Juarez 1NicoleJuarezPatriciaFillipiUniversityWriting 1301: Section 2920November 2017How 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. Ashe lay on his back, visibly reeling in pain and too weak to move, the officerscontinued to knock the wind out of him as they beat him with their batons likea piñata. The Rodney King beating sparked a new era of journalism, opened upAmericans’ eyes to social injustice, and changed law enforcement across theUnited States. To understand the impact of the assault of Rodney King onAmerica, one must first understand the background of the incident. On the fateful day 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 fracturedcheekbone. After being released from the hospital, King was subsequentlyarrested on charges of Juarez 2evadingpolice 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 duringtheir trial was made up of twelve people – 10 were white, while the remainingtwo people were of Latino and Asian descent. On April 29, 1992, more than ayear after the beating of Rodney King, the jury acquitted all four officers,meaning they were found as being not guilty. Almost immediately after theofficers were acquitted, residents of Los Angeles began rioting. The riotslasted six days, resulting in “53 deaths, over 7,000 fires, and nearly 3,000 Juarez 3wereinjured” (Chance and Laurence 137). Many businesses were looted and destroyedduring the riots, which ended up costing the city of Los Angeles 1 billiondollars in financial losses.
At the time the incident occurred,the internet was still new, and the amount of technology available to everydaypeople was fairly limited. However, after George Holliday captured footage ofthe brutal assault on his video camera, he quickly became the leader of whatwould spark a new era of technology and social attitudes in the media. After heshared the video with KTLA, a Los Angeles television station, it quickly spreadto people around the world because the media clearly depicted the police’streatment of an unarmed black man as disgusting. During the days following theassault of Rodney King, the videotape was constantly being replayed on everynews channel on television – it is believed to have been the first “viral”video. The riots led to many Korean Americans’ newly-implemented businessesbeing destroyed during the riots. When Rodney King was pulled over bylaw enforcement, a bystander happened to be near the scene – George Holliday, whoseapartment was next to the scene, quickly retrieved his video camera andrecorded twelve minutes of footage, which was condensed to an 82-second videoclip by the media.
After selling to it to KTLA for $500 (Rabinowitz 146), thevideo was viewed by millions of Americans. The rise of citizen journalism wasstarted by Holliday – in a decade where technology was not yet widespread,taking videos of random incidents was unheard of. Without Holliday’s video,”there never would have been a case against police officers—or so much fury abouttheir acquittal” (Maurantonio 749). Although the Los Angeles riots areremembered as among the deadliest riots in American history, they were a timethat also signaled that good still existed, particularly among journalists. Gainingsome insight into Rodney King’s life offered not only an opportunity toconsider the significance of citizen journalism – it Juarez 4alsooffered an opportunity to reconsider journalism’s institutional role morebroadly within the country. The Rodney King beating angered notonly Americans, but shocked the entire world as well.
Prior to this event, manyAmericans rarely thought of social injustice as an issue that was present inthe 1990s in the country. An angry but sympathetic resident of Los Angeles stated,”‘Well, at last they see we’re not lying to them. They see that this stuffactually happens.
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 populousthe city of Los Angeles is; many police departments across the country tend to followin their footsteps. The Rodney King case set in motion overdue reforms in theLAPD, sending a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country (Cannon3). In March 1991, the month of King’s arrest and assault, the LAPD’s job-approvalrating sank to 34 percent (Maurantonio 741). When the officers involved inKing’s beating were acquitted on April 29, Juarez 51992,the city exploded in rioting ignited by the belief that its police force wasabusive, racist and unaccountable. 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 (“Rodney” 18). In 2001, 10 years after the Rodney King beating, andnine years after the officers who beat him were acquitted, the LAPD began one ofthe most ambitious attempts at police reform ever attempted in an Americancity.
Under the police Chief William Bratton, the department focused oncommunity policing, hired more officers of color and worked to resolve tensionsbetween officers and minority communities who continued to complain aboutracial profiling and excessive use of force. 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 (Rabinowitz 145). Although it took a few years tonoticeably see changes in law enforcement, King’s beating was the catalyst formuch-needed reform.The Rodney King beating, whichsubsequently lead to the roughly six-day-long riots in Los Angeles, changed thenation in numerous ways. Rodney King became a symbol of civil rights and themovement against police brutality.
The appalling circumstances of the caseserved as a turning point for Americans, allowing them to gain insight intosocial injustice in the country, thus sparking the push for justice and endingthe still-ongoing cases of African Americans’ unfair treatment by lawenforcement. Additionally, George Holliday’s recording of the brutal assaultled to the rise of citizen journalism, which has become quite prevalent inmodern times because of the technological advances in the world since 1991. Thevideotape led to what is now known as a “viral” video; it spread quickly fromone coast to the other, capturing the attention of millions of people acrossthe globe. Sergeant Stacey Koon wrote, “Because, you Juarez 6see,what happened in the dark, early morning chill of March 3, 1991, can happenagain.
In fact, it almost certainly will happen again. And the next time itoccurs, 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.
How muchforce should a police officer be allowed to exert upon someone before it isconsidered to be “crossing the line” and endangering someone else’s life?America must continue to keep moving forward in the right direction, albeitslowly – by standing up for what one believes in, no matter what theconsequences might entail.