It’s been two decades since the man named Rodney King entered our cultural lexicon as a symbol of civil injustice and unrest. History happened to King on March 2, 1991, not the other way around: A young man of 25, he was still on parole from a short prison sentence for armed robbery when he led the LAPD on a short car chase that ended in his own brutal beating by several officers.
Curb-stomped and beaten with batons, King suffered a broken leg and cheekbone and 11 fractures at the base of his skull. Sergeant Stacy C. Koon fired a 50,000-volt Taser into King’s back. According to the officers who were there, King had exhibited odd behavior and resisted arrest, but to even entertain the idea here that four men can use batons and Tasers to brutally beat another man because they think he is high is preposterous and insulting to King’s memory.
WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES. George Holliday shot this footage of King’s beating from his apartment:
A little more than a year later, on April 29, 1992, a nearly all-white jury acquitted the four white LAPD officers involved in the beating, sparking riots, arson and looting that spread throughout L.A., persisting for the following six days.
Rodney King and the riots incited by the acquittal of his attackers served as a violent reminder that even though you can technically outlaw racism, you cannot eradicate it. A decade and a half later, hope for a post-racial—or at least, post-racist—American was renewed by the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States—a man who, besides having a heritage that is biracial, had a childhood that was multicultural.
Unfortunately, that hope for the end of racism ran off with everything else Obama had made us hope for—the closing of Guantanamo Bay, the end of the war in Afghanistan—and has given way to the complacency of stealthy racism. The kind that found that the number of African-American males between the ages 14 to 24 who were stopped under NYC’s Stop and Frisk Law was higher than the population of that demographic within the city. The kind that finds a teenager dead in Florida suburbs for looking suspicious. The kind that sees a movement to discredit Obama’s birthplace gain such traction that one poll estimates that 51 percent of likely Republican voters believe that he was not born in the United States.
I don’t know how to solve America’s race problem—I’m a 22-year-old white chick from a racially homogenous small town—but I know that we cannot go on ignoring we have one, especially when it pervades our policies and informs our decisions, from social programs to drone strikes.
These are concrete, inarguable proofs of the race problem in America; putting someone in prison is the best and most bureaucratic way to strip them of their rights. A person who goes to prison, depending on the crime and if he or she is a repeat offender, is liable to lose their right to public assistance (housing, food stamps), their prospects for employment, and their right to vote. It is no surprise that about two-thirds of people who have been incarcerated are arrested within three years of their release.
Watching courtroom footage of a man getting convicted is a lot less incendiary than the footage of Rodney King’s beating. It’s harder to incite riots over aggregated statistics than it is the acquittal of four guilty violent offenders. But instead of hoping and waiting for the next generation to take care of our race problems, we should start taking care of them ourselves.
With Rodney King’s name ready on the tongues of many social commentators and activists, we should remind ourselves that, even while we cannot always be outraged by the serendipitous footage of injustice, it persists and expands.
Until we are rid of these institutions of racism that pervade all aspects of our politics and economy, we will continue to be complicit in keeping a boot on the necks of our young people.