Why Rodney King's case still resonates
Today his name is little more than comedic fodder for second rate comedians and his famous utterance “can’t we all just get along?” is an ubiquitous part of our pop culture lexicon, much like the oft-repeated phrase from the Terminator films, “I’ll be back.” However, 20 years ago, Rodney King brought the issues of police brutality and racial profiling to the forefront of the American political landscape.
On March 3, 1991, King was the victim of a beating at the hands of four uniformed Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers. At the end of a high speed chase, an intoxicated King and his two passengers were pulled over on the freeway by the California Highway patrol, joined by several police cars and a helicopter. The officers alleged that King’s erratic behavior led them to believe he was under the influence of the illicit drug PCP (King later tested negative for the drug), and therefore force was required in order to subdue King and get him to comply with their directives. King was tasered and struck repeatedly with batons, suffering a fractured facial bone, broken ankle, and numerous other bruises and lacerations.
WATCH NBC NEWS COVERAGE OF THE RODNEY KING BEATING HERE:
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LAPD officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno were charged with use of excessive force. Their April 1992 acquittal subsequently led widespread rioting in the city of Los Angeles, as African-Americans were left feeling as though justice had not been served.
Situations like King’s were not uncommon before 1991, as many black people could attest. Consider the case of Harlem’s Edmund Perry, a 17-year-old boy who was shot and killed during an altercation with an undercover police officer, who was cleared of all wrongdoing as the result of a police investigation less than a month after Perry’s death.
It was situations such as Perry’s that would inform the depictions of police brutality in Spike Lee’s magnum opus Do the Right Thing, and inspire the lyrics to songs such as N.W.A.’s “F**k tha Police” and Public Enemy’s “911 is a Joke.” What was unique about King’s case was the fact that the entire ordeal had been captured on videotape by an innocent bystander and circulated nationwide. The ‘secret’ of police brutality being visited upon black people in America was now front and center on the 6 o’clock news for the entire nation to bear witness. Yet despite this clear and unequivocal evidence, justice was denied (again).
After incidents such as this one, fear, distrust, and contempt are not abnormal emotions for African-Americans to hold toward police and the justice system. The paradox being, of course, that black people are victims of crime like anyone else in this country and find themselves in situations that would require interaction with and dependency on police, an institution rife with discriminatory practices. Not every police officer is Koon/Powell/Wind/or Briseno; there are many in uniform seeking to do their job and uphold the virtues of “serve and protect” with honor and dignity. But for black people, more often than not, the bad outweighs the good and results in a continued strenuous relationship.Can we be blamed for not trusting the police? When we consider not only King’s case but also, eight years later, that of Amadou Diallo, the 23-year-old who was shot at 41 times and hit with 19 bullets from NYPD guns as he was reaching for his wallet (the officers were later acquitted), is it hard to believe that black people are suspicious of police? And what of the unarmed Sean Bell, shot and killed outside of a nightclub in Queens, New York the morning after his bachelor party in 2006? The police charged in his shooting were acquitted as well.
Then there is the killing of Oscar Grant. On New Year’s Day 2009, officers responding to reports of a fight on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco detained Grant and one, Officer Johannes Mehserle, shot Grant in the back as he lay face down on the transit platform. He was pronounced dead the next day. The gruesome affair was captured on video by cellphone cameras of other BART passengers. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Mehserle was found guilty of the one of the three charges brought against him, the comparatively light involuntary manslaughter.
These are just the most famous and egregious cases of police brutality and miscarriages of justice. When you add to the mix the aggressive use of tactics such as “stop and frisk” that disproportionately effect black people, specifically young black men, it’s increasingly clear that a healthy distrust for the police is not only justified but in a way necessary for survival.
The beating of King made it a national issue, but in the 20 years following not much has been done to effectively address the problem of police brutality in the black community. We can all desire to “just get along” as much as we’d like, but until African-Americans be assured their human rights and dignity will be respected, there will always be tension, paranoia, and distrust when it comes to dealing with police.