Courtroom 3 is an innocuous room in an innocuous building in an innocuous city. And at the moment — April 12, 2007 — it is the site of a woefully innocuous trial. A man with an accent of indeterminate origin is on the stand, being cross-examined about a “written work directive.” There are no cameras filming the proceedings, no press taking notes. No one is watching from the public viewing section. When the judge eventually renders a verdict, only the plaintiff, defendant and their respective attorneys will care.
Fifteen years ago this month, however, the glowing eyes of the national media were fixated on this small, nondescript courtroom. It was here, at Ventura County Superior Court in Simi Valley, that four police officers — three white, one Latino — were acquitted of excessively beating an African American motorist despite taped evidence to the contrary, sparking four days of the worst civil disturbances Los Angeles has ever experienced.
The so-called Rodney King trial and subsequent riots are tied, both geographically and culturally, to L.A. and the festering racial tension within its poorest, most marginalized neighborhoods. But the shockwaves that finally awoke the proverbial sleeping giant actually emanated from this quiet strip of scrubbed suburbia in Simi Valley. Lawyers for the accused LAPD cops successfully lobbied for a change of venue, moving the trial 40 miles north and setting a case largely about racism against the backdrop of a middle-class town that is 89 percent Caucasian.
It is a fact lost to time. But if you ask those who were around back then, it couldn’t have been forgotten sooner.
As Greg Stratton, who served as mayor of Simi Valley from 1986 to 1998, remembers it: “People ask to borrow your front yard, and next thing you know, there’s a riot going on.”
On the defensive
Today, it is hard to imagine Simi Valley even existed in the early ’90s, let alone played a part in one of the most significant events of the decade. Much of the area surrounding the courthouse looks as if it sprouted from the concrete two weeks ago. At the corner of Tapo Canyon Road and Alamo Street, there is a large shopping center with a massive movie theater and several chain restaurants. A huge, shiny Borders bookstore sits across the street. The houses appear fresh off the tract home assembly line. It is, on the surface anyway, a new millennium Pleasantville: a little generic, maybe, but safe, inoffensive and harmless.
According to Stratton, things were not all that different 15 years ago. Housing was less expensive, and the workforce more blue-collar, “but I don’t think the nature of the community has changed much,” he says.
In 1992, Stratton and other city representatives suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to define — and defend — “the nature of the community” to the rest of the nation.
The media frenzy surrounding the Rodney King incident began even before it involved Simi Valley. The March 3, 1991, video of King, a black taxi driver, being brutally assaulted by officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Sgt. Stacey Koon was replayed incessantly on television news programs across the country for months. In November, the defense argued its clients could not be tried fairly in L.A., and a judge agreed. Neighboring Ventura County was asked to provide a courthouse. Officials offered up its freshly built East County facility, and the following April, Simi Valley — then not much more than a bedroom city for greater Los Angeles — became the focal point of what was already shaping up to be one of the most controversial court cases ever in California.
Working in the same building where a trial of that magnitude was taking place would seemingly leave you with a lifetime of stories — anecdotes about charging through packs of reporters every day, about encountering protestors or about brushing up against history.
But the courthouse employees who were there have remarkably little to say about the month-long period in which the world was watching their workplace. Renee Kirby, still a processing clerk in the sheriff’s office a few doors down from Courtroom 3, claims there isn’t anything to say. She and her co-workers, Kirby explains, were mostly kept separated from the madness, which they just thought of as L.A. County’s business, and they were encouraged to go on with their daily routines.
“They didn’t want our work to be impeded by all the brouhaha going on around here,” she says. “We had a job to do, and we wouldn’t be able to do it if we were involved with all that stuff.”
Actually, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that the court workers were relatively unaffected by the trial. After all, they weren’t the ones who had to step in front of TV cameras and introduce America to a city most of the population had never even heard of. That job was left to the elected officials.
And the message they were forced to send was: Simi Valley is not racist.
When the King trial relocated to Simi Valley, critics assumed “fair trial,” in this case, was being used as a euphemism for “whiter jury.” And when the ethnic makeup of the jury became known — 10 whites, one Latino and one Asian — the media wanted to know: What is this place all about?
Of course, that question was irrelevant. The majority of the jurors were from outside Simi Valley, and the city itself did not have a say about the trial being held at its new courthouse. The town was simply an unwitting host. But none of those facts mattered. To the media, Simi Valley became an extension of all the deep sociological issues the case represented.
“One way in which the press can inadvertently create problems for people is the way in which they label things,” says current Mayor Paul Miller, then chief of police. “One of the problems, as I saw it, was that the press called it a ‘Simi Valley jury,’ even though only two of the jurors were residents of Simi Valley. It was a Ventura County jury that just happened to be in a Simi Valley courthouse. But we got the tag of being a racist city. It was totally unfair, and it was fueled by the press’s constant use of the terminology ‘Simi Valley jury.’ ”
For Stratton, the whole ordeal was a crash course in damage control. In his six years as mayor up to that point, the only media he had to deal with were local newspapers grilling him on statements made at city council meetings. Now he was going on television almost daily, answering questions about racial hostility and whether his city is a bastion for right-wing conservatism.
“The scariest [interview],” Stratton says, “was when this lady interviewed me for one of these networks, and while they were filming the response to her questions, I said, ‘You’re not dressed [like you’re going to appear on TV].’ She said, ‘Oh, the questions are going to be asked by a reporter and spliced in.’ I said, ‘How do I know she is going to be asking the same questions I just answered?’ She said, ‘We do this all the time, you can trust us.’ It was ok, but you get nervous about things like this.”
Instead of going on the defensive, though, the city decided the best way to deal with the media onslaught was to simply allow the community to speak for itself.
“The council’s position was to open our windows to the world and show them what it’s like here,” says City Manager Mike Sedell, who, during the King trial, took on the role of spokesperson for Simi Valley. Occasionally, he also acted as a tour guide. Once, reporters from CNN asked Sedell to show them the town’s “ghetto.” “I said, ‘We don’t really have a ghetto.’ They said, ‘Well, then, show us the barrio.’ I said, ‘We don’t have a barrio.’ ‘Where are the minorities?’ ‘We don’t really have a place where minorities are congregating.’
“So then they said, ‘OK, take us to the older part of town.’ So we went for a drive in the CNN van. We turned a corner, and in front of a home a woman was doing some childcare with a Latino child, a black child and a white child playing together in the frontyard. They said, ‘You set this up, right?’”
“The mayor coined a phrase with the media that I think really reflected the community,” Sedell says, “and it was, ‘The people here don’t look at their neighbors based on the color of their skin. It’s how well they keep up their yard.’ ”
After the riots
On April 29, 1992, however, the situation took a graver turn.
“Like everybody else, most of Simi was shocked when the verdict came out,” Stratton says. “My gut feeling is that, at the time, there was a sense in everybody that these guys were going to be convicted. We watched the tapes; how can they not convict them? What we found out later on is if you have a really bad prosecuting attorney and a good defense attorney … people can get off.”
Until the day Koon, Briseno and Wind were acquitted (the jury deadlocked on Powell), the regular citizens of Simi Valley — the ones not having cameras shoved in their faces constantly — were, by and large, ambivalent about the circus that had invaded their town. Dale Redfield, for 16 years the principle librarian at the Simi Valley Library, which shares a parking lot with the courthouse, remembers feeling disassociated from the events happening just a few hundred feet from where she worked. “The whole thing had nothing to do with us,” she says.
Tim Doe, a Simi Valley resident for 28 years, only went by the courthouse once during the trial, to witness an anti-police-brutality protest, and his only memory of it is being disappointed by the turnout.
“It was like anything else: It was something we were aware of and we were following, but we didn’t really understand the significance of the whole thing,” he says.
Once the uprising started in Los Angeles, however, the significance of what had been happening in their backyard slammed home.
“Rumors were flying in this community, that massive gangs of South Central groups were going to come over and burn us down,” Stratton says. “Nothing happened, but there were some very nervous people for many nights. We were really concerned because if they’re running around in downtown Los Angeles burning their own house, what will they do if they come out to our city, where the press had made this big to-do and says ‘These guys are responsible’? ”
Though the level of violence shocked even those living in the L.A. area, Miller says the police department in Simi Valley had prepared for a reaction before the verdict was read. “We were tuned in to what was going on,” he says. Indeed, there were some threats; none panned out. But people “were ready in case [they] needed to act.”
The “racist city” myth
No homes or businesses were destroyed or looted during that week. But the aftermath left Simi Valley with a tarnished image in the minds of outsiders. Even after “opening the drapes and letting people look in,” a lot of observers still believed it was a “Simi Valley jury” that had let the officers off. And for years afterward, Simi Valley has had to fight against the notion that it is a “racist city.”
“There was nothing we could do about it. We were stuck with this label,” Miller says. “After 15 years, it died out.”
Stratton agrees that Simi Valley has only been recently fully healed from the negative attention it received during that tumultuous month in 1992. But for some, the experience only made the town stronger.
“Our community learned from it, the public learned from it, and we grew better because of it,” Sedell says. “In this case, the reality overcame the perception.”