Rodney King, Twenty Years Later

[Trigger warning for violence, police brutality, racism.]

Today is the 20th anniversary of Rodney King's surviving a brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers, an incident that sparked an investigation, an absurd acquittal, riots, and a national conversation about race that exposed the deeply-entrenched privilege that allowed white USians to exist in the blissful ignorance and/or willful denial of police brutality against USians of color.

King had been drinking, and he had been speeding, and he evaded the police for several miles. And when he pulled over, he got out of the car and was ordered at gunpoint to get on the ground, which he did, and that's when he got the first kick delivered to his head. (The officers dispute that version of events; the videotape does not begin until after that point.) He believed if he stayed on the ground, he might be gravely injured, so he stood up, hands up, and tried to reason with the officers. They tased him twice, bringing him to the ground, where he was defenseless. When he tried to get up and defend himself, an officer bashed his head with his baton, which knocked King back to the ground, where he was hit multiple times with the baton.

King, in fear for his life, repeatedly tried to get up. The officers continued to beat him. In the end, he is hit 56 times with a baton and kicked half a dozen times. His cheek is broken. His ankle is broken. He has serious internal injures. While two dozen officers watch, he is handcuffed and cordcuffed on his arms and legs, and dragged across the road on his stomach, where he is left in the gutter to await the arrival of a rescue ambulance.

This is a vastly different story than was reported at the time, about a black convict hopped up on PCP who resisted arrest and overwhelmed police who were just trying to do their jobs. The myth that King was on narcotics was so widely reported that many people incorrectly recall that he was high during the beating. In fact, he tested negative for drugs.

I wish, twenty years later, I could be writing a post about how the Rodney King case completely changed our culture, how it spawned widespread reforms (it did spawn some) that resulted in fair and equal treatment by police irrespective of one's race, or, failing that, how it left an indelible imprint upon the thick armor of white privilege that never allowed another white USian to seriously entertain the idea that such parity exists when it does not.

But last year alone, I wrote about the grievous racial disparity in "stop-and-frisk" policing in New York City, and the white male police officer who punched a young black woman in the face in Seattle, the absurd conviction of the white police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant in San Francisco, and other stories of racial injustice perpetrated by law enforcement across the country.

And every fucking time I write about it, there are white people who show up to troll the post and blather about how the police were just doing their job blah blah blah, without any evidence of shame about their detestable pretense that this shit regularly happens to white people in the US.

Twenty years later, it's still the same victim-blaming I was hearing about Rodney King, even as he sat in a wheelchair convalescing from his physical injuries. (He has nightmares to this day, and, while currently sober, has struggled with alcoholism.) Twenty years later, same old shit.

But, twenty years on, I am a different person than I was then. Working through my privilege is an ongoing process—it always will be—but what happened to Rodney King was so much more difficult for me to understand and culturally contextualize then, and it's not just because I was a teenager; it's because I was a privileged white teenager who hadn't yet begun in any meaningful way to examine her privilege.

King has said that it gives meaning to what happened to him if people learned something from it. I did. It was an important moment for me at a time in my life when I was just learning what social justice meant. It is tragic that so much of our understanding of social justice comes from evidence of injustice—but I believe it would be more tragic still if we learn nothing from the injustice to which we bear witness.

Twenty years later, many groups are still actively working to fight racial injustice perpetrated by law enforcement in the US. One of the best among those groups is the Center for Constitutional Rights. I have made a donation today in Rodney King's name, and I hope, if you have the funds to spare, you will, too.

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