On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, a construction worker, was stopped by Los Angeles Police Department officers. What happened next set off events that are still reverberating in America today. King was struck multiple times by the police. The event was captured on video tape, by George Holliday, a bystander.
In the resulting trial, an all-white jury acquitted the four officers. They were later tried on civil rights charges. Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell were both found guilty and sentenced to 2 ½ years in jail. The initial trial, which was moved to the predominately white Simi Valley, set off wide-scale rioting in Los Angeles and resulted in billions of dollars in damage and 53 deaths.
Unfortunately, 25 years later, America is still wrestling with the same problems of police violence against Black people. Two years ago, St. Louis-area residents staged widespread protests over the killing of Michael Brown. Last year, Baltimore went up in flames over the police-related death of Freddie Gray. Brown’s death and the deaths of other Black people at the hands of the police sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. The issue of police violence has now become a major talking point among Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The story of the Rodney King beating and the resulting LA riots is a lot more complicated than how it is often described in the media. Black Los Angeles residents didn’t suddenly wake up and start destroying their neighborhoods, and police violence had been going on for a long time before that. The Rodney King videotape just showed the stark reality — and it was hard to ignore. Some legal analysts have said the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on murder charges in 1995 was payback for years of the LAPD mistreating the Black community.
Today, the situation has worsened, because technological advances mean cameras are everywhere — in people’s pockets, in stores and on police cars. It has become difficult to hide police violence when it’s captured on film. This is a lesson Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel learned when the Laquan McDonald video resurfaced. The video showed the Black teenager being shot 16 times by Officer James Van Dyke as he walked away from police.
According to one of Rodney King’s daughters, the fame that resulted from his beating was both a blessing and a curse. King died in the pool of his Rialto home in 2012.
“I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a vise,” King told The Los Angeles Times. “Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I’m a fool for believing in peace.”
King received $3.8 million in damages from the City of Los Angeles.
According to Tre’vell Anderson, a young writer with The LA Times, the riots and what caused them is barely covered in history classes.
“The thought process that goes into what is history, what is important to know, that is still very much a white-centric, white-leaning thing,” said Anderson. “There are so many things about Black history and civil rights movements of all kinds that you don’t find in history books. Until maybe college; you might be introduced to it in college. I was introduced to it because I went to an HBCU [a historically Black college or university], and they make sure you learn about this stuff.”
Black parents still have to prepare their young children, especially boys, to deal with police violence and racial profiling. This issue was recently tackled by the ABC sitcom black-ish.
“There was an episode of ‘black-ish’ that came out last week where the grandmother tells the kids that there are only seven words they should use with the police: ‘Yes sir,’ ‘no sir,’ and ‘thank you, sir,’” said Dexter Thomas, an LA Times writer. “But one of the points where the characters argue is how early we should be talking about the realities of racism to our children.”