John Dawson’s Healing America’s Wounds came out in the wake of the Rodney King Riots of 1992. After the trial of the officers who beat King on March 3, 1991 ended in not-guilty verdicts, the city of Los Angeles exploded in violence.
Here’s Dawson’s account of the riots:
On April 28, 1992, following the not-guilty verdict in the trial of four white officers from our local police station, a peaceful candlelight vigil was held right here [at the spot of the beating]. Afterwards, thugs and gang members began to loot two nearby stores. A roving crowd of about 200 began to break windows and loot stores in the surrounding communities of Pacoima, Arleta and Panorama City. Ralphs market where Julie and I shop was saved by its butchers, who stood in the doorways threatening the mob with their meat cleavers. A few miles away, the central part of Los Angeles entered three days of terror.
What we saw was appalling. For more than 20 years, my wife, Julie, and i have been part of those working and praying for revival and racial reconciliation. The enormous racial diversity of Los Angeles had always sparked in us a hopeful vision of the future and now it was literally going up in flames, our worst nightmares surpassed.
Angelinos experienced the brutality of mob rule. Parts of the city virtually ceased to function. Hundreds of thousands of citizens were sent home from school, officers and public facilities, and all sporting events were suspended; 3,700 fires raged out of countrol over a wide area. This, along with vandalism during looting, destroyed or damaged more than 5,000 buildings. National guardsmen and federal troops began to pour into our neighborhoods because city police were totally overwhelmed. Worst of all, like a mirror-image replay of the King beating, was the live television broadcast of the assualt on a white truck driver, Reginal Denny.
Pulled from his truck by at least five black men, he was battered into semiconsciousness with a five-pound oxygenator, punched and robbed. Soaked in blood and calling for help, he was repeatedly hit by beer bottles, kicked in the head and beaten with a claw hammer and a piece of concrete. He was finally rescued by four black bystanders and taken to a hospital where he underwent four hours of brain surgery.
Under a curfew each night, we huddled in front of the TV with our boys, hardly able to speak to each other about the numbing images of hatred, blood and flames flickering in front of us. Occasionally we would go to the balcony to observe the columns of smoke rising from points all across the city.
I just want to raise one point about this narrative: Dawson describes King’s beating as “beating, hitting, slugging” and “56 crashing, bone-jarring blows.” It’s as if the provocation that led to the trial is less indelible than the mirror-image, described blow-by-blow in gross detail.
It may be that the moment was more provocative for Dawson than understanding the pain and anger of rioters, but what’s left unsaid, strangely so, in Dawson’s account is that it could have used–but did not–the trope of the passion to layer his narrative. This might have been the expected version of these beatings, moments of sacrifice that were really opportunities for grace.
Instead, Dawson’s book goes on to express how these events call to mind the long history of racial reconciliation that America needs because of the blood on its hands thanks to slavery and the treatment of Native Americas. The Puritans, for Dawson, were not religious exiles but devoted missionaries. The covenant they established with God for America’s providential future has been tarnished by injustice (and idolatry) and only the reparation of that religious pact can save America’s future.
Dawson could have, but didn’t, layer this history against the redemptive power of the passion. Why not? He historicizes America’s travails in the 1990s as linked to perennial injustice, but not to the heart of the Christian narrative.
As a moment of American religious imagination, I have been struck by the opportunity Dawson did not take in telling the story of the King riots. Maybe you will be, too.