How I Feel 25 Years After Sitting in the Rodney King Beating Courtroom
Twenty-five years ago today (4/29), I sat in a courtroom in Simi Valley as a judge read not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial. I was a cub reporter on my first big story for City News Service, but I didn’t need to be a seasoned hack to know how astonishment and anger were about to ripple through Los Angeles. The LAPD officers had beaten Rodney King nearly to death as he lay on the ground. They kicked him, and they thrashed his body with their batons, as a bystander filmed the whole thing from across the street. What jury on earth wouldn’t find the cops guilty? A jury of isolated white people, it turned out. The riots that instantly followed raged on for edgy days and sleepless nights until the governor called the National Guard to stamp out the rebellion. I was shocked at the scale of the eruption. I drove around L.A. in my Yugo (!) and tried to cover the mayhem. Years later, during the fall of Baghdad, I watched pillars of smoke rising from rubble across the city and recalled the skyline of the riots — different because the fires were ignited by the people on the ground, not foreign bombs — an asymmetrical response by an oppressed people. After the riots, I thought, if something good can come from the loss of fifty-five lives and a billion dollars in damage, if there’s just a tiny silver lining, it’ll be to get reforms that finally prevent police from beating up and killing so many black men they perceive as a threat. There was no other way forward, right? After the riots, I became the City Hall reporter for CNS, and was surrounded by skilled journalists and editors who helped me ask good questions. We reported on dozens and dozens of hearings and angry public fora and negotiations, over everything from getting rid of the racist Police Chief Daryl Gates to how to get insurers to stop redlining communities of color. There was a sense among public officials that the riots had changed everything. There was urgency. There was no going back. There was also a feeling that, now that video cameras were common, the cops would have to evolve. We could watch them now. (Of course, this was even long before there was a video camera in every phone, and a phone on every citizen). The police simply -couldn’t- get away with this anymore. And yet, twenty-five years later we raise up our hands when we see the killings of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others. And we ask, “Still?” Our prisons are bursting, with shocking incarceration rates of young black men that should be prosecutable itself as a human-rights violation. Twenty-five years later, I hear there has been some progress toward community-based policing in Los Angeles. I hope so. I don’t cover that beat anymore, but the memory of the riots still burns in me, and in many of us who were protagonists and witnesses. It burns more hotly now that a minority of our fellow citizens has elected a president who is keen to roll back reforms and make police less accountable to the people. It burns, and it will continue to burn.