Juarez officers continued to knock the wind out of

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Nicole
Juarez

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Patricia
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University
Writing 1301: Section 29

13
December 2017

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 1 billion dollars in
financial losses (Understanding 143).

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 video camera, 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 clearly depicted the police’s treatment of an unarmed black man as
disgusting. 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. 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. The Rodney King case set in motion
overdue reforms in the LAPD, sending a ripple effect on law enforcement
throughout the country (Cannon 3). In March 1991, the month of King’s arrest
and assault, the LAPD’s job-approval rating sank to 34 percent (Maurantonio
741). When the officers involved in King’s beating were acquitted on April 29, 1992,
the city exploded in rioting ignited by the belief that its police force was
abusive, racist and unaccountable. 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 (“Rodney” 18). In 2001, a decade after Rodney King was beaten by
police officers, and nearly nine years after their acquittals and the rioting,
the LAPD began “one of the most ambitious attempts at police reform ever
attempted in an American city” (Wells). Under the newly-hired police chief
William Bratton, the department focused on community policing, hired more officers
of color and worked to resolve tensions between officers and minority
communities who continued to complain about racial profiling and excessive use
of force (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
(Rabinowitz 145). Although it took a few years to noticeably see changes in law
enforcement, King’s beating was the catalyst for much-needed reform.

The Rodney King beating, which
subsequently lead to the roughly six-day-long riots in Los Angeles, 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.