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Writing 1301: Section 29

November 2017

How Rodney King Changed America

In 1991, the United States was
rocked by an 82-second-long video tape of an African American man being
ruthlessly beaten by four police officers. The man’s name was Rodney King, who
had just been pulled over for speeding. A bystander recorded the young man
lying on the cement, who was attempting to stand up with his hands behind his
neck and ready to surrender. However, as soon as King lifted his left foot up
to get in a kneeling position, an officer swung his steel baton at King’s head
with excessive force, immediately knocking him back onto the rough cement. As
he lay on his back, visibly reeling in pain and too weak to move, the officers
continued to knock the wind out of him as they beat him with their batons like
a piñata. The Rodney King beating sparked a new era of journalism, opened up
Americans’ eyes to social injustice, and changed law enforcement across the
United States. To understand the impact of the assault of Rodney King on
America, 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, on
video, where they were seen brutally beating an unarmed man. The 82-second
footage featured the police kicking and “striking 25-year-old Rodney King with batons
approximately 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 a
broken ankle, 11 fractured bones near the base of his skull, and a fractured
cheekbone. After being released from the hospital, King was subsequently
arrested on charges of

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police and for violating his terms of probation. In addition, traces of
marijuana and alcohol were found in his system after further testing. Before
the incident, Rodney King was on parole after spending a year in jail for armed
robbery. He was jailed for three days; however, prosecutors decided to drop all
charges against him, and King immediately hired an attorney to sue the Los
Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the city of Los Angeles as well. According
to the FBI, officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Ted
Briseno were all charged with “assault with a deadly weapon, filing a false
police report, unnecessarily beating a suspect under color of authority, and
acting as an accessory in an alleged ‘cover-up'” (“Rodney” 2). The officers involved faced a minimum of four years in
jail, 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 – which
sparked more controversy among Americans as the details of the incident were
released to the public.

The officers’ jury during
their trial was made up of twelve people – 10 were white, while the remaining
two people were of Latino and Asian descent. On April 29, 1992, more than a
year after the beating of Rodney King, the jury acquitted all four officers,
meaning they were found as being not guilty. Almost immediately after the
officers were acquitted, residents of Los Angeles began rioting. The riots
lasted six days, resulting in “53 deaths, over 7,000 fires, and nearly 3,000

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injured” (Chance and Laurence 137). Many businesses were looted and destroyed
during the riots, which ended up costing the city of Los Angeles 1 billion
dollars in financial losses.

At the time the incident occurred,
the internet was still new, and the amount of technology available to everyday
people was fairly limited. However, after George Holliday captured footage of
the brutal assault on his video camera, he quickly became the leader of what
would spark a new era of technology and social attitudes in the media. After he
shared the video with KTLA, a Los Angeles television station, it quickly spread
to people around the world because the media clearly depicted the police’s
treatment of an unarmed black man as disgusting. During the days following the
assault of Rodney King, the videotape was constantly being replayed on every
news channel on television – it is believed to have been the first “viral”
video. The riots led to many Korean Americans’ newly-implemented businesses
being destroyed during the riots.

            When Rodney King was pulled over by
law enforcement, a bystander happened to be near the scene – George Holliday, whose
apartment was next to the scene, quickly retrieved his video camera and
recorded twelve minutes of footage, which was condensed to 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 of citizen journalism was
started 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 about
their acquittal” (Maurantonio 749). Although the Los Angeles riots are
remembered as among the deadliest riots in American history, they were a time
that also signaled that good still existed, particularly among journalists. Gaining
some insight into Rodney King’s life offered not only an opportunity to
consider the significance of citizen journalism – it


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offered an opportunity to reconsider journalism’s institutional role more
broadly within the country.

            The Rodney King beating angered not
only Americans, but shocked the entire world as well. Prior to this event, many
Americans rarely thought of social injustice as an issue that was present in
the 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 stuff
actually happens. Now the world sees. They always think we’re making it up” (Understanding 35). 26 years later, the
media still reports on the Rodney King beating as an event that changed America
by sparking a new era of social injustices against minorities, specifically
African Americans. For example, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner,
Philando Castile, Tamir Rice – every single person mentioned was unarmed; their
lives were cut short by police officers, who were all acquitted in court. The
cases of these victims of police brutality played out in a very similar way to
the Rodney King incident, except the King case had occurred decades before. A
prominent civil rights group that arose in 2013, Black Lives Matter, can be
traced back to Rodney King because their mission is to end police brutality in
the country; however, Blue Lives Matter, a group that aims to increase
protection for police officers, was launched as a countermovement in response
to the civil rights group. The similarities between the past and modern times
reflect unchanged systemic racism in America.

The LAPD is one of the most
prominent police departments in the United States, partly due to how populous
the city of Los Angeles is; many police departments across the country tend to follow
in their footsteps. The Rodney King case set in motion overdue reforms in the
LAPD, sending a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country (Cannon
3). In March 1991, the month of King’s arrest and assault, the LAPD’s job-approval
rating sank to 34 percent (Maurantonio 741). When the officers involved in
King’s beating were acquitted on April 29,

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the city exploded in rioting ignited by the belief that its police force was
abusive, racist and unaccountable. According to the LAPD, approximately 7,000
officers will be wearing body cameras by 2018 – shortly after the Rodney King
incident, the number of arrests were no longer considered as a form of
measuring an officer’s success within the LAPD (“Rodney” 18). In 2001, 10 years after the Rodney King beating, and
nine years after the officers who beat him were acquitted, the LAPD began one of
the most ambitious attempts at police reform ever attempted in an American
city. Under the police Chief William Bratton, the department focused on
community policing, hired more officers of color and worked to resolve tensions
between officers and minority communities who continued to complain about
racial profiling and excessive use of force. The LAPD finally implemented many
of the recommendations that came out of the immediate aftermath of the riots:
they instituted discipline reports, created a database of information about
officers and supervisors to identify at-risk behavior, and revised procedures
on search and arrest (Rabinowitz 145). Although it took a few years to
noticeably see changes in law enforcement, King’s beating was the catalyst for
much-needed reform.

The Rodney King beating, which
subsequently lead to the roughly six-day-long riots in Los Angeles, changed the
nation in numerous ways. Rodney King became a symbol of civil rights and the
movement against police brutality. The appalling circumstances of the case
served as a turning point for Americans, allowing them to gain insight into
social injustice in the country, thus sparking the push for justice and ending
the still-ongoing cases of African Americans’ unfair treatment by law
enforcement. Additionally, George Holliday’s recording of the brutal assault
led to the rise of citizen journalism, which has become quite prevalent in
modern times because of the technological advances in the world since 1991. The
videotape led to what is now 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 Stacey Koon wrote, “Because, you

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what happened in the dark, early morning chill of March 3, 1991, can happen
again. In fact, it almost certainly will happen again. And the next time it
occurs, more people are likely to die. That’s the final catastrophe of this
painful drama, a misunderstood tragedy whose final scenes have yet to be played
out” (15). If the United States continues to remain silent on issues concerning
the wellbeing of minorities, therefore normalizing such instances of police
brutality and systemic racism, it is a step in the wrong direction. How much
force should a police officer be allowed to exert upon someone before it is
considered to be “crossing the line” and endangering someone else’s life?
America must continue to keep moving forward in the right direction, albeit
slowly – by standing up for what one believes in, no matter what the
consequences might entail.


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