How “50,000-volt electronic darts” (“Rodney” 2) from

How Rodney King Changed America

In 1991, the United States was
rocked by an 82-second-long video tape of an African American man being
ruthlessly beaten by four police officers. The man’s name was Rodney King, who
had just been pulled over for speeding. A bystander recorded the young man
lying on the cement, who was attempting to stand up with his hands behind his
neck and ready to surrender. However, as soon as King lifted his left foot up
to get in a kneeling position, an officer swung his steel baton at King’s head
with excessive force, immediately knocking him back onto the rough cement
(Holliday 00:00:51-00:02:27). As he lay on his back, visibly reeling in pain
and too weak to move, the officers continued to knock the wind out of him as
they beat him with their batons like a piñata. The Rodney King beating sparked
a new era of journalism, opened up Americans’ eyes to racial inequality, and
changed law enforcement across the United States. However, to fully grasp the
impact of the assault of Rodney King and the ensuing riots on America, one must
first understand the background of the incident.

On the fateful morning of March 3,
1991, a bystander captured four police officers in Los Angeles, California, on
video, where they were seen brutally beating an unarmed man. The 82-second
footage featured the police kicking and “striking 25-year-old Rodney King with batons
approximately 56 times” (“Rodney” 2),
who was pulled over after leading police on a high-speed car chase.

Additionally, Sergeant Stacey Koon fired “50,000-volt electronic darts” (“Rodney” 2) from his stun gun at King –
twice. King was taken to a local hospital, where he was treated for suffering a
broken ankle, 11 fractured bones near the base of his skull, and a fractured

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cheekbone.

After being released from the hospital, King was subsequently arrested on
charges of

evading
police and for violating his terms of probation. In addition, traces of
marijuana and alcohol were found in his system after further testing. Before
the incident, Rodney King was on parole after spending a year in jail for armed
robbery. He was jailed for three days; however, prosecutors decided to drop all
charges against him, and King immediately hired an attorney to sue the Los
Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the city of Los Angeles as well. According
to the FBI, officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Ted
Briseno were all charged with “assault with a deadly weapon, filing a false
police report, unnecessarily beating a suspect under color of authority, and
acting as an accessory in an alleged ‘cover-up'” (“Rodney” 2). The officers involved faced a minimum of four years in
jail, up to a maximum of seven years, if convicted of their crimes. At first,
many people believed race was not an important factor in the case; however,
Rodney King was an unarmed black man – whereas all the officers were white – which
sparked more controversy among Americans as the details of the incident were
released to the public.

The officers’ jury during their trial was made up of
twelve people – 10 were white, while the remaining two people were of Latino
and Asian descent. On April 29, 1992, more than a year after the beating of
Rodney King, the jury acquitted all four officers, meaning they were found as
being not guilty. Almost immediately after the officers were acquitted,
residents of Los Angeles began rioting. The riots lasted approximately six
days, resulting in “53 deaths, over 7,000 fires, and nearly 3,000 injuries” (Chance
and Laurence 137). Many businesses were looted and destroyed during

 

Leonard, Gary. “Stores
Burning During L.A. Riots.” CaliSphere,
Los Angeles Public Library, 1992,

calisphere.org/item/e8888cd943f5e3122d29aafc3663fd9b/.

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the
riots; the Koreatown and Pico-Union neighborhoods were the hit the hardest by
the rioting, which ended up costing the city of Los Angeles 800 million dollars
in financial losses (Koon 191).

At the time the incident occurred,
the Internet was still a new concept, and the amount of technology available to
everyday people was fairly limited. However, after George Holliday, a
bystander, captured footage of the brutal assault on his recently-purchased Sony
Handycam, he quickly became the leader of what would spark a new era of
technology and social attitudes in the media. After he shared the video with
KTLA, a Los Angeles television station, it quickly spread to people around the
world because the media rightfully depicted the police’s treatment of an
unarmed black man as disgusting, which led to the international outrage. During
the days following the assault of Rodney King, the video tape was constantly
being replayed on every news channel on television – it is believed to have
been the first “viral” piece of information that rapidly made its way to every
American overnight.

            When Rodney King was pulled over by
law enforcement, George Holliday happened to be near the scene because his
apartment balcony overlooked the street King was on. Holliday quickly retrieved
his video camera and recorded twelve minutes of footage, which was later condensed
to an 82-second video clip by the media. After selling to it to KTLA for $500
(Rabinowitz 146), the video was viewed by millions of Americans. The rise of
citizen journalism was started by Holliday – in a decade where technology was
not yet widespread, recording videos of seemingly random incidents was unheard
of. Without Holliday’s video, “there never would have been a case against
police officers — or so much fury about their acquittal” (Maurantonio 749). Although
the Los Angeles riots are remembered as one of the deadliest riots in American
history, it was a time that also signaled that good still existed in the world,
particularly among journalists. Gaining some insight into Rodney King’s life
offered not only an opportunity to consider the significance of citizen
journalism – it also offered an opportunity to reconsider journalism’s
institutional role more broadly within the country.

            Before the Rodney King beating, many
Americans rarely thought of social injustice, or racial inequality, as an issue
that was present in the 1990s in the country. The incident showed the violence
that law enforcement officials were capable of exerting upon a random
African-American civilian, despite King being unarmed and fully compliant with
the police. An angry but sympathetic resident of Los Angeles stated, “‘Well, at
last they see we’re not lying to them. They see that this stuff actually
happens. Now the world sees. They always think we’re making it up” (Understanding 35). 26 years later, the
media still reports on the Rodney King beating as an event that changed America
by sparking a new era of social injustices against minorities, specifically
African Americans. For example, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner,
Philando Castile, Tamir Rice – every single person mentioned was unarmed; their
lives were cut short by police officers, who were all acquitted in court. The
cases of these victims of police brutality played out in a very similar way to
the Rodney King incident, except the King case had occurred decades before. A
prominent civil rights group that arose in 2013, Black Lives Matter, can be
traced back to Rodney King because their mission is to end police brutality in
the country; however, Blue Lives Matter, a group that aims to increase
protection for police officers, was launched as a countermovement in response
to the civil rights group. The similarities between the past and modern times
reflect unchanged systemic racism in America.

The LAPD is one of the most
prominent police departments in the United States, partly due to how populous
and large the city of Los Angeles is; many police departments across the
country tend to follow in their footsteps. Rodney King “set in motion overdue
reforms in the LAPD, sending a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the
country” (Cannon 3). Following the King beating in March 1991, the public’s
approval rate of the LAPD’s dropped to 34 percent (Maurantonio 741). When the
officers involved in King’s beating were acquitted on April 29, 1992, civilians
all over the United States were outraged by the verdict, and many protests
ensued. Residents of Los Angeles rioted, fueled by the notion that the city’s
police force was overstepping their boundaries and abusing their power. Nobody
understood how the officers could justify their reasoning behind the barbaric
attack on Rodney King. In the weeks following the incident, the Independent
Commission on the LAPD was formed by the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, to “‘conduct
a full and fair examination of the structure and operation of LAPD” (“Report” 2).  In 2001, a decade after Rodney King was assaulted
by police officers and nearly nine years after their acquittals and the
rioting, the LAPD made significant changes to the ways in which they would run
their department and serve the city using better methods of policing. Under the
newly-hired police chief William Bratton, the department focused on community
policing, which meant that they permanently allocated police officers to
different areas of Los Angeles in order to get to know the residents in those
areas. Additionally, they hired more officers of color because at the time of
the Rodney King beating, 86.6 percent of law enforcement officials in the LAPD identified
themselves as Caucasian (Wells). Lastly, the department worked to resolve and
reduce the tension between officers and minority communities who frequently
complained about the racial profiling and excessive use of force by police that
happened within their neighborhoods (Wells). The LAPD finally implemented many
of the recommendations that came out of the immediate aftermath of the riots:
they instituted discipline reports, created a database of information about
officers and supervisors to identify at-risk behavior, and revised procedures
on search and arrest (Koon 145). According to the LAPD, approximately 7,000
officers will be wearing body cameras by 2018 – shortly after the Rodney King
incident, the number of arrests were no longer considered as a form of
measuring an officer’s success within the LAPD (Wells). Although it took a few years
for Americans to see notable changes in their local law enforcements’ methods
of practice, King’s beating is what caused the sudden need for reform across
the country.

The 1991 Rodney King beating, which
subsequently lead to the roughly six-day-long riots in Los Angeles a year later
following the officers’ acquittals, changed the nation in numerous ways. Rodney
King became a symbol of civil rights and the movement against police brutality.

The appalling circumstances of the case served as a turning point for
Americans, allowing them to gain insight into social injustice in the country,
thus sparking the push for justice and ending the still-ongoing cases of
African Americans’ unfair treatment by law enforcement. Additionally, George
Holliday’s recording of the brutal assault led to the rise of citizen
journalism, which has become quite prevalent in modern times because of the
technological advances in the world since 1991. The video tape led to what is
now known as a “viral” video; it spread quickly from one coast to the other,
capturing the attention of millions of people across the globe. Sergeant Stacey
Koon wrote, “Because,
you see, what happened in the dark, early morning chill of March 3, 1991, can
happen again. In fact, it almost certainly will happen again. And the next time
it occurs, more people are likely to die. That’s the final catastrophe of this
painful drama, a misunderstood tragedy whose final scenes have yet to be played
out” (15). If the United States continues to remain silent on issues concerning
the wellbeing of minorities, therefore normalizing such instances of police
brutality and systemic racism, it is a step in the wrong direction for the
future of America. It is important to remember that “… we must support our
officers, pushing them every day to the edge of the line and marking the limits
of appropriate actions and procedures” (Owens 14). However, this quote raises the
question of the limitations of law enforcement officials: how much force should
a police officer be allowed to exert upon a person before it is considered to
be abuse of power and endangering someone else’s life? America must continue to
keep moving forward in the right direction – albeit slowly – by standing up for
what one believes in, no matter what the consequences might entail. The
American people must recognize that it is unacceptable to continue to let those
in power be exempt from punishment. It is the nation’s duty to hold those who
are in positions of authority accountable for their actions and the offenders
should be subjected to discipline at the fullest extent possible under the law.