The angels of Los Angeles are weary from too much smiling.
The 1992 film Grand Canyon opens with every white yuppie’s worst nightmare about Los Angeles. Driving home from a Laker basketball game at the Forum, a wealthy attorney (Kevin Kline) gets lost in a labyrinth of mean, Black streets (actually the racially-mixed suburban city of Inglewood). After his car finally runs out of gas, he is encircled (are you surprised?) by snarling gangbangers demanding his Rolex or his life. They are about to administer the definitive ‘bumrush’ when an older Black tow-truck driver (Danny Glover) rides to his rescue, wielding a tireiron and heroic homilies (‘This is not the way things are supposed to be!’). John L. Daniels, Jr. was a real-life counterpart to Glover’s good Samaritan character. A leader in the African-American Towing Association, Daniels had rescued hundreds of motorists from the supposed perils of Southcentral Los Angeles. Like other Black towtruck operators, he also had faced incessant harassment from the lapd, in league with the more powerful, white-dominated, police towing monopoly. Indeed, his own father, John Sr., had been killed in a controversial confrontation with police back in 1985.
On the afternoon of i July 1992, Daniels drove his rig into a Chevron service station at the corner of Florence and Crenshaw, not far from the scene in Grand Canyon. As he was filling his tank, two white motorcycle cops pulled up. Daniels quickly scribbled a note with the name and phone number of his business partner and handed it to one of the Korean gas attendants. ‘If something happens to me, please call this number.’
The officers demanded his motor-vehicle registration. After a lengthy argument, an exasperated Daniels was heard to declare ‘that he was tired of this shit and was simply going to leave’. ‘What are you are going to do?’ he said over his shoulder, as he climbed back into the cab of his truck, ‘shoot me?’ Officer Douglas Iversen, a fifteen-year lapd veteran, answered by drawing his gun and blowing Daniels’ brains out.
‘Why did you do that?’ screamed Iversen’s unnerved partner. Within minutes, several hundred angry residents had surrounded the service station, taunting back-up police units with ‘kkk!’ and ‘Pigs!’ As Daniels was zippered up in a coroner’s bodybag, rocks ricocheted off the ‘Protect and Serve’ motto on the side of a police car.
Despite initial community outrage, the public execution of John Daniels did not spark a new riot (although his tow-truck comrades did block traffic in front of lapd headquarters). Nor did it generate lurid video footage seen from Denver to Dakar. The hundreds of millions of people who have shuddered at the image of Rodney King being hacked like a piece of firewood know nothing about this subsequent, more deadly encounter.
Yet in its very anonymity, it is the Daniels case, rather than the second Rodney King beating trial, that best defines the gangrenous state of affairs in Los Angeles, a year after the insurrection. If King was the victim of Chief Daryl Gates’ discredited ancien régime, Daniels was killed on the watch of Willie Williams, the city’s new, and highly acclaimed, African-American police chief. Although the Police Commission determined that Officer Iversen (who has a long history of misconduct) clearly ‘violated departmental policy’ when he assassinated Daniels, he has not been criminally indicted or even dismissed from the force. Rather, Chief Williams ordered him to undergo ‘tactical training’, while the city attorney arranged a back-door legal settlement with Daniels’ aggrieved family.