The Power of the Situation
A week of urban mayhem was ignited by the April 29, 1992 jury acquittal of four white police officers who were captured on videotape beating black motorist Rodney King. The angry response in South Central produced its own brutal footage, most dramatically the live broadcast from a hovering TV news helicopter of two black men striking unconscious with a brick, kicking, and then dancing over the body of, white truck driver Reginald Denny. The final three-day toll of what many community activists took to defiantly calling an uprising, revolt, or rebellion, was put at 53 dead, some $1 billion in property damage, nearly 2,000 arrests, and countless businesses in ashes. These two men, Damian Williams and Henry Watson undoubtedly committed a heinous crime, but thousands more looted, burned, and destroyed property with the same disregard for life and property. Were all these people criminals who used the verdicts as an excuse to commit crimes, or was the nature of the social situation the primary determinant of this nefarious behavior? In the course of this paper, I plan to explore this question from a psychological perspective with an emphasize on conformity and social norms, bystander intervention, social perception and reality, and finally, prejudice.
Generally looking at the Los Angeles riots, and specifically drawing upon the Reginald Denny beating and subsequent trial, the power of the situation becomes evident, as thousands of people living in an extremely poor and crime-ridden area of Los Angeles, lashed out against a perception of injustice through violence.
The conditions that lead people to perceive themselves as victims of unjust actions are rather complex. In this case, the favorable verdicts towards the officers who beat Rodney King was the 'unjust action', not only for Rodney King, but for the community he...