott 1992, pp. 438-39). The same event can be narrated in a number of different ways and within a number of different public spheres and communities. These competing narratives influence not only how individ- uals will understand an event, but also how they will evaluate different communities, including the idealized "societal community" described by Parsons (197 1).

Of those types of events that "demand narration," crisis is one of the most important. Crisis develops when a particular event gets narratively linked to a central cleavage in society and demands the attention of citizens as well as political elites (Turner 1974, p. 39). In the modern media age, a crisis becomes a "media event," announced through an interruption of normal broadcast schedules, repeated analysis by "ex- perts," and opinion polling about the central characters involved in the crisis (Scannell 1995; Dayan and Katz 1992). The outcome of a crisis is far from determined, but depends instead on the interaction between

The idea of imagined communities is borrowed from Anderson (1983).

narrative construction and event sequence.' Events such as the Dreyfus affair, Watergate, and the Rodney King beating become important plot elements for the different narratives of civil society and nation, and for this reason they can be extremely consequential for social outcomes.

Studying the actual dynamics of real civil societies, then, means look- ing beyond institutions and procedures to the actual discourses that de- velop in a range of public spheres. Each civil society develops through a particular discursive history, resulting in an "arbitrary" division of the social world into who is deserving of inclusion and who is not (Alexan- der 1992, p. 291; Alexander and Smith 1993, p. 166). In other words, civil society is organized around a bifurcating discourse of citizen and enemy, which defines the characteristics of worthy, democratic citizens and also of unworthy, counterdemocratic enemies. This "common code" allows for a degree of intersubjectivity among public speakers, because it provides a relatively stable system for evaluating events and persons. As I will argue below, it also provides a good heuristic for the analyst trying to study the evaluative systems of social narratives.

If we are interested in how different social groups understand particu- lar events in civil society, however, we must move from codes to narra- tives. While the common code organizing the discourse of civil society may have an analytic autonomy, it is only made concrete by being elabo- rated into narrative accounts (Alexander 1992, p. 297). Furthermore, while the code may be relatively stable, its mobilization into particular narrative constructions can be quite variable and highly consequential. For example, while Thomas Jefferson believed that African slaves were irrational by nature (i.e., a negative coding), he was still able to argue for their freedom by constructing a narrative in which slavery was harmful to the children of slaveowners (Jordan 1974). A century later, Booker T. Washington's successful participation in the "mainstream" public sphere required that, in addition to drawing on the underlying code, he would also have to master a narrative form where he adopted the comic charac- teristics of the "minstrel mask" and gave the heroic role to the paternalis- tic and beneficent white politicians (Baker 1987, pp. 15-36).~ During the

'In some instances, such as the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, this can lead to truly bizarre actions, such as the Italian government's elaborate, televised funeral for Moro, which, as a result of his family's refusal to participate, took place without a body (Kertzer 1988, pp. 135-40; Wagner-Pacifici 1986).

It is interesting that, according to Meier (1963, pp. 116-18), most middle-class African-Americans assumed that Washington's conciliatory tone was designed to pla- cate the South, and that he masked his "true" goal of full citizenship rights and integration. While "the dominant whites were impressed by his conciliatory phraseol- ogy, confused his means with his ends, and were satisfied with the immediate program that he enunciated," Washington's African-American supporters "emphasized the future implications of his remarks" (Meier 1963, p. 101).

civil rights movement, leaders drew on the underlying code of democracy and universal rights when speaking to the "mainstream" community, but they also drew on the collective narrative of exodus within the Afri- can-American church to mobilize their adherents to action (Walzer 1985). The point is that "social reality" exists in the interaction between narra- tive and event, code and context; the social scientist must employ narra- tive means in order to uncover this interaction (Sewell 1992a, p. 485).

In sum, I argue for a more contextual approach to the study of civil society, one that takes into account its multiple public spheres and com- munities, the consequences of particular events and the different forms of their narration, and the consequences of these narrative understand- ings for other events. This requires, as Sewell (1992a, p. 487) has noted, an extended, in-depth, and empirical study of texts. In the analysis that follows I focus on two newspapers with different (but overlapping) read- erships. By examining the different narratives they constructed about the Rodney King beating-in terms of characters, character attributes, plots, event linkages, and genres-I show how the two newspapers constructed different but overlapping narrative understandings about the crisis. I also show how certain events became crucial turning points for the different narratives of both newspapers, while other events had significance only for the African-American press. Below I provide some historical informa- tion about the two newspapers and outline my methodological approach for analyzing texts.


In order to analyze the discourse surrounding the Rodney King crisis, I examined the entire universe of articles written in both newspapers be- tween March and September 1991. In the Los Angeles Times 357 articles were written during this period; in the Los Angeles Sentinel, there were 137 articles.' The Sentinel, which was founded in 1933, is the most significant newspaper for the African-American community in Los Angeles. In 1991 it had a circulation of 25,866, which was the largest among African-American newspapers in Los Angeles, and in 1993 it received the John B. Russworm Award for the best black-owned newspa- per in the nation. The Times, which was founded in 1881, is the most significant newspaper for the "aggregated metropolitan community" (Ja- nowitz and Suttles [I9771 1991, p. 268) of Los Angeles. In 1991 it had a circulation of 1,177,253 and was the most widely read newspaper in Los

The Sentinel, like most other African-American newspapers, is distributed weekly. For a discussion of why the weekly format predominates for the African-American press, see Wolseley (1971, esp. pp. 87-90).

Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernadino counties. It provides a reference discourse for many individuals and communities, including the African-American community. In fact, most of the people who read the Sentinel also read the Times (Lyle 1967, pp. 169-70).'

I analyze three different aspects of the news narratives about the crisis. The first is plot, which is concerned with the selection, evaluation, and attribution of differential status to events (Steinmetz 1992, pp. 497-99). A narrative's plot is fluid and complex in its relationship to events; as Eco (1994) has shown, it can "linger" on a particular event, flashback to past events, or flash forward to future events. Plot is the best way to study what Abbott (1988) has called the "time-horizon problem," where events can differ in their speed and duration. A focus on which events are selected by a community for narration (and which events are not selected) provides important clues about how that community under- stands the past, present, and future.

In addition to plot, I also examine the characters portrayed in the narratives and their relationship to one another. The analysis of charac- ters is particularly important for nonfictional narratives, because the nar- rators are often the same as the characters in the plot (Steinmetz 1992,

p. 500). I analyze the characters in terms of the opposition between heroes and antiheroes, using recent work on the analytic code of American civil discourse (e.g., Alexander 1992; Alexander and Smith 1993) to provide clues about how the characters are evaluated in various narrations. This research has demonstrated how public actors make use of the binary structure of civil discourse to "purify" themselves and their allies, and to "pollute" their enemies (Alexander and Smith 1993, pp. 164-65). In order to narrate themselves and their allies as heroic, social actors try to cast themselves as rational and controlled in their motivations, open and trusting in their relationships, and regulated by impersonal rules in their

According to a survey done by the Times, 31% of African-Americans in the Los Angeles area read that paper (telephone conversation with Margot Rubin, Communi- cation Research Division of the Los Angeles Times, April 1995). Using 1990 census data for Los Angeles County, this would mean that an estimated 151,178 African- Americans read the Los Angeles Times. While this estimate demonstrates that the newspaper does provide a reference discourse, it should not be taken to mean that it is a more significant newspaper for the African-American community than the Sentinel. There are two reasons for this. First, the Sentinel's readership is concentrated in South-Central Los Angeles, the historical and symbolic center of the African-American community. Second, many African-Americans neither believe nor trust the Times. According to Lyle's (1967, pp. 171-78) survey, 54% of African-American readers felt that the Times was unfair to African-Americans, and 83% felt that it paid insufficient attention to the African-American community. By contrast, 79% believed that the Sentinel gave accurate coverage, and 52% said that they read the Sentinel primarily for "Negro news."

organizational activities. Correspondingly, they try to narrate their ene- mies as irrational and uncontrolled in their motivations, secretive and deceitful in their relationships, and arbitrary and factionalized in their organizational activities.

The final component of my narrative analysis is genre. Because genre is infrequently utilized by most sociologists making the "narrative turn," I will describe in some detail how it can be incorporated into sociological analysis. Genre provides a temporal and spatial link between the charac- ters and events of a narrative, and also influences the relationship be- tween a story's characters, audience, and narrator. We can see how genre affects narrative by considering Frye's (1957, pp. 158-239) discussion of the four narrative "archetypes" of Western literature. In comedy, the protagonists, or heroes, are viewed from the perspective of their common humanity, and the general theme is the integration of society. The move- ment in comedy is usually from one kind of society, where the protago- nist's wishes are blocked, to another society that crystallizes around the hero. Comic heroes have average or below-average power, and typically fall into three general types: the imposter, the buffoon, and the self- deprecator. In romance, the hero has great powers, the enemy is clearly articulated and often has great powers as well, and the movement takes the form of an adventure with the ultimate triumph of hero over enemy. Romantic genres are viewed by the audience from a perspective of wish fulfillment, where heroes represent ideals and villains represent threats. In tragedy, the hero typically possesses great power, but is isolated from society and ultimately falls to an omnipotent and external fate or to the violation of a moral law. Because the reader expects catastrophe as its inevitable end, tragedy "eludes the antithesis between moral responsibil- ity and arbitrary fate" (Frye 1957, p. 2 11). Finally, in irony the protago- nist is viewed from an attitude of detachment and through the negative characterization of parody or satire.

The literary texts described by Frye differ in some important respects from the news texts of the present study. Most important, there are many competing narratives (and narrative creators) in news, all battling for interpretive authority over a particular event. For example, the Rodney King crisis was constructed in each newspaper through two competing genres: romance and tragedy. There was additional competition, in that the actual composition of the romantic and tragic narratives differed between the two newspapers. The point is that the analyst cannot assume

As Alexander (1992, p. 294) readily admits, these cultural codes appear "merely schematic" when presented in their simple binary forms. The codes have been elabo- rated, however, in empirical studies elsewhere (Alexander 1989; Alexander and Smith 1993; P. Smith 1991, 1996).

any sort of narrative unity for newspaper texts. Instead, the sociologist employing narrative analysis must search for inconsistencies and deter- mine how they are related to events and social setting (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991, p. 383).


An event does not become a public crisis automatically or instantane- ously. Much like ritual, this process requires a period of "separation" (Turner 1969) from ordinary, everyday life and a corresponding concen- tration of collective attention. Both of these, discursive separation and increased collective attention, were present in the early period of the Rodney King crisis. While there was only one article about the beating in the Los Angeles Times the morning after it occurred, by the end of the first week there were 23. Similarly, while there were only two articles written about the beating in the Los Angeles Sentinel on March 7 (the first issue after the incident), there were 26 articles written over the next three issues. The event contained all the necessary symbolic elements to construct a narrative of crisis. First, the videotape of the beating-which was recorded by an "amateur cameraman," an ordinary citizen of civil society-showed visual and technical "proof" of the event: in a sense, a "video text," which itself placed the actors in relations of similarity and opposition to one another. The videotape served a naturalizing func- tion for the subsequent interpretations that would be made. Second, the primary image of the videotape, the brutality of the white officers toward the African-American victim, Rodney King, was easily related to earlier historic images of white police violence against African-Americans. Fi- nally, there existed a history of conflict between Police Chief Daryl Gates and minority groups in Los Angeles (Sonenshein 1993). For all of these reasons, the Rodney King beating threatened the idealized vision of American society, "a society composed of individuals equal in their hu- man worth . . . [where] humanity composed of individuals found its fulfillment" (Greenfeld 1992, p. 449). Rather than reinforcing such an idealized view, the images on the videotape instead related a story of particularistic and violent exclusion.

The earliest constructions of the event as a crisis occurred in the Los Angeles Times, as well as in the television media. lo The Times represented the beating as a wild deviation and a "shocking" event. It represented

lo Being a weekly newspaper, the news reports of the Los Angeles Sentinel were constructed in an environment where the initial "agenda" of the crisis had already been set by the daily press. For a more detailed discussion of agenda setting, see McCombs and Shaw (1972), Xelson (1984), and Iyengar (1987).

the officers as being irrational and excitable in their work and as having used their powers illegitimately. Accounts from witnesses reported that the officers were "laughing and chuckling [after the beating], like they had just had a party" (Times, 6 March 1991, p. A22). These interpreta- tions were not presented as evaluations, but were placed within the de- scriptive frame of the "news account," with each account attributed to a source. At the same time, the polluting, counterdemocratic discourse of civil society was operating within the text: through quotations, editori- als, and descriptions. The following descriptions of the event appeared in the first days of the crisis:

Accounts . . . suggested that what should have been a relatively simple arrest . . . escalated wildly out of control. . . . The violent images of white police officers pounding an apparently defenseless black man have raised the ire of civil rights groups. (7 March 1991, pp. A21-A22)

The beating of King, videotaped by an amateur photographer, has sparked an outcry over police misconduct in Los Angeles, as well as calls for the resignation of Chief Daryl F. Gates. The images of white police officers pummeling the black motorist with their batons were aired by television stations across the country. (9 March 1991, p. B1)

The news was attributed to "accounts," "civil rights groups," and "im- ages aired by television stations." This kept it within the constraint of news objectivity and the routine practices of using official sources.ll At the same time, the words "violent," "wildly," "pounding," and "pum- meling" operated to place the actors in symbolic relation to each other and to the discourse of civil society. After two weeks, the Los Angeles Times had written 55 articles about the Rodney King beating.

Along with the construction of the event as a crisis came a specification of those violations depicted by the video images: violations of fairness, openness, and justice. News reports described the character attributes of the antiheroic police officers, adding to earlier descriptions of their "uncontrolled and irrational" motivations. The event of the beating, when linked to the videotape, was understood as a way to expose the evil that existed in the LAPD. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that "this time, the police witnesses, knowing about the vid- eotape, will probably not compound their offense by lying about what really happened" (Los Angeles Times, 9 March 1991, p. B7). This narra- tion, exposing the secrecy and brutality of the officers, was used by local leaders as well as "objective" news reporters:

l1 News routines have been studied extensively in the sociological literature. Those studies which have focused on the constraint of "objectivity" and the use of official sources include Darnton (1975), Ericson, Baranek, and Chan (1989), Fishman (1980), Miller (1993), Molotch and Lester (1974), Schudson (1978, 1982), and Tuchman (1978).

It exploded onto Los Angeles television screens last week. The scene: three Los Angeles police officers involved in a merciless, relentless, brutal beating of a Black man as he lay face down in the ground, while 12 officers ob- served in tacit approval. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 14 March 1991, p. Al)

"This is not an isolated incident!" thundered Jose de Sosa, the rally's organizer and president of the San Fernando chapter of the NAACP. "This is the type of thing that occurs under the cover of darkness throughout our city." (Los Angeles Times, 10 March 1991, p. Bl)

The police officers were condemned through visual images as well as linguistic discourse. On the one hand, the images of the videotape served to "naturalize" the relationships between the police officers, brutality, and "darkness." On the other, the news reports represented the video- tape as a foil to the deceitfulness of the police department. In this double sense, the police officers were symbolically polluted by the videotape.

Still, if it was merely a problem of a few individuals in need of adminis- trative control, crisis need not have ensued. True, the fact that such an event could have occurred was represented as evidence of a fundamental problem in officer selection and training, which by itself brought some criticism of the police organization. But the real threat to institutional legitimacy was constructed through representations of Police Chief Daryl Gates, who was described as unaccountable, racist, and ego driven. From March 7 to March 11, there were four editorials about the beating, but none focused on Gates or the institution of the police department. From March 12 to March 14, however, there were six editorials about the crisis, and all focused on Gates and the question of the institutional integrity of the LAPD. The following two excerpts are typical of editorial opinion during the second week of the crisis.

The people of Los Angeles have been unable to hold their chief of police accountable for anything-not his racial slurs or racial stereotyping; not his openly-expressed contempt for the public, juries and the Constitution he is sworn to uphold; not his spying on political enemies or cover-up of that espionage. (Los Angeles Times, 12 March 1991, p. B7)

Chief Gates is responsible for inflammatory comments, for the actions of his officers and for the $8 million in taxpayer money paid out last year to satisfy complaints against the department. But because of rigid civil service protections, the police chief is not accountable to the mayor, the City Council or to the city's voters. (Los Angeles Times, 13 March 1991, p.


Attached to Daryl Gates in these two excerpts were many different signs, and all were damaging to his symbolic status. Gates was constructed in relations of opposition to the public, the Constitution, the mayor, and the City Council. He was constructed in relations of similarity to the LAPD officers, who themselves had already been polluted. Gates and the LAPD were also opposed to the mayor and the City Council, who in turn benefited symbolically by their semiotic contiguity to the public and the Constitution.


With the event having been constructed as a crisis, it began to be repre- sented through a tension between two competing narrative forms, which I have summarized in table 1. On one side was a romantic "drama of redemption" pitting the heroic actors of the local government (the mayor and the City Council) against the antiheroic ones (Gates and the LAPD). In this narrative, which was employed by both the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Sentinel, the heroic actors were not constructed through any sort of positive discourse, but rather through a semiotic opposition to Gates and the LAPD. Because Gates refused to hold his police officers accountable for their actions, and because he was coded by the counterdemocratic discourse of institutions, the remaining local governmental officials became the defenders of institutional legitimacy more or less by default. This occurred on several different levels. Semioti- cally, it operated through opposition, where every term implies and en- tails its opposite. In this case, symbolic opposition to Gates benefited the Mayor and the City Council. Politically, it worked because of the need for an identifiably legitimate authority. l2 This political dynamic was ex- pressed quite well in a Los Angeles Sentinel editorial, which argued that "this community has had enough police brutality and if the chief of police won't stop it, then the commission must, and if not, the mayor and the City Council must take definitive action" (7 March 1991, p. A8).

In the Los Angeles Sentinel, however, the actual composition of the romantic narrative differed in important respects from that of the Times. An important reason for this was the construction of a second romantic narrative in which the African-American community itself was posited as the heroic actor. In this "romance of the community," the heroic actor was represented not through a mere semiotic opposition, but through actual and positive discourse. Employing a style common to the African-American press (cf. Wolseley 197 I), the newspaper invoked the ideals of American society while criticizing that society as it actually existed. In opposition to mainstream society, the Sentinel represented the African-American community as the true voice of unity and morality, and hence as the only agent able to truly resolve the crisis. We can

l2 Greenfeld (1992, p. 416) has illustrated how this dynamic worked in the 18th- century construction of an American nationalism and a revolutionary consciousness.

Discursive   Discursive
Narrative   Qualities   Qualities of
Form Heroes of Heroes Antiheroes Antiheroes
Los Angeles Times:        
Romance.. ................. Mayor, City Council Semiotic opposition to anti- Gates, LAPD Out of control, irrational,
    heroes   deceitful, not ac-
Tragedy .................... "The world," "the peo- Isolated, factions White, middle-class citi- Passive, horrified
  ple"   zens  
Los Angeles Sentinel:        
Romance ................... Local government Semiotic opposition to anti- Gates, LAPD Brutal, merciless, secretive
Romance ................... African-American commu- Unified, moral, active Gates, LAPD Brutal, merciless, secretive
Tragedy... . . .. . . . . . . . . African-American commu- Ironic memory White, mainstream society Racist, insincere

see the construction of this second romantic narrative in the following excerpts:

Rarely, if ever, has an issue so united the Black community in the way the March 3 Rodney King incident has done. The savage beating of King has inspired Los Angeles' Black community to speak with one voice. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 14 March 1991, p. Al)

We must not allow ourselves to be set apart in this battle. Justice must be served and we must, at least in part, be the instruments of that justice. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 28 March 1991, p. A7)

The African-American community itself has a distinct role in the account- ability equation. In fact, the community represents the proverbial bottom line: it is the ultimate determinant of values and enforcers of acceptable standards. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 11 April 1991, p. A6)

In this romantic narrative, the beating of Rodney King became a trans- formative event, unleashing the potential power of the African-American community. While Daryl Gates and the LAPD were still the villains of this narrative, there were new heroes.

In tension with the romantic narratives, both newspapers also used a tragic frame to interpret some of the events surrounding the crisis. In a tragic narrative, as Frye (1957, pp. 36-37, 282-87) notes, the drama must make a tragic point; that is, while the protagonist must be of a properly heroic stature, the development of the plot is one of ultimate failure. Thus, in the Los Angeles Times the public-what Sherwood (1994) has called the heroic actor of the "drama of democracyv-became represented as a series of factions, and it became more difficult to imagine a plot development where a new actor could successfully step in and do battle with Gates and the police department. Within the tragic genre, reaction to the beating was interpreted through a narrative of class, ra- cial, and ethnic segregation rather than public unity. As an editorial in the Los Angeles Times lamented, "It is profoundly revealing that while middle-class viewers recoiled in horror at the brutal footage, the victim, like many others familiar with police behavior in poor and minority neighborhoods, considered himself lucky that the police did not kill him" (Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1991, p. B5).

These types of accounts in the Los Angeles Times represented a "trag- edy of fate," in the aporetic sense of resigned acceptance, a tragedy pointing to an evil "already there and already evil" (Ricoeur 1967, p. 313). However, as table 1 shows, the tragic frame of the Los Angeles Sentinel diverged in important respects from such a tragedy of fate. The Sentinel combined elements of tragedy and irony, calling up other recent instances of brutality against African-Americans. News reports in the Sentinel juxtaposed the outrage and collective attention about the Rod-

ney King beating with the relative lack of attention concerning another beating case whose trial had begun on the same day. The trial stemmed from the "Don Jackson case," a 1989 event where two Long Beach police officers were captured on videotape pushing an off-duty, African- American police officer through a plateglass window, "followed by the sight of Jackson being slammed onto the hood of their patrol car, after a 'routine' traffic stop" (Los Angeles Sentinel, 7 March 1991, p. Al). While the Los Angeles Times had given the Don Jackson story significant coverage in 1989 (12 articles), it failed to make the textual attachment to the Rodney King beating in 1991. For the Los Angeles Sentinel, however, the Don Jackson story served as an important interpretive filter through which to view the Rodney King beating. Other historical events also found their way into the Los Angeles Sentinel's coverage. In a feature interview, Brotherhood Crusade leader Danny Bakewell noted, "When I saw what happened to that brother on television, I thought I was watching a scene out of the distant past: a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob at work" (Los Angeles Sentinel, 14 March 1991, p. AS). By recalling other instances of brutality against African-Americans, writers for the Los Angeles Sentinel placed the event of the beating in the middle of a long and continuous narrative, rather than at the beginning of a new one.

It was unclear at this point which narrative form would prevail as the dominant understanding of the crisis in either newspaper. For both, the final act of the social drama would depend on the responses of political actors and on the interpretation of these actors' attempts to resolve the crisis. Even at this early point in the crisis, however, important differ- ences were developing in the reports of the two newspapers. Specifically, the Los Angeles Sentinel constructed two competing romantic narratives and a more ironic-tragic narrative, both of which would have important consequences for subsequent news coverage.


With the crisis developing rapidly, members of the political elite launched investigations to try to maintain the romantic narrative (where they were the heroic figures) and to deflate the tragic one. Yet, just like the construc- tion of the crisis, the success of these attempts was neither automatic nor guaranteed. In fact, the initial attempts to resolve the crisis through "official investigation" failed miserably. The first attempt was a grand jury investigation, begun the week after the beating. This investigation ultimately led to the trial of LAPD officers Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, Stacey Koon, and Timothy Wind. Despite the fact that it pro- duced these indictments, however, the grand jury investigation was not selected by either newspaper as a significant event in their developing plots about the Rodney King crisis. There are several possible reasons for this. The first is that the indictments lacked temporal immediacy, in the sense that they could only provide symbolic closure in the far distant future, after the conclusion of a lengthy criminal trial. The second reason, and perhaps the more significant one, is that the grand jury actions did not follow any of the plot lines of the various narrative constructions. They did not involve the local government or the African-American com- munity as heroes, they did not address the problem of the police chief, and they left unresolved the questions of fragmentation and segregation. While the sequence of events following from the grand jury investigation eventually led to the extremely meaningful "not guilty" verdict of 1992, the initial event was insignificant to the narration of the crisis.

The second investigation came in the form of an FBI probe, begun March 12. This action did get incorporated into some of the different plots, but it was evaluated negatively by all of them. In relation to the Los Angeles Sentinel's romantic narratives, the FBI probe failed to in- clude the African-American community. In relation to the other romantic frames, the national-level FBI probe could only purify the police depart- ment by polluting the political actors who had been constructed as the romantic heroes: the mayor and the City Council. Resolution of the crisis by the FBI would have placed the political leaders of Los Angeles in a symbolic position of dependence, and the crisis would have ended with a new genre and a new plot: a comedy about the city's political leader- ship. The city's leaders would have been symbolically transformed from active leaders to imposters who, unable to fulfill the requirements of their office, would have been viewed instead as "blocking characters."13 While this comedy could still have been constructed as a narrative of inclusion, through the reconciliation or conversion of the imposter char- acters, it would have necessarily decreased political legitimacy for local government. The FBI probe was quickly criticized for being divisive and coercive, particularly in the Los Angeles Times, where the "romance of local government" seemed to resonate more strongly. While the police officers were usually represented together with Daryl Gates as the antihe- roes, when reporting about the FBI probe, the Los Angeles Times linked

l3 The role of blocking characters in comedy is discussed by Frye (1957, p. 165), who notes that "the blocking characters are more often reconciled or converted than simply repudiated. Comedy often includes a scapegoat ritual of expulsion which gets rid of some irreconcilable character, but exposure and disgrace makes for pathos, or even tragedy."

Gates to the FBI and the police officers to the symbols of citizenship and rights.14 This homology with Gates undercut the symbolic strength of the FBI, and the event of the FBI probe soon faded from the plot lines of the Rodney King crisis.

The third attempt at resolution failed most completely and with the greatest effect for the discursive environment surrounding the Rodney King crisis. This was the effort by Mayor Tom Bradley to remove Gates from his position as police chief. Initially, Bradley had refused to call for Gates's removal. But the failure of the FBI and the grand jury investiga- tions, as well as growing public opinion against Gates, led Bradley to change his mind. Bradley called publicly for Gates to resign and repre- sented a Gates resignation as a means of healing for the city and as a way for Gates to purify himself for the good of the public. He urged Gates to resign "for the good of the LAPD and the welfare of all of Los Angeles," and by doing so to show "uncommon courage" (Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1991, pp. Al, A10).

When Gates refused to step down from his position, the Police Com- mission, at Bradley's urging, temporarily removed Daryl Gates from his duties as police chief. This action, far from resolving the crisis, only inflamed it, reinforcing and respecifying the tragic narrative. The City Council criticized the Police Commission for being dependent on Bradley, attacked Bradley for being motivated by power instead of the public good, and described the action as "illegal" and "irresponsible" (Los Angeles Times, 6 April 1991, p. Al). One prominent City Council mem- ber, Joel Wachs, linked the action to the Watergate crisis, calling it "a shocking abuse of our time-honored system of government" (Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1991, p. A23). The Police Commission (which had been powerless until Bradley's mayoral victory in 1973) responded that "the action we have taken is on sound legal grounds and the court will back

Bradley tried to connect this emerging crisis with the larger Rod- ney King crisis, in which he was the hero, Gates was the villain, and any action against Gates was therefore a heroic act:

It is my hope that today's Police Commission action will give us all time to bridge the differences that have grown between us since the Rodney King incident. . . . The Police Commission is using a well-established procedure. (Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1991, p. A23)

"I acted in good faith in what I felt were legitimate concerns," Bradley said Saturday. "There was divisiveness in the city. The chief was at the

l4 See, e.g., articles in the Los Angeles Times, 26 March 1991, pp. Al, A19, and 3

April 1991, p. A10.
l5 Attributed to Police Commission member Melanie Lomax and quoted in the Los
Angeles Times, 5 April 1991, p. Al.

center of the storm of protests and so long as he remained in the position it was not likely to change." (Los Angeles Times, 7 April 1991, p. A30)

While it was certainly understandable for Bradley to link the Police Commission's action to the larger Rodney King crisis, the pollution of power and ego proved to be more powerful than his metaphor of healing or his discourse of procedure. The Los Angeles Times increasingly de- scribed the mayor as "working behind the scenes" and "cranking up the political pressure," descriptive terms which resonated with the coun- terdemocratic code of motives and relationships. On April 6, just one month after the beating, the Los Angeles Times reported the results of a poll showing that 60% of those surveyed believed that "the mayor was trying to further his political aspirations rather than . . . to mend a divided city" (Los Angeles Times, 6 April 1991, p. Al). While Bradley had been successful in making the removal of Gates a turning point for the Rodney King crisis, the direction of the narrative development was not what he had wanted.


As I have shown above, none of the initial attempts to resolve the crisis were successful. The grand jury investigation was largely ignored by the press, the FBI probe was eventually deemphasized after being criticized, and the conflict between the City Council and the Police Commission did little except hurt the mayor's approval ratings. News reports in the Los Angeles Times responded to these failed actions of the political elites by updating the two narrative constructions and shifting the relative importance accorded to each genre. On the one hand, reports from "civic leaders" strengthened the tragic narrative of factionalism, claiming that "the intense fight over Gates' tenure has further polarized the city, politi- cized the issue and obscured the fundamental questions of brutality, rac- ism, and police training raised by the King beating" (Los Angeles Times,

1 April 1991, p. A13). At the same time as the tragic genre was reinforced, other reports weakened the romance of local government, noting with irony the lack of heroism among city leaders. As an editorial in the Los Angeles Times noted, "The Rodney King beating has brought to the surface ugly problems in Los Angeles: not only the allegations of police brutality, but the now exposed factionalism among races and ethnic groups and the tensions between longtime city powers who fear too much change and new line city powers who fear too little" (Los Angeles Times, 29 March 1991, p. B6). In this new plot, the event of the beating was not only linked to the problems of police brutality, but also to the weakness of local leaders.

In table 2, I have summarized the discursive environment that sur- rounded these failed attempts at resolution. For the Los Angeles Times, the romantic "drama of redemptionu-positing local government as hero-had devolved into a satire of romance, where "a slight shift of perspective . . . and the solid earth becomes an intolerable horror . . . [showing us] man as a venomous rodent" (Frye 1957, p. 235). In this satirical form the romance threatened to turn into bitter tragedy, but without the usual sympathy for the tragic figure. Charged with the task of cleansing society from the evil of Police Chief Gates and the LAPD, local government leaders instead became represented as selfish, egotisti- cal, and deceitful. As a result the tragic genre resonated more strongly in the Los Angeles Times.

In the Los Angeles Sentinel, too, the tragic form resonated strongly during this period. However, for the Sentinel, the romance of the Afri- can-American community continued to exert a powerful influence on the interpretation of the crisis. In this plot, the Los Angeles Sentinel continued to represent the African-American community as a unified group who needed to demand their right to economic and political empow- erment.16 This need for heroic action on the part of the African-American community was opposed to the LAPD, as reports in the Sentinel editorialized about the commonality of unpunished police brutality and reported that African-American police officers had to deal with racist behavior from other police officers in their daily police routines. l7

In this narrative context, where the negative characteristics of the police department continued to be described through the romantic genre, the conflict between the Police Commission and City Council had a differ- ent meaning. News reports in the Los Angeles Sentinel placed Bradley and the Police Commission in a heroic context and Gates and the City Council in an antiheroic one. There was no causal link here between the event and "factionalism." Rather, the Sentinel accepted the discourse of procedure and the metaphor of healing in its representation of the Police Commission's decision to remove Gates (Los Angeles Sentinel, 11 April 1991, p. A6). By contrast, when the City Council reinstated Gates, the Sentinel described the council members through the same attributes used for the police officers: deceit and unreasonableness.

With regard to the council's decision to pay the police chief's legal fees . . . that probably will be millions of dollars out of the tax payer's pocket.

l6 Los Angeles Sentinel, 4 April 1991, p. Al; 11 April 1991, p. A6; 16 May 1991,

p. A6.
l7 Los Angeles Sentinel, 11 April 1991, p. A7; 18 April 1991, pp. Al, A7; 25 April

1991, pp. Al, Alb; 2 May 1991, pp. Al, A14; 9 May 1991, p. Al; 16 May 1991, p. Al; 23 May 1991, p. Al; 13 June 1991, p. Al.

Discursive   Discursive
Narrative   Qualities   Qualities of
Form Heroes of Heroes Antiheroes Antiheroes
Los Angeles Times:        
Satire ... . . ... . .. . . . . . . . .. Mayor, City Council, Po- Selfish, egotistical, de- Gates, LAPD Out of control, irrational,
  lice Commission ceitful   deceitful, not ac-
Tragedy..... . ... . .. . . .. . . . . "The world," "the peo- Isolated, factions White, middle-class citi- Passive, distracted, in-
  ple"         zens sincere
Los Angeles Sentinel:        
Romance. . . . . . . . . . . . .. . .. . . Mayor, Police Commis- Semiotic opposition to anti- Gates, LAPD, City Brutal, merciless, secretive
  sion heroes Council  
Romance. . . . .. . . . .. . . .... . . African-American commu- Unified, moral, active Gates, LAPD Brutal, merciless, secretive
Tragedy.. . . ... . . . . . .... . .. . African-American commu- Ironic memory White, mainstream society Racist, insincere

. . . I guess the City Council will have to answer to their voters about their decision to pay what could be millions in legal fees on the chief's behalf. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 2 May 1991, p. A14)

This last proviso, regarding monetary damages, seems a hollow gesture to lend authenticity to the City Council action, since Gates out of his own mouth states that he seeks no money damages. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 11 April 1991, p. A6)

Thus, during this period the romantic narratives of the Los Angeles Senti- nel remained relatively stable, with the only real change being a specifi- cation of which local government leaders were heroes (and which were antiheroes). In fact, while white support of Mayor Bradley decreased from 49% to 41% after the temporary removal of Police Chief Gates, African-American support of Bradley actually increased during this pe- riod, from 54% to 64% (Sonenshein 1993, p. 2 13). In a discursive environ- ment where the conflict between the City Council and Mayor Bradley was represented in such unambiguous terms, the tragic-ironic narrative also remained stable. Within this frame, the Sentinel's monitoring of the mainstream media meant that it began to interpret the reactions of the "mainstream" community, where support for Bradley had dropped, in an increasingly negative light.'' The Los Angeles Sentinel began to evalu- ate the mainstream public, and its reactions to the crisis, through the polluting discourse of factionalism and falsity. The following news ex- cerpt is indicative of this shift: "While America pretended to be in shock, Black America was not shocked at all. . . . The attack on Rodney King is a part of the historical pattern of violent oppression of Africans in America which has been visited upon our people ever since we arrived here in a condition of involuntary servitude" (Los Angeles Sentinel, 11 April 1991, p. A7). In this type of interpretation, anyone who would be surprised by the beating in effect denied the history of racism and of slavery. This monitoring of the mainstream media led to the continuing resonance of the tragic-ironic narrative in the Los Angeles Sentinel.


Resolution of the crisis would, for the discursive community of the Los Angeles Times, require the creation of a new hero; for the Los Angeles Sentinel, it would require that this new hero, if not the African-American community itself, at least be attached to that community. The "hero" who was eventually to satisfy the conditions of both communities was

l8 Indeed, one of the most central functions of the African-American press is this monitoring of the mainstream media (Rubin 1980; Wolseley 1971; Frazier 1949).

the Christopher Commission and its "Report of the Independent Com- mission of the Los Angeles Police Department," released to the public on July 9, 1991. The Christopher Commission was composed of represen- tatives from all institutional branches of "elite" civil society. It was cochaired by John Arguelles, a retired California State Supreme Court judge, and by Warren Christopher, a former deputy attorney general and deputy secretary of state. Also included in the commission were two university professors, a college president, three accomplished lawyers, the president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and a corporate executive.

Despite these symbolic resources, the Christopher Commission was not automatically cast in its ultimate role as romantic hero. It had originally been formed as two separate investigations: the Arguelles Commission, formed by Daryl Gates, and the Christopher Commission, instituted by Tom Bradley. Like the investigations preceding them, both commissions were initially represented in a negative light by the Los Angeles Times as being politically motivated and dependent. The Arguelles Commission was represented as being tied too closely to Gates, while the Christopher Commission was considered too close to Bradley. The decisive move toward symbolic resolution of the crisis came with the merging of the two commissions into an expanded Christopher Commission. As an event, the merging of the two commissions presented an opportunity for new narrations of the crisis to be made. Both Arguelles and Christopher made numerous public statements representing the merged commission as an independent, cooperative, and objective body whose orientation was di- rected toward the good of the public. They represented their merged commission as a movement away from the tragedy of factionalism and back toward the romance of local government. As the following excerpts demonstrate, their efforts were reflected in the Los Angeles Times:

The heads of the panels . . . said they were seeking to distance themselves from the clash as the Police Commission forced Gates to take a leave. (Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1991, p. A23)

"I think it would be good for everybody if we could come up with some kind of coordinated effort," said retired State Supreme Court Justice John Arguelles, the head of Gates' five-member civilian panel. "There are [now] two committees that might be perceived as having independent agendas that they might want to advance." (Los Angeles Times, 2 April 1991, p. Al)

"In order to maximize the commission's contribution to the community," Christopher and Arguelles said in a joint statement, "we must concentrate on making an objective and thorough study of the long-term issues without being drawn into the controversy over the tenure of Chief Gates." (Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1991, p. A23)

In an environment dominated by satirical and tragic interpretations, even this merged commission was understood skeptically, and its report was forecast by some to be an "impressive study . . . that ends up just sitting on somebody's shelf' (Los Angeles Times, 11 April 1991, p. A10). Nevertheless, when the Christopher Commission's report was released on July 9-completed "within a restricted time frame because delay would not be in the public intere~t"'~-the density of media coverage about the crisis surged. In the Los Angeles Times, while there were three articles about the Rodney King crisis during the week before the release of the report, there were 48 articles in the subsequent week; in the Los Angeles Sentinel, the density of articles increased from three articles to nine over the same period of time. But the report did not only provoke a quantitative change in media discourse; it also engendered a qualitative shift. The event became a turning point for all of the narrative under- standings of the Rodney King crisis. In the Los Angeles Times, it was interpreted through a religious metaphor of revelation strengthening the romantic narrative:

Just as the Rodney G. King videotape gave the American public an unfil- tered glimpse of police brutality, so did the Christopher Commission open a window Tuesday on the working lives of Los Angeles police, exposing strains of racism, violence, and callousness toward the public they are sworn to protect. . . Throughout the inquiry, both men said, they were acutely aware of the high expectations for their efforts. Arguelles talked of producing a report that would be seen as "visionary." (Los Angeles Times, 10 July 1991, pp. A10, A17)

The Los Angeles Times began to interpret the release of the Christopher Commission report as a symbolic completion of the crisis begun by the videotape. If the videotape provided the beginning of the narrative, the report enabled its closure. With this interpretive shift the satirical and tragic frames disappeared from the reports of the Los Angeles Times. At this point, the discursive environment of the Los Angeles Times began to resemble a cultural situation that Turner (1969) has called "reaggrega- tion." While authority figures had previously been represented as divided and politically motivated, they were now represented as being open and cooperative, unified in their support of the Christopher Commission re- port, and motivated by the duty of office and concern for the public. Attention also shifted back to Police Chief Gates, who was represented as increasingly ego driven and out of touch with the public. As the follow- ing news reports demonstrate, the sharp opposition drawn between Gates

l9 As stated on the cover sheet of the "Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department."

and the remaining political leaders helped to increase the legitimacy of those leaders:

"It appears as though a pattern is beginning to develop at Parker Center to punish or harass those who cooperated with the Christopher Commission and to intimidate others from cooperating in the future," [City Council- man] Yaroslovsky said. "This is an untenable situation, which the Police Commission should immediately move to restore." (Los Angeles Times, 16 July 1991, p. A7)

The councilmen's good faith should not be trifled with by Gates. He can either cooperate with the council members and business leaders who would try to work with him on a transition or he can try to fight the many lined up against him. (Los Angeles Times, 17 July 1991, p. B10)

Over a turbulent 10-day period, some of the most prominent political, business, and labor leaders wrestled with a difficult mission: how to per- suade Police Chief Daryl Gates to commit to a retirement date. (Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1991, p. Al)

Former political adversaries, such as the Police Commission and the City Council, were now calling on one another to help in a common cause. Business and labor leaders, who had previously not been significant play- ers in the social drama, were reported to be joining the unified effort. Articles in the Los Angeles Times reported that other area police depart- ments, such as those in Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Monica, May- wood, and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, were also conforming with the Christopher Commission reforms. Finally, when two of Gates's strongest supporters-councilmen John Ferraro and Joel Wachs-called for his resignation, the symbolization of political unity was virtually com- plete, at least for the Los Angeles Times.

I have summarized the discursive environment surrounding the release of the Christopher Commission report in table 3. For the Los Angeles Times, as I have suggested, this period witnessed a strong narrative consolidation into an exclusively romantic frame. Acting as a bridge to unify the previously divided members of the local government and the political elite, the Christopher Commission was represented as an objec- tive and "visionary" body enabling the unification and cooperation of local government leaders. At the same time, the unification of local gov- ernment coincided with a strengthening opposition to Police Chief Gates. When Gates finally announced his resignation, the LAPD became purged of the figure around whom much of the symbolic pollution had concen- trated. Public focus began to turn to the upcoming trial of the four in- dicted officers, the conviction of whom would signal complete redemption for the political leaders of Los Angeles, legitimacy for its institutions, and moral rejuvenation for its citizens. Rather than treating the trial as


Discursive   Discursive
Narrative     Qualities   Qualities of
Form Heroes   of Heroes Antiheroes Antiheroes
Los Angeles Times:          
Romance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . Christopher Commission, Independent, objective, Daryl Gates Ego driven, coercive, ob-
    mayor, City Council, unified, cooperative,   structing, deceitful
    Police Commission "visionary"    
Los Angeles Sentinel:          
Romance ................... Christopher Commission Objective, forthright, rec- Gates, LAPD Oppressive, exclusionary,
      ognition of African-   racist
      American grievances    
Romance.. .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . African-American commu- Unified, moral, active, vin- Gates, LAPD, City Greedy, politically moti-
  nity   dicated Council vated, obstructing re-
Tragedy.. . . .. . .. . . . . . . . . . . . African-American commu- Ironic memory White citizens False pride, misled, in-
  nity       sincere

a separate event, the Los Angeles Times and its public understood it as the final chapter of the narrative, clearly expecting the result to be the conviction of the 0ffi~ei-s.~' As for the other narrative forms that had previously been used by the Los Angeles Times-the tragedy of isolation and the satire of politicization-they appeared to disappear in a case of collective memory loss.

In the Los Angeles Sentinel, however, collective memory continued to play a significant role in the coverage of the crisis. We can see this from the earliest events leading up to the release of the Christopher Commis- sion report. In its evaluations of the separate Christopher and Arguelles commissions, the Sentinel identified the latter with Gates and the former with Bradley and used the appropriate sides of the bifurcating discourse of civil society to interpret their actions. The Sentinel reported about the merging of the two commissions in a manner far different than the Los Angeles Times:

Earlier Gates said that his Arguelles Commission would cooperate with

Bradley's Christopher Commission. Subsequent reports indicate that the

Arguelles Commission has had difficulty in attracting panel members and

that the two commissions would merge-a prospect not too much to the

liking of the Brotherhood Crusades' Danny Bakewell or acting Police Com-

mission President Melanie Lomax. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 4 April 1991, p.


The Los Angeles Sentinel interpreted the possibility of a merger between the two commissions as being necessitated by the weakness of the Ar- guelles Commission. In a direct metaphor of pollution, the Arguelles Commission was interpreted as something to be avoided, as a potential danger to the purity of the Christopher Commission.

Nevertheless, when the merged commission's report was released, the Los Angeles Sentinel described it as a "window of opportunity" and as an investigation of "extensiveness . . . forthrightness . . . and validity" (1 1 July 1991, p. A6). In this respect it mirrored the Los Angeles Times. At the same time, however, the Sentinel did not construct the commission report as a bridge toward the legitimation of local government leaders, but rather as a justification for the longstanding criticisms made by the African-American community. In this respect, the event of the Christo- pher Commission report was linked to the romance of the African-

'' Indeed, when the not-guilty verdicts were read in April 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported, "Outrage and indignation swept the city Wednesday as citizens rich and poor, black and white, struggled to reconcile the acquittals of four Los Angeles Police Department officers with the alarming, violent images captured on a late-night video- tape" (30 April, p. Al).

American community. John Mack, executive director of the Los Angeles Urban League, argued that the report "confirmed what we already know: that racism is rampant in the LAPD" (Los Angeles Sentinel, 11 July 1991, p. A15). By attaching the event to the romantic narrative of the African-American community, the Sentinel reinforced the heroic role of the black community at the same time that it extended such a role to the commission and its report. If local leaders wanted to be narrated into a heroic role by the Sentinel, they would have to include the African- American community in the resolution of the crisis and would have to recognize that community's collective memory.

Notably, the focus in the Sentinel was on the reform recommendations, the findings of bias, and the issue of racism, rather than on the unity of the political leadership in its quest to remove Gates. Rather than relying on sources of support from the political and business leadership, the Sentinel's representation of support for the commission included City Councilman Michael Woo, Brotherhood Crusade leader Danny Bake- well, and the African-American Peace Officer Association, as well as "community leaders and various community coalitions long critical of Chief Gates and the practices and politics of the LAPD" (Los Angeles Sentinel, 18 July 1991, p. Al). The voices heard through the Sentinel did not readily forgive the political leaders, the police department, or "white society." They continued to represent the police department as exclusive and racist and to identify other area police departments (such as the Lynwood Sheriff's Office) as racist. The durable text of police oppression, always available for the Sentinel, was again brought forth as new inci- dents of brutality were revealed. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the Los Angeles Sentinel continued to represent the political system and mainstream society by using the antiheroic side of the discursive code:

After the Rodney King beating, the barrage of nationwide media publicity and public disgust lulled citizens into a false sense of pride and compla- cency, encouraging them to believe that impending recommendations on LAPD practices and politics would serve to turn the department's mental- ity around. Then along came the Verne11 Ramsey case-another Black Foothill victim alleging excessive force by the LAPD. (Los Angeles Senti- nel, 19 September 1991, p. Al)

Recent City Council debates-13 so far-over Christopher Commission recommendations have led to a barrage of complaints from community leaders and various coalitions. One of the main arguments has been the issue of power. Critics charge that the City Council has too much and has become lackadaisical about responsibly exercising its duties. (Los Angeles Sentinel, 22 August 1991, p. Al)

Thus, as we see in table 3, there was no real narrative consolidation in the Los Angeles Sentinel after the release of the Christopher Commission report. The romance of the African-American community continued to be the dominant romantic genre for reporting about the crisis. It was supplemented by a "romance of the Christopher Commission," where the commission was constructed in relations of similarity to the African- American community instead of being attached to local government. Lo- cal government leaders, and the City Council in particular, were viewed largely as a threat to the resolution of the crisis. Similarly, the tragic- ironic narrative persisted. White citizens were interpreted as being not sufficiently concerned or vigilant enough to ensure that the reforms would be enacted. In other words, while the Los Angeles Times had narrated the event of the commission report as a link to political leadership and public unity, the Los Angeles Sentinel had narrated it as a link to African- American leadership and public complacency. In doing so, both newspa- pers were following the "narrative logic" that had developed during the course of events.


In a recent article, Kane (1991) distinguished between the analytic and the concrete forms of the autonomy of culture. The analytic autonomy of culture refers to the fact that the meaning of a cultural object "cannot be read from social behavior . . . [but] must be studied as a pattern in and of itself" (Alexander 1990, p. 25). The issue of concrete autonomy, on the other hand, refers to the effects of culture on historical develop- ments and social outcomes. The problem is that there are not enough studies examining the interplay between the analytic and concrete forms of culture. Social scientists studying the concrete effects of culture too often treat meaning structures as a type of "black box" and focus on ritual events such as riots and public meetings to indicate how cultural and social structuring occurs at the same time. This work has been impor- tant as a methodological corrective to show how culture (in the form of ritual) can effect social change, but it does not really take full advantage of research about analytic culture structure^.^' At the same time, studies of the analytic structure of the cultural systems of particular societies have been important in helping us to elaborate Durkheim's notion of the collective conscience, what Alexander (1992, p. 290) has called the

Roth (1996) provides a more extended discussion of this point in his critical study of ritual analysis.

"realm of structured, socially established consciousness." However, the

detailed mechanisms through which culture is translated into historical

outcomes need further elaboration in this tradition, especially in contexts

where there are multiple and overlapping spheres of discourse.

In this study of the Rodney King crisis and its interpretation by the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Sentinel, I offer some suggestions about how to study the interplay between the analytic and concrete forms of culture, and I demonstrate how such an approach can help us to understand events, social actions, and the dynamics of cultural represen- tation in civil society. First, I show how the cultural construction of social problems in civil society occurs in multiple media that are connected to different communities of discourse. It is not simply the case that a "social problem exists primarily in terms of how it is defined and conceived in society" (Blumer 1971, p. 300). This notion hypostatizes "society," "construction," and "problem" as though all were more unitary than they really are. The Rodney King crisis was socially constructed as sev- eral different problems in several different public spheres. In the Los Angeles Times it was constructed as a problem of police brutality, of factionalism, and of political divisiveness. In the Los Angeles Sentinel it was constructed as a problem of police brutality, of white insincerity, and of the need for African-American empowerment. The construction of these problems depended on the event, its narration by different social actors, and the ability of these actors to draw on codes and narratives that particular discursive communities found both plausible and dra- matic. This finding supports a "public arenas" model of social problems (Hilgartner and Bosk 1988), at the same time that it reorients the model toward a recognition of multiple public spheres.

Second, by conceptualizing narratives and events in a relational man- ner, I show how interactional effects can have important consequences for social outcomes. Clearly, the event of the Rodney King beating had important consequences for subsequent narrative understandings about race relations and civil society. But the event had neither a unitary nor a necessary meaning. While it was constructed in the Los Angeles Times as the beginning of a narrative of crisis, in the Los Angeles Sentinel it was inserted into the middle of an ongoing narrative about civil rights and police brutality. Furthermore, the meaning of the beating changed as new events were added to the various narrative constructions. Some events, such as the grand jury investigation, were "meaningless," in the sense that they were not significant for the narrative constructions of the crisis. This is noticeable in that the sequence of events following the grand jury investigation ultimately became very meaningful following the not-guilty verdicts for the four officers indicted in the original investi- gation. Other events, such as the FBI probe, were initially meaningful but were soon removed from the ongoing narrative constructions and thus made inconsequential. Still other events, such as the conflict be- tween the Police Commission and City Council, changed the earlier meaning of the crisis. The point is that both meanings and outcomes depend on the interaction between events and their narrative under- standings, a finding supported by related studies of collective action (see, e.g., Ellingson 1995; Kane 1994) and violence (e.g., Wagner-Pacifici 1986, 1994).

Finally, this study indicates that genre plays an important part in how events get narrated, linked to other events, and infused with social expectation. This is an important addition to narrative analysis and its focus on events, plots, and characters. Genre influences the expected outcome of a particular narrative construction by constructing a set of expectations for the hero and for the conclusion of the story. The "field" of genres surrounding a particular event influences social outcomes be- cause of the way that it informs competing expectations. This is also true of other cultural structures, such as codes, idioms, and schemas. But the analysis of narrative and genre allows us to address more fully the relationship between the analytic properties of culture and their concrete articulation in real events. For this reason, a "narrative sociology" can help social scientists to better understand the dynamics of social process and social change.





Date Event


March 3 ........... Rodney King is beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police De- partment, an event recorded on videotape by amateur camera- man George Holliday.

March 6 ...........
Police Chief Daryl Gates calls the beating an "aberration." March 11 . . . . . . . . . .
A grand jury investigation is formed to look into the beating of Rodney King. March 12 ..........
An FBI probe is formed to investigate the beating of Rodney King. March 14
Four Los Angeles police officers are indicted for the beating of Rodney King. March 30 ..........
Daryl Gates forms the Arguelles Commission to investigate the beating of Rodney King. March 30 .......
Tom Bradley forms the Christopher Commission to investigate the beating of Rodney King. April 4 . . . . ....... ..
The Police Commission, on the urging of Mayor Tom Bradley, removes Daryl Gates from his position as police chief. April 5 ... . . . . . . . . ..
The Arguelles Commission and the Christopher Commission are merged into an expanded Christopher Commission. April 6
The City Council, after criticizing the Police Commission's ac- tion, reinstates Daryl Gates to his position as police chief.

July 9 ............... The Christopher Commission releases the results of its investiga- tion, the "Report of the Independent Commission of the Los Angeles Police Department."

July 12 ............. Daryl Gates announces that he will retire as police chief.
July 14 ............. Daryl Gates announces that he might not retire until 1993.
July 17 ............ . City Councilmen John Ferraro and Joel Wachs make a public

call for the resignation of Daryl Gates. July 22 .............
Daryl Gates announces that he will resign as police chief in April 1992. 1992:

April 29.. . . . . . . . . . . A Simi Valley jury acquits the officers charged with beating Rod- ney King. In the civil disturbances that ensue there are more than 11,000 arrests, 2,000 people are injured, and 58 people are killed.

June 6 Daryl Gates retires as chief of the Log Angeles Police Depart-
ment and is replaced by Willie L. Williams.


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