Like most Americans, my reaction to the beating of Rodney King, captured on video on March 3, 1991, was horror. It wasn’t so much the savagery as the casual savagery. For all the world it looked like sport to the half dozen or so bastards with clubs who mercilessly kept beating Mr. King. Watching it again for the sake of this article was hard, much harder than I expected. I could imagine Mr. King’s helpless terror, his unimaginable pain, his feelings of doom.
Unlike George Floyd, Rodney King survived his assault. He lived long enough to see his attackers acquitted. It was emblematic of where we were at the time as a nation. Rodney King had to live the remainder of his short life in the shadow of the misbegotten idea that he was less than a man because he deserved less than justice.
It didn’t happen in the Deep South, it happened right there in Southern California where I was living at the time, where I drove to work every day. Like most Americans I thought it was a fluke. Despite the studied casualness of the beating and the number of officers involved who appeared to think nothing unusual was going on, I thought it happened rarely. I was convinced that these were not the L.A. cops I knew. These were aberrations. How wrong I was.
In fact it happened all the time. But by 1991 a new emerging technology, the camcorder, was becoming more and more common. Today, of course, in a crowd of 100 people considered at random, probably 90 of them have digital camcorders in pockets and purses 1/10th the size and thirty times the sophistication of the one George Halliday used to record the beating of Rodney King on that distant evening. Beatings like the one Rodney King endured aren’t becoming more common. They’re just getting recorded more often. Nothing but the technology of evidence has changed.
Until this slow, emerging technological proliferation, the stories people of color told of police brutality were mocked and disbelieved. Now they are a proven fact, and despite the number of cameras available, beatings and murders and injustices go on and on and on.
In 2021 it’s still happening. On Monday the murder trial of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin began. Chauvin murdered George Floyd on camera. Unlike the recording of the beating of Rodney King, this recording happened close enough to Chauvin for him to be aware of it.
When then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier started the recording in May of 2020, George Floyd was already gasping for air, begging, repeatedly, “please, please, please.” Twenty seconds into the recording he uttered the words that became symbolic of that terrible day: “I can’t breathe.” Chauvin continued to casually press down on Mr. Floyd’s neck with his knee anyway, for eight long, excruciating minutes, until Mr. Floyd died.
The Reverend Al Sharpton put it this way. “What kind of venom, what kind of hatred do you have that would make you keep pressing down that long, while a man is begging for his life, while a man is begging for his mother? At what point does your humanity kick in?” Sharpton concluded, “Chauvin is in the courtroom, but America is on trial.”
Anyone who has paid attention to the glib excusing languages of racism these recent decades can practically write the script for the defense. It was an accident, Mr. Chauvin intended no harm. He isn’t a racist. We know this because he married an Asian woman (who subsequently divorced him.) Mr. Floyd was a lawbreaker. The officer was merely subduing him. And so on.
Yet the fact remains, had George Floyd been a white man he almost certainly would still be alive. Yes, Chauvin is a racist, despite his tokenism, despite his protests, despite his endless stream of excuses. These beatings and murders and injustices and outrages against people of color at the hands of white police officers continue to go on, and they will continue to go on until we as a nation finally admit that most of us as a people have a problem. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.