I was nearing the end of the my surgery residency in 1992. I didn’t follow the Rodney King trial nor the violence that broke out afterward. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but the internet was basically AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. This was before world wide web protocol was released. So, the only news you got was on the 6 o’clock or 10 o’clock news. The newspapers, like today, were always behind the story.
For those who don’t know the story –
To millions of Americans, though, he will always be either a victim of one of the most horrific cases of police brutality ever videotaped or just a hooligan who didn’t stop when police attempted to pull him over.
He’s indisputably the black motorist whose beating on a darkened LA street led to one of the worst race riots in American history. (Editors note – The riots that broke out were terrible. 53 people died. Thousands were hospitalized. The police were over run. Hundreds of businesses were completely destroyed. It was awful.)
It’s been an up-and-down ride for King since he went on television at the height of those riots and pleaded in a quavering voice, “Can we all get along?”
He’s been arrested numerous times, mostly for alcohol-related crimes. In a recent interview with The Associated Press he said, “I still sip, I don’t get drunk.”
He has been to a number of rehab programs, he said, including the 2008 appearance on “Dr. Drew” Pinsky’s “Celebrity Rehab” program.
Still, he was arrested again just last year for driving under the influence.
It was his fear of being stopped for drunken driving on March 3, 1991, King said, that initially led him to try to evade police who attempted to pull him over for speeding.
After he did stop, four LA police officers hit him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns. A man who had quietly stepped outside his home to observe the commotion videotaped most of it and turned a copy over to a local TV station.
So, what have we learned? From the LAT:
In the ensuing years, one South L.A. organization brought together residents to prevent the rebuilding of more than 150 nuisance liquor stores that had been magnets for crime. A joint labor-community effort emerged to fight for a living wage and then “community benefits agreements,” in which private developers promised and delivered good jobs for locals. Other groups worked to expand bus service, and still others motivated and mobilized new and occasional voters.
Top-down approaches were complemented by bottom-up strategies. The Christopher Commission and federal police oversight were positive engines of official change, and they were matched with grass-roots pressure that has fundamentally transformed the Los Angeles Police Department. In 2005, Los Angeles elected an avowedly progressive mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who has worked with community groups to clean up the ports, expand public transportation and take on a failing school system.
Meanwhile, multiracial coalitions have worked to reweave the fabric and reality of the city. Black and brown students led the charge for college-prep classes for every student in our school district. Immigrant Korean and Latino workers came together to force restaurant and hotel bosses to the bargaining table. And a labor movement largely revitalized by an immigrant workforce went to unionize security guards that were mostly African American.
The practical wins helped the region believe there was something other than a dystopian future after the grim reality of the riots — not to mention improving the day-to-day lives of many. And the patient, ongoing work of relationship-building across the city’s boundaries and differences allows grass-roots leaders to say now that there’s no way the same sort of civil unrest would happen today.
There are three important lessons from the last 20 years of organizing in Los Angeles to apply to the next 20 years in the United States.
In order to change the police department and the community, you need buy in from everyone. This isn’t a quick fix. A couple of speeches ain’t going to solve the problem. This requires a prolonged effort from everyone. Slow, steady progress. Plenty of dialogue. Everyone needs to understand what’s going on and where the community is going. This is the kind of sustained problem solving that America just simply isn’t good at any more. Collectively we have the attention span of a gnat. We jump from one outrage to another instead of focusing on problems that are truly important – like inner city violence and police brutality. In my mind, Rodney King is a sad figure. He has been in and out of jail and rehab ever since 1992. I wish over the past 20 years Rodney King would have made the same progress that Los Angeles has. That would have made for a perfect story.
What are your thoughts?