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.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, syndicated columnist and author of Betrayed: A History of Presidential Failure to Protect Black Lives
1992: I lived and worked in South L.A. in 1992, and my neighborhood was in the midst of the cataclysmic turmoil. The King-beating verdict was only the spark that ignited the long trail of anger, frustration and grievances of blacks against an LAPD that was widely perceived as brutal, abusive and racist. That [was] layered on [top of] the poverty, neglect and indifference of city officials toward the black poor. Los Angeles stood as a microcosm and a wake-up call that class, poverty and racial divisions — and the perception that urban areas were abandoned by business and public officials — were bordering dangerously on becoming a permanent feature of American society.
2012: Twenty years later you can still drive through some of the old riot-area neighborhoods and see many empty lots that are weed-, trash- and debris-strewn. These are the lots where businesses once stood that were burned out — and, most importantly, where, two decades later, the owners have not come back.
The empty lots are a tragic metaphor and stark testament to the still-crushing neglect [of] and indifference [toward] poor, underserved communities by many businesses and government officials. The black poor in South L.A. are more numerous, live in more racially balkanized neighborhoods and attend [more] rigidly segregated inner-city schools than two decades ago. The message: Sadly, when it comes to race, class and poverty, the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same — or worsen.
William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D., associate professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University; author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress
1992: I was a student at Howard University and I was a student activist, and when we heard about what happened, we began planning a response to protest. We coordinated a protest with the ones that were happening around the country. A group of us from Howard University, George Washington University and American University went down to the 14th Street Bridge, sat down and stopped the traffic to make our point.
[D.C. Mayor] Sharon Pratt Kelly came out because, at that point, we were just a nuisance. She said that the Rodney King beating did not happen in Washington, D.C., which was probably the most clueless thing anyone could have said at the time, with the history of police brutality in Washington, D.C. Clearly, this was a national issue.
2012: It's tempting to say there have been some changes, but the same thing could happen today. When we look at how reactionary reporters have rushed to construct a plausible defense [for] George Zimmerman, you see the same kind of mentality at work: the idea that a black person has no presumption of innocence.
Look at the stop-and-frisk laws and policies of the NYPD. In New York City, where I live now, it's still entirely possible to predict someone's likelihood of going to prison based on the ZIP code they're born into. What Rodney King did was give us a high-profile example of something that is an ongoing problem.
Guy-Uriel Charles, professor of law at Duke University; founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics
1992: I was 22 years old. At the time, like many young black men my age, my experiences with the police were as much negative as they were positive. I had been stopped unjustifiably by the police on numerous occasions. Though I had never been the victim of any police brutality, like so many other African Americans, especially men, I identified with Rodney King as the victim.
2012: There is no doubt in my mind that the relationship [between] the police and the black community is better today than it was 20 years ago. But folks of color and black people in particular continue to be incarcerated at a rate that is unconscionable. Increasingly, black scholars are understanding the criminal[-justice] and penal systems as unjustifiable and unsustainable. This is one of the more important human rights issues of this century, and one of the lessons of the Rodney King experience 20 years on is that much more work needs to be done.
Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.)
1992: I was 16 years old. The event itself didn't shock me. I'd seen police brutality. I'd been profiled and targeted by law enforcement simply because of the color of my skin. I knew these injustices existed, but to have it captured on film for the world to see, that seemed like an opportunity for justice. I was hopeful for that justice and truly disappointed when it didn't happen.
2012: As a nation, there is still considerable suspicion of law-enforcement officers on the part of African Americans. There has always been and still remains a high level of paranoia when it comes to interacting with some in law enforcement, even though studies show that [people's] mistrust of police inhibits reducing crime in the very neighborhoods where they live.
Overall, incidents of police brutality are down, but in high-profile situations like in Sanford, Fla., and in a number of other places, it further says to people that they need to be careful when dealing with law enforcement — creating a feeling that they are against African Americans.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.)
1992: I was in my first full year as mayor of [Kansas City], and we averted what could have been a catastrophe here. We had a large group of African Americans who had gathered at the Spirit of Freedom Fountain at Brush Creek and decided to launch a protest march to the Plaza. I got a call from a council member who was very worried and asked me to get over there quickly.
I had been walking around parts of the city that were feared to be hot spots for possible violence all evening. My fear was that this march could somehow turn violent on the part of marchers, bystanders, people who might jump in or drive by, etc. So I went down and talked personally to the group — telling them that they were right to be concerned and even angry — but the plan they had come up with did not address their important issues; there wasn't any benefit to the plan or any real symbolism. They agreed and dispersed — and there were no further problems.
2012: I just thank God that we had a very good and racially sensitive and open police chief at that time — and since. For many years we have had a long series of very good leaders in the police department. I can remember a time before that when we would have alleged incidents of police brutality nearly every week [in Kansas City], but I think most people here realize it has been a very long time since we have had anything like that in this city.
Gary Bailey, associate professor at the Simmons School of Social Work; chairman of the National Social Work Public Education Campaign
1992: I was a social work supervisor at the Family Service Association of Greater Boston, and I remember watching Rodney King's beating on the Today show and being absolutely appalled by the vicious nature of Mr. King being tasered and beaten by L.A. police. I remember thinking that if this had been an animal — rather than a man and a human being — the perpetrators would have been arrested for the inhumane treatment of said animal. Part of me … understood that the riots were not just about Rodney King but [were also about] years of pent-up frustration, and that had been a proverbial match to kindling that had been sitting for a long time, just waiting for a spark.
2012: When I reflect upon [the] black community's relationship with the police 20 years later, six words come to mind: "Trayvon Martin," "George Zimmerman" and "Sanford, Fla." L.A. may have gotten rid of a corrupt police chief, [but] driving while black has now sadly and tragically been replaced by walking while black, or wearing a hoodie while black. I will be holding my breath yet again when that verdict is read!
Jacqueline Wade, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at Middle Tennessee State University; black- and Africana-studies specialist
1992: I immediately drew the conclusion, "Well, here we go again; another unarmed, relatively harmless black man, considered out of his place, literally being accosted by the police mainly just because they could do so!" The so-called riots (I prefer to call them "righteous rebellions against injustice") were completely justified and representative of a relatively helpless community's only course of action to register a legitimate complaint against the age-old injustices it has endured by the coercive powers that be.
2012: The national black community's relationship with white-centered police power has always been fraught with injustice and brutality. This is reflective of the days of white overseers of enslaved Africans, whose main job was to keep the enslaved in their "rightful" places as enslaved Africans, with little or no mercy afforded them. The police actions in the national black community are but a modern-day version of those dire times of human tragedy.
Photo credit: Rep. Lee (Kris Connor/Getty Images); Rep. Cleaver (Stephen J. Boitano/NBC NewsWire); Earl Ofari Hutchinson (Todd Williamson/FilmMagic); Charles Ogletree (Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.