How Rodney King Changed AmericaIn 1991, the United States wasrocked by an 82-second-long video tape of an African American man beingruthlessly beaten by four police officers. The man’s name was Rodney King, whohad just been pulled over for speeding. A bystander recorded the young manlying on the cement, who was attempting to stand up with his hands behind hisneck and ready to surrender. However, as soon as King lifted his left foot upto get in a kneeling position, an officer swung his steel baton at King’s headwith excessive force, immediately knocking him back onto the rough cement(Holliday 00:00:51-00:02:27). As he lay on his back, visibly reeling in painand too weak to move, the officers continued to knock the wind out of him asthey beat him with their batons like a piñata. The Rodney King beating sparkeda new era of journalism, opened up Americans’ eyes to racial inequality, andchanged law enforcement across the United States. However, to fully grasp theimpact of the assault of Rodney King and the ensuing riots on America, one mustfirst understand the background of the incident.
On the fateful morning of March 3,1991, a bystander captured four police officers in Los Angeles, California, onvideo, where they were seen brutally beating an unarmed man. The 82-secondfootage featured the police kicking and “striking 25-year-old Rodney King with batonsapproximately 56 times” (“Rodney” 2),who was pulled over after leading police on a high-speed car chase.Additionally, Sergeant Stacey Koon fired “50,000-volt electronic darts” (“Rodney” 2) from his stun gun at King –twice.
King was taken to a local hospital, where he was treated for suffering abroken ankle, 11 fractured bones near the base of his skull, and a fractured Juarez 2cheekbone.After being released from the hospital, King was subsequently arrested oncharges of evadingpolice and for violating his terms of probation. In addition, traces ofmarijuana and alcohol were found in his system after further testing. Beforethe incident, Rodney King was on parole after spending a year in jail for armedrobbery. He was jailed for three days; however, prosecutors decided to drop allcharges against him, and King immediately hired an attorney to sue the LosAngeles Police Department (LAPD) and the city of Los Angeles as well. Accordingto the FBI, officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and TedBriseno were all charged with “assault with a deadly weapon, filing a falsepolice report, unnecessarily beating a suspect under color of authority, andacting as an accessory in an alleged ‘cover-up'” (“Rodney” 2). The officers involved faced a minimum of four years injail, up to a maximum of seven years, if convicted of their crimes. At first,many people believed race was not an important factor in the case; however,Rodney King was an unarmed black man – whereas all the officers were white – whichsparked more controversy among Americans as the details of the incident werereleased to the public.
The officers’ jury during their trial was made up oftwelve people – 10 were white, while the remaining two people were of Latinoand Asian descent. On April 29, 1992, more than a year after the beating ofRodney King, the jury acquitted all four officers, meaning they were found asbeing not guilty. Almost immediately after the officers were acquitted,residents of Los Angeles began rioting.
The riots lasted approximately sixdays, resulting in “53 deaths, over 7,000 fires, and nearly 3,000 injuries” (Chanceand Laurence 137). Many businesses were looted and destroyed during Leonard, Gary. “StoresBurning During L.
A. Riots.” CaliSphere,Los Angeles Public Library, 1992, calisphere.org/item/e8888cd943f5e3122d29aafc3663fd9b/.Juarez 3theriots; the Koreatown and Pico-Union neighborhoods were the hit the hardest bythe rioting, which ended up costing the city of Los Angeles 800 million dollarsin financial losses (Koon 191).At the time the incident occurred,the Internet was still a new concept, and the amount of technology available toeveryday people was fairly limited. However, after George Holliday, abystander, captured footage of the brutal assault on his recently-purchased SonyHandycam, he quickly became the leader of what would spark a new era oftechnology and social attitudes in the media.
After he shared the video withKTLA, a Los Angeles television station, it quickly spread to people around theworld because the media rightfully depicted the police’s treatment of anunarmed black man as disgusting, which led to the international outrage. Duringthe days following the assault of Rodney King, the video tape was constantlybeing replayed on every news channel on television – it is believed to havebeen the first “viral” piece of information that rapidly made its way to everyAmerican overnight. When Rodney King was pulled over bylaw enforcement, George Holliday happened to be near the scene because hisapartment balcony overlooked the street King was on. Holliday quickly retrievedhis video camera and recorded twelve minutes of footage, which was later condensedto an 82-second video clip by the media. After selling to it to KTLA for $500(Rabinowitz 146), the video was viewed by millions of Americans. The rise ofcitizen journalism was started by Holliday – in a decade where technology wasnot yet widespread, recording videos of seemingly random incidents was unheardof. Without Holliday’s video, “there never would have been a case againstpolice officers — or so much fury about their acquittal” (Maurantonio 749).
Althoughthe Los Angeles riots are remembered as one of the deadliest riots in Americanhistory, it was a time that also signaled that good still existed in the world,particularly among journalists. Gaining some insight into Rodney King’s lifeoffered not only an opportunity to consider the significance of citizenjournalism – it also offered an opportunity to reconsider journalism’sinstitutional role more broadly within the country. Before the Rodney King beating, manyAmericans rarely thought of social injustice, or racial inequality, as an issuethat was present in the 1990s in the country. The incident showed the violencethat law enforcement officials were capable of exerting upon a randomAfrican-American civilian, despite King being unarmed and fully compliant withthe police. An angry but sympathetic resident of Los Angeles stated, “‘Well, atlast they see we’re not lying to them.
They see that this stuff actuallyhappens. Now the world sees. They always think we’re making it up” (Understanding 35). 26 years later, themedia still reports on the Rodney King beating as an event that changed Americaby sparking a new era of social injustices against minorities, specificallyAfrican Americans. For example, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner,Philando Castile, Tamir Rice – every single person mentioned was unarmed; theirlives were cut short by police officers, who were all acquitted in court.
Thecases of these victims of police brutality played out in a very similar way tothe Rodney King incident, except the King case had occurred decades before. Aprominent civil rights group that arose in 2013, Black Lives Matter, can betraced back to Rodney King because their mission is to end police brutality inthe country; however, Blue Lives Matter, a group that aims to increaseprotection for police officers, was launched as a countermovement in responseto the civil rights group. The similarities between the past and modern timesreflect unchanged systemic racism in America.The LAPD is one of the mostprominent police departments in the United States, partly due to how populousand large the city of Los Angeles is; many police departments across thecountry tend to follow in their footsteps. Rodney King “set in motion overduereforms in the LAPD, sending a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout thecountry” (Cannon 3). Following the King beating in March 1991, the public’sapproval rate of the LAPD’s dropped to 34 percent (Maurantonio 741). When theofficers involved in King’s beating were acquitted on April 29, 1992, civiliansall over the United States were outraged by the verdict, and many protestsensued. Residents of Los Angeles rioted, fueled by the notion that the city’spolice force was overstepping their boundaries and abusing their power.
Nobodyunderstood how the officers could justify their reasoning behind the barbaricattack on Rodney King. In the weeks following the incident, the IndependentCommission on the LAPD was formed by the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, to “‘conducta full and fair examination of the structure and operation of LAPD” (“Report” 2). In 2001, a decade after Rodney King was assaultedby police officers and nearly nine years after their acquittals and therioting, the LAPD made significant changes to the ways in which they would runtheir department and serve the city using better methods of policing.
Under thenewly-hired police chief William Bratton, the department focused on communitypolicing, which meant that they permanently allocated police officers todifferent areas of Los Angeles in order to get to know the residents in thoseareas. Additionally, they hired more officers of color because at the time ofthe Rodney King beating, 86.6 percent of law enforcement officials in the LAPD identifiedthemselves as Caucasian (Wells). Lastly, the department worked to resolve andreduce the tension between officers and minority communities who frequentlycomplained about the racial profiling and excessive use of force by police thathappened within their neighborhoods (Wells).
The LAPD finally implemented manyof the recommendations that came out of the immediate aftermath of the riots:they instituted discipline reports, created a database of information aboutofficers and supervisors to identify at-risk behavior, and revised procedureson search and arrest (Koon 145). According to the LAPD, approximately 7,000officers will be wearing body cameras by 2018 – shortly after the Rodney Kingincident, the number of arrests were no longer considered as a form ofmeasuring an officer’s success within the LAPD (Wells). Although it took a few yearsfor Americans to see notable changes in their local law enforcements’ methodsof practice, King’s beating is what caused the sudden need for reform acrossthe country.The 1991 Rodney King beating, whichsubsequently lead to the roughly six-day-long riots in Los Angeles a year laterfollowing the officers’ acquittals, changed the nation in numerous ways. RodneyKing became a symbol of civil rights and the movement against police brutality.The appalling circumstances of the case served as a turning point forAmericans, allowing them to gain insight into social injustice in the country,thus sparking the push for justice and ending the still-ongoing cases ofAfrican Americans’ unfair treatment by law enforcement. Additionally, GeorgeHolliday’s recording of the brutal assault led to the rise of citizenjournalism, which has become quite prevalent in modern times because of thetechnological advances in the world since 1991. The video tape led to what isnow known as a “viral” video; it spread quickly from one coast to the other,capturing the attention of millions of people across the globe.
Sergeant StaceyKoon wrote, “Because,you see, what happened in the dark, early morning chill of March 3, 1991, canhappen again. In fact, it almost certainly will happen again. And the next timeit occurs, more people are likely to die. That’s the final catastrophe of thispainful drama, a misunderstood tragedy whose final scenes have yet to be playedout” (15). If the United States continues to remain silent on issues concerningthe wellbeing of minorities, therefore normalizing such instances of policebrutality and systemic racism, it is a step in the wrong direction for thefuture of America. It is important to remember that “… we must support ourofficers, pushing them every day to the edge of the line and marking the limitsof appropriate actions and procedures” (Owens 14).
However, this quote raises thequestion of the limitations of law enforcement officials: how much force shoulda police officer be allowed to exert upon a person before it is considered tobe abuse of power and endangering someone else’s life? America must continue tokeep moving forward in the right direction – albeit slowly – by standing up forwhat one believes in, no matter what the consequences might entail. TheAmerican people must recognize that it is unacceptable to continue to let thosein power be exempt from punishment. It is the nation’s duty to hold those whoare in positions of authority accountable for their actions and the offendersshould be subjected to discipline at the fullest extent possible under the law.