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25 years later and the Rodney King video is still on repeat

Sandra Bass, Associate Dean and Director UC Berkeley Public Service Center | March 7, 2016

Twenty five years ago this month, the video of Rodney King being beaten, clubbed, kicked, and stomped by a gang of police went viral before going viral was a thing. Eighty-nine seconds of unmistakable brutality repeatedly looped, dissected, and discussed. A year later, the defense attorney’s frame-by-frame deconstruction of King’s beating successfully convinced an all white jury that each of the more than 50 blows King received — resulting in 11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken bones and severe emotional trauma — was justified, and Los Angeles rose up. Almost simultaneously, protests were mobilized in Oakland and San Francisco.

A few days after the verdict was announced, a flyer advertising a demonstration taking place in San Francisco’s Mission district landed in my hands. I felt compelled to go as both participant and witness, so I grabbed my tape recorder and a willing friend and headed across the Bay Bridge. Within minutes of parking the car we were confronted by a phalanx of police officers indiscriminately arresting everyone. No questions asked, no dispersal order announced.

video still of police beating man on the ground

Video still, March 3, 1991

As it turns out, many of the people arrested were not even aware there was a protest planned. One woman was on her way to the corner store to pick up spices for a dish she had left simmering on the stove; despite her explanations, they refused to let her go home to tend to it. Others had completely unrelated evening plans and just happened to be on the wrong block at the wrong time.

The police were also deaf to the distress they were inflicting. Before busing us out to Santa Rita County jail, we were held in outdoor pens along the San Francisco waterfront for hours. As the cold and fog descended, friends of a man diagnosed with AIDS begged the police to provide him with better shelter or at least a coat, but nothing was done. Rather, they responded that maybe next time he’d think twice about protesting. Police had pulled the plastic cuffs so tightly around the wrists of one woman her hands began to numb and swell, yet tears and panicky pleas to loosen them were ignored.

The Bay Guardian later reported that the rally was a police ploy to lure protesters into one location so they could round them up and jail them for the weekend. The SFPD’s actions resulted in a class-action suit against the city of San Francisco on behalf of the 300-plus people who had been unlawfully detained and jailed. And 5 1/2 years later, I got a $1,700 check in the mail.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. In fact, the thing on my mind 25 years later is what story should be told on this disgraceful anniversary. In the past when I’ve shared my reflections and experiences in casual conversation, things like the absurd theatrics correctional officers engaged in throughout my detention, the quick and quirky camaraderie that emerged between fellow detainees, or my mailing a copy of my settlement check to the San Francisco Chief of Police with “Thanks SFPD!” scrawled across it in blazing red ink typically find their way into the conversation. And those stories have their place.

But my 30+ hours in the “care” of our criminal-justice system are not what’s on my mind today, but rather the 11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, emotional trauma, and too-early death suffered by Rodney King. I’m thinking about how normalized video coverage of black people being beaten, choked, shot, and killed by the police has become, how rarely those videos result in justice, and how many injustices are taking place right now outside of the purview of cameras.

I think about the stories my elders told about their encounters with the police, and remember when those stories became my own … the night every male member of my family was stopped on their way home and questioned by the police under the pretense that they “fit the description” of a robbery suspect … that time my partner and I were stopped and he was ordered to prone out on the pavement for the offense of “driving while black” in Beverly Hills … the day I was followed into my workplace (ironically on my way to a diversity committee meeting), ordered to step outside for questioning, and threatened with arrest because I “fit the description” of a woman who had written a bad check…

I shudder as I listen to my young, slender, whisper-voiced niece share how she is regularly stopped by the police whenever she wears a hoodie. Or how police harassment is such a certainty for young men in my family it has literally changed not only how they move through the world but whether they want to venture into the world at all. Like the King video itself, these stories of harassment and brutality, have been looped and repeated, over and over again, dissected, discussed, and deconstructed,  generation after generation. And it this multigenerational narrative of pervasive and grinding oppression that must be interrupted and ended.

The Rodney King beating and verdict led me to study policing for over a decade. It also compelled me to connect with organizations like the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which began as a police community watch program and now is a leading voice in the movement to end mass incarceration by advocating for just and fair alternatives like restorative justice, redirecting criminal justice dollars into education, and job training for the formerly incarcerated.

And while these solutions hold promise for protecting the most vulnerable and repairing some of the harm of the criminal justice system, the only genuine solution is to decriminalize poverty and blackness and embrace the truth of our interdependence. Devaluing black and brown lives damages our entire polity, and as cliche as it may sound, to harm any of us is to harm all of us.

Advocating for racial justice, equity, and opportunity is in our shared interests. To paraphrase one of my sheroes, Grace Lee Boggs, this is the story of (r)evolutionary change we need to tell and live into; to challenge the systems determined to keep us separate, broken, and blinded, to grow our souls, and in doing so to recognize that “we have the power within us to create the world anew.”