LA Riots Revisited: Now Can We Get Along?

Twenty years after the acquittals in the Rodney King beating, black leaders reflect on then and now.

Credit: See end of article.
Credit: See end of article.

In 1992 four of the Los Angeles Police Department officers who brutally beat Rodney Glen King during a traffic stop were acquitted, and the anger over the perception of injustice set off the Los Angeles riots.

Twenty years later The Root asked African-American attorneys, scholars and elected officials to reflect on the nation’s most memorable instance of police brutality. Each of them shared the conclusions they drew from the incident, as well as their assessment of the black community’s relationship with law enforcement today. The consensus: Some aspects of this dynamic have improved, but don’t let the absence of riots fool you — there’s still much work to be done.

Charles Ogletree, founder of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice; co-author of Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities

1992: I remember the beating like it was yesterday. It was one of the most dramatic things I’d seen on TV since watching civil rights workers [being] beaten in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

2012: What still stands out to me is the contradiction between what the police were about to say when they trivialized their beating of Rodney King — when they did not realize their actions were being filmed — and [the] very different story [they gave] to the public. When I think of that today, I hope that lessons have been learned and behavior has changed. I’m convinced that we have a more diverse law-enforcement community than 20 years ago, and that is a good thing.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)

1992: I was in the California Legislature during that period, and I was on the Public Safety Committee. I came down to L.A. right during that period and really had a chance to talk to people and understand what was going on. I was also working on the California Commission on the Status of African-American Males. We published a report that showed that a third of the prison population was made up of African-American males, compared to 3.7 percent of the state population, so it was during that period that all of this occurred. It highlighted the police relationship with the community in terms of the injustice of [the] criminal-justice system, racial profiling and disproportionate numbers of African-American males going to prison. I think we’ve come a long way [regarding] issues of race, income inequalities and other disparities, but we still have a long way to go.

2012: Twenty years later we see the unfortunate shooting of Trayvon Martin. I raised two young black boys and I have two grandsons, and the reality is, we raise our sons with this reality in terms of knowing they could be subject to racial profiling, harassment and who knows what. It’s an unfortunate status that I think has become a new normal, which I think is very sad. We have to recognize that the new normal is wrong, it’s unhealthy and it’s unjust.