LA riots 20 years later: Social media comes of age in the wake of Rodney King

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Twenty years ago the Los Angeles riots had Americans glued to their television sets, horrified by the images of destruction and turmoil in a major American city. Some things haven’t changed in the 20 years since the beating of Rodney King. Police brutality is still a serious issue being felt all the way from the inner city to Zuccotti Park. The violence towards young black men hasn’t changed, as the deaths of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin remind us that the lives of young men of color are not valued nearly enough. Yet one thing has changed since 1992, that may have altered not only our response to the Rodney King verdict but also the riots that followed in its wake. Now we have social media.

Twitter’s importance is often downplayed as “slacktivism” and a mere passive engagement for spectators who don’t really want to leave the comfort of their homes to get involved in any ongoing controversy or news event beyond typing away on a laptop or cell phone. That could not be further from the truth. Twitter is the disinfectant for corruption, police brutality, and misfeasance by people in power. It has ended careers, launched investigations, and even served as the great organizer for revolutions through the power of a hashtag.

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In 1992, when the LAPD officers, whose beating of Rodney King was caught on camera, were acquitted, the city of Los Angeles erupted. The suppressed rage and shock over the acquittal after the video proof of the beating had been seen by so many sparked unrest without a common purpose as well as looting and violence without strategy.

While it’s true that the camcorder recording of Rodney King’s beating was released within weeks, if it were to happen in 2012 it would have been released with a single tweet on the night of the beating. Imagine the organization and control activists could have had; maybe the outcome could have been different.

If the case of Oscar Grant is any indication however, the use of social media doesn’t necessarily always mean swift justice. Grant’s killing by a BART officer, also caught on camera, sparked a social media firestorm and protests in Oakland that were tweeted and shared nationwide.

The outcome of that case wasn’t necessarily any better than that of King but there were no riots at the level of the ones in 1992. Maybe because everyone outside watching the case go on was watching all along the way and there was no opportunity to suppress any rage that would explode into violence later on. Or maybe social media and Twitter allows us to channel our emotions and outrage in a more innocuous form before it can lead to violence.

Not everything about 2012 is more evolved than 1992. YouTube videos may have helped launch revolutions throughout the Middle East, but videos of cruel assaults posted on WorldStar Hip Hop make brutal violence en vogue. Brawl videos are popular on the site to the point where recently an assault of a man on the L train in New York City which was captured on tape had a shout out to “Worldstar!” in the clip. In 1992, videos of brutal attacks were recorded for posterity, now they are recorded for entertainment and Internet distribution.

Sensationalized violence is nothing new, but perhaps a world where violence during your morning commute goes viral worldwide changes the way the public responds to that violence. Would the outrage been neutralized, or at least better channeled, had the Rodney King beating occurred in 2012 and not in 1992? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that the public’s reaction to real time brutality has changed dramatically since 1992. Yet, it’s unclear whether it’s for the better.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @zerlinamaxwell