LA Riots, 25 Years Later

Having recently returned home for the summer, I’ve been discussing my classes from the spring semester with my parents. When our Writing 101 class came up, my dad mentioned the Los Angeles riots. Unfamiliar with them, I decided to do some more research.

In March 1991, Rodney King, a black man, was brutally beaten by police officers after exiting a car he’d been driving in with two others. The altercation began when officers tried to instigate a traffic stop on I-210 in Los Angeles, but King and the car’s other occupants refused to pull over, leading to a high-speed chase. George Holliday filmed much of the incident from a nearby apartment. This video has been heavily circulated and was disturbing to many, including LAPD Chief Daryl Gates. He said the following about the tape: “To see my officers engage in what appeared to be excessive use of force, possibly criminally excessive, to see them beat a man with their batons 56 times, to see a sergeant on the scene who did nothing to seize control, was something I never dreamed I would witness.”

This sounds all too familiar. I am reminded of Eric Garner’s case in particular – the NYPD also used an excessive amount of force to subdue a man who really wasn’t much of a threat. Garner pulled his arm away when an officer tried to arrest him. Surely this doesn’t necessitate choking a man to death. Though it is unclear how much resistance King showed after exiting the car, video footage shows the officers beating him again and again when he doesn’t seem to be doing much aside from trying to stand up. What could possibly legitimize such violence in either case?

King survived the incident, but the city of Los Angeles still descended into mass rioting following the jury’s verdict in the case against the officers who arrested King. The jury acquitted all police personnel involved on April 29, 1992. Rioting began barely two hours after the verdict, when police responded to a call regarding beer cans thrown at passing cars at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. Los Angeles didn’t return to “normal” until May 4, after a city-wide curfew was lifted – fires and destruction had ravaged parts of the city, and the National Guard had even been called in to help stymie the demonstrations.

One of my greatest takeaways from this course is that police brutality is not a new occurrence. Learning about the LA riots today made this especially clear, as this week was their 25th anniversary. When we read 1967’s Task Force Report: The Police I had a similar feeling, surprised that our government has been aware of and trying to tackle issues of police brutality for at least fifty years.

Though I think reports such as 1967’s Task Force Report and President Obama’s The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing are encouraging, the lack of progress frustrates me. If we’ve taken the time to try to understand police brutality and come up with suggestions to address it, why does it feel like so little has happened? Police brutality is not a new problem, as the LA riots demonstrate. It’s incredibly frustrating to see other victims continue to suffer the same fate, from Eric Garner to Jordan Edwards – who was shot exactly 25 years to the date after the LA riots began. The long history of police brutality, much longer than I’d realized, makes the point loud and clear: progress is long overdue.

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