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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.”

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


    On the evening of March 3, 1991, Rodney King and two passengers were driving west on the Foothill Freeway (I-210) through the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles.

    The California Highway Patrol (CHP) attempted to initiate a traffic stop. A high-speed pursuit ensued with speeds estimated at up to 115 mph first over freeways, and then through residential neighborhoods.

    When King came to a stop, CHP Officer Timothy Singer and his wife, CHP Officer Melanie Singer, ordered the occupants under arrest.

    After two passengers were placed in the patrol car, five white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers (Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano) attempted to subdue King, who came out of the car last.

    King was tasered, struck with side-handled batons, then tackled to the ground and cuffed.

    The officers claimed that King was under the influence of PCP at the time of arrest, which caused him to be very aggressive and violent toward the officers.

    • Thanks Kurt for posting.

      My blog post is primarily about my experiences being illegally arrested by the SFPD (as the civil judgment found), my own and my family’s experiences with the police across several decades (my elders have shared stories going back to the 40’s if not earlier), and the larger problem of discriminatory police behavior towards African Americans in particular. The “facts” in the King case continue to be disputed to this day.

  2. Thank you Sandra & others for sharing your experience about this and marking this important anniversary. I was born in California, but my parents chose to leave the state after Prop. 13 was passed. As a 13-14 year old, I was very disappointed to leave and vowed to return and did. The only times I have had second thoughts about returning here were upon seeing the video of the brutal, shocking attack of Rodney King, as well as the court verdict following the police trial for the perpetrators of that attack.

    I know we Californians often think of our state as leading the way for many things – including human rights – but when it comes to racism, it so pervades all of American society that through even this one event in the ’90s, we cannot pretend that California is without it. I hope that through education at all levels and sharing the history of deprivations, violence, injustice, and inequalities that more will learn how we still have an unequal society and can work on making it more equal.

    • Thank you for you thoughtful comment Elise. I was born and raised in California myself, but have had the opportunity to live and spend time in other states. I don’t find California to be better on race then other parts of the country. Different? Perhaps. The challenge is that Californians want to believe the state’s reputation for liberalism cancels out systemic, institutional, interpersonal racism. It doesn’t.

  3. I worked in downtown L.A. adjacent to the Music Center at the time of the police trial out in Simi Valley for the the Rodney King beating.

    Within our work group of 5 researchers there actually was a guy waiting on his background check to get approved into the next police academy class; he presented an interesting and thoughtful dimension when we would discuss the police trial during work breaks. It was hard for me to comprehend how such a beating could occur. After all there were almost two dozen cops present, including highway patrol, school police, woman officer, and it was hard for me to comprehend the mindsets of the participants.

    In the day prior to the jury verdict, the boss told us all that regardless of the decision we had to come to work and if we stayed home we as contractors would be immediately terminated. It didn’t seem like a potential issue to me, some kind of guilty verdict would be announced, the variable would be the severity of the convictions, and life would go on. Anyway, he was more worldly wise than I was; he knew something bad could result.

    Then, on verdict day, at mid-afternoon the verdict “not guilty” came out and we were all surprised/shocked, I found it extremely hard to believe. Shortly after that someone came in said there was a big demonstration forming a few blocks away in the area around L.A. police HDQ and city hall. The boss told us we could pack up and go ahead and go home about an hour early … but that we had to come to work on time the next morning (Thursday). I was warned to be careful, as they knew I parked my car about 6 blocks away in little L.A. Chinatown and would be walking to my car within a few blocks of the police hdq demonstration.

    Anyway, no problem getting to my car, and fortunately at home I didn’t have a TV, so i tried to have a quiet Wednesday night and leave the radio off and just start again fresh the next morning. Well, all hell had started breaking loose overnight. In the morning on the radio driving to work the big stories were the white truck driver and the Central American immigrant getting pulled from their vehicles in South Central and smashed in the head with big rocks or bricks; the downtown demonstration had turned violent and destructive; fires were being set around south L.A. and moving north; eople were getting beaten and killed; the air smelled acrid.

    I had no trouble finding a parking place. When I walked the 6 blocks to work it was eerie how abandoned the downtown streets were … a rather large brother crossed the street in front of me and I noticed he had a large piece of wood, like a 4×4, and he commented about how there was so much debris laying around and whether I knew where a trash receptacle was. Whew, that was a bit unsettling. Then the jail bus drove by, just like did every morning taking the defendants to court, but it stopped right next to me…. I’ve never figured out what that was all about, perhaps to advise me to go back home, perhaps he was getting advised to turn around and return.

    The midlevel highrise where I worked was almost abandoned except for our group, which had 100% attendance because there was a painful recession (the Reagan debt-fueled “magic” had worn thin and George H.W. Bush got stuck holding the dirty diaper) and we 5 contractors all had to hold tight to this paycheck. During the workday Thursday and then again Friday we had momentary flashes of panic depending on the latest news, especially with reports that the police were withdrawing from active riot areas. There wasn’t much actual protection in the building beyond the front door guard, although I heard that some of the people who came to work brought their guns and arranged with security to bypass the metal detector.

    The pathological ugliness outside went on and got worse, and we more kept up with the violent status quo in the city rather than the regular workload. The survival plan was to simply survive work Thursday and Friday, and then by the weekend, hopefully order would be restored to the city and then Monday some level of security would be back.

    The big fear beyond personal safety was that the violence and arson would spread past Koreatown into Hollywood and over the hills into the San Fernando Valley and vast swaths of the city would get destroyed and more people would get maimed and murdered. When the nearby Sears store in Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd started getting looted and destroyed, surprising to me that it was mostly by immigrants from Central America, the breakdown was clearly escalating. I mentioned that when I was a little boy we had lived in that area for about 6 months when we came to L.A. and i remember a happy Friday night when i got a brand new red wagon at that Sears store.

    • Wow, Thanks Dave for sharing your story. I’ve lived in Los Angeles a couple of times so I know the places you named well. I also have family who live in the LA area (closer to Westside) and their story of trying to get home that first night are very similar. Glad you were able to navigate those days safely.

  4. The toleration of extremely poor leadership and training for those sworn to serve and protect all members of the community is a non-exclusive national epidemic. Follow the money from a taxed dollar to a cop’s pocket. Don’t taze me bro!

    • Thanks for your comment Chris. Where I landed after a decade of studying policing is that certainly bad leadership and training are a factor, but the larger problem is that the police are expected to maintain and enforce existing economic, social, and racial power imbalances and biases. Their actions are a reflection of who is and is not valued, who does and does not have power, how we categorize some people as different than others and therefore justify treating them differently.

      Training, better practices, and/or new leadership will certainly help, but police officers are a product of our larger society’s value systems and therefore like all of us, unless they are consciously questioning that value system, their reactions and beliefs tend to run on autopilot.

  5. Thanks for reminding me of this crucial version of the events of that surreal weekend at Santa Rita Jail. Like you, I tend to tell the other version of the events, focusing more on my own experience (being hauled off to jail for simply showing up to “watch” the protestors) and less on the horrific beating and verdict that led up to it.

    In some ways it seems as if much has changed in those 25 years, but reading this makes me wonder. In any case, thank you for sharing your family’s stories and for reminding me of the real core of event, namely the brutality that Rodney King experienced and the work that still needs to be done.

    • Hello “willing friend”! And what a surreal experience we had together. Have you ever written about these events? My memory of them is sharp, but I find how I interprete them tends to shift and deepen over time.

  6. Living in Southern California at the time, the news from the Bay Area probably did not get much press or air time. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Thanks Carmelita. Would be interested to hear about your thoughts and experiences since you were in Los Angeles. Please share if you’d like.

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