As the death of Rodney King looms closely above our heads, his role as the unintentional symbol for troubled race relations continues to stand strong.
Most of our generation (that is, the 18 to 22-year-olds who are currently enrolled at Stony Brook University, or any other collegiate institution), can vaguely associate him with his recorded beating that epitomized police brutality to its most extreme degree. The dark video shows a large African-American man on the ground, surrounded by Caucasian officers who continue to beat him with batons and tase him, despite his subdued position. It is difficult to watch as one of the officers continues to strike the man on his legs and keep him down while another beats him over the head with a baton. The video, however, only presents the aftermath of the original confrontation.
What “good Samaritan”/citizen journalist/concerned neighbor George Holliday didn’t capture was the initial contact between the authorities and the civilian. King was very drunk while driving, and as later toxicology reports show, he was also high off of marijuana. He had led a high-speed chase through Los Angeles as he was trying to drive out of the reach of nearby officers in an effort not to violate his parole for a previous crime — armed robbery.
As clips of the beating flooded news broadcasts and television sets, King was unknowingly thrusted into the civil rights movement. A new poster child for police brutality, King filed a suit against the city of Los Angeles, and four officers awaited trial shortly after the beatings.
Fast forward to about a year later, on April 29, 1992, a 12-person jury that did not include any black Americans acquitted three officers of the charges, and granted one a mistrial. Chaos directly followed.
In a span of six days, the city of Los Angeles became the city of Los Demonios. What was supposed to be a trial of the mishandling of an assailant became an all-out race war between whites, blacks and anyone who stood in the middle. Shots were fired and stores were burned. One particular show shut down was that of Korean store owner Soon Ja Du, who fatally shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American girl who was allegedly trying to steal an orange juice. Du had been convicted of manslaughter, which further stirred the racial tensions of the town.
Another video clip also surfaced of a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who was pulled out of his truck during the riots and beaten to a pulp. He survived the attacks, but as he was grabbed by a mob of angry African Americans, the message behind trial stood clear. Race relations are not good, and they are continuing to deteriorate.
Fifty-three deaths and over 2,000 injuries later, the city returned to “normal”. King was eventually awarded his $3.8 million and continued to live a “normal” life, with the occasional drug use here and there, and a few more unrelated arrests to follow.
What makes the story of Rodney King so striking is what he stood for. We have an African American man who was nothing like Martin Luther King Jr. and nothing like Malcolm X. He was an ordinary man with a criminal past who had been viciously beaten in front of a lens, and that beating helped reinforce, if not prove, that race relations were nowhere near improved.
Fast forward another 20 years after the riots, and it’s 2012. Studies show that local news media often link minorities to violent crime, when in reality they are more likely to commit nonviolent crimes. In 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union reported that African-American men were most likely to be frisked, and of those frisked, only 1.8 percent had any form of weapon. Then on February 26 of this year, a young black man named Trayvon Martin was branded as being “up to no good” and was shot by a neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
Studies and statistics aside, the frenzy behind King’s legacy remains somewhat upheld. The hatred that exists was simply hidden, and it was the recording that led this conglomerate of a racially-fired boogeyman out of the closet.