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LA Riots – 92

On April 29, 1992, Los Angeles police officers responded to a plea for assistance from fellow officers who needed help in apprehending a suspect who had thrown bottles at their police car located at Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles.  Residents of the largely black neighborhood were out in force, angrily protesting the earlier acquittal of 4 white police officers charged with brutally beating black motorist Rodney King.  For those of us old enough to remember, 25 years ago it was unusual to capture police interactions on video.  The Rodney King beating was filmed by a bystander and thought to be such compelling evidence of police brutality to the outside world that the acquittal was shocking.

I was finishing my first year at Drake University – about to enter finals week.  Growing up in the Midwest, in completely white communities I naively yet innocently had no idea that our legal system including the police and courts meant something different to people of color.  When the LA Riots broke out in April 1992 I thought it was an isolated incident brought on by a bad jury decision.   I was very wrong.   They were just one in a series of uprisings against the police after years of real and perceived brutality and oppression.

The LA Riots in 1992 lasted for nearly a week and while we should never condone violence against others, I also think it’s important to step back and recognize that the anger and hate behind them had been building for decades.  In South Central LA, the judicial system was not seen as a haven of justice but as an institution of unfairness and brutality.  Police were not trusted.  Blacks, from their perspective, were treated more like animals than humans.  Racism was built into police policy and culture.  And whether it was true or not was beside the point:  the community perceived the police as the enemy – not a friend.

National Geographic produced a fantastic documentary on the LA Riots called LA 92 and is broadcasting it throughout the week.  It tells the story using original footage only and by doing so, takes you back to the early 1990s.   I remember some of the images, particularly the interviews of police chief Daryl Gates, Mayor Tom Bradley, and Governor Pete Wilson.   I suspect many will remember the footage of Reginald Denny being dragged from his truck and beaten in the middle of an intersection.

Of course at this point in 1992, I remember most of America thinking “how tragic” it was that the police officers were found not guilty but that violence was certainly not the answer.  Of course, that was mostly white America, a group of whom had never experienced the same interactions with police as black America.

Twenty-five years later have we really made any progress?  Trevon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman who was then exonerated by the courts.  DOJ investigations into Baltimore and Ferguson police departments showed rampant racist policies – actually using black communities as ATMs to build public coffers.  We continue to see police shootings of unarmed black men, some of whom are charged and found guilty – others are not.

Under the Obama Department of Justice, we saw investigations into police brutality and voluntary consent decrees by departments to improve their records.  I have heard the argument that the Obama Administration made the racial divide “worse.”  I disagree (I know – you are shocked).  The Obama Administration openly suggested that perhaps the police were not always “right” and that sometimes the “law and order” portion of our justice system was not always blind.  Some saw that as “making the racial divide worse.”  Others like me thought that was just being honest.

Our current Attorney General and President are a reaction to the Obama Department of Justice and represent a return to the “law and order” days of always taking the police side of the situation.  Folks, it is possible to support the police and also recognize that they can sometimes be at fault within the community they protect.  It is also very possible to see both sides of an argument without being “against” something.

It’s unfortunate that this anniversary passed without much fanfare and I’m not entirely sure why.  As I watched the NG documentary I became aware of something else.  In the last election we heard a great deal about the anger of white, blue collar working class Americans in the rust belt who felt that globalization had left them behind.  An entire election cycle and hours of news coverage was devoted to this group of people who chanted and protested and came out in droves for Trump.

Some, of course, came out for Sanders of course but I have to ask the question:  when you are white and just “feel” like you’ve been abandoned by the establishment, you get a President and round the clock news media.  But not when you are black.  When you are black, you get continued injustice and sometimes dehumanization by those sworn to protect you.   And when the fuse is finally lit and violence ensues, all you hear is an establishment telling you “this is not the way to solve the problem.”

Suspicion between communities of color and police are likely to get worse and not better under the Trump Administration.  Unfortunately, the Attorney General is abandoning many of the practices and policies taken by his predecessors to look at both sides of the issue and instead focus on a restoration of “law and order.”  We will see more Baltimore and more Fergusons.  Maybe someday a generation of Americans will look at each other and not see a varying degree of melatonin but instead a shared citizenship.  Maybe then we will finally reconcile ourselves to our racist history:  accept, apologize, forgive and move on.  Other nations have done it.  Germany after World War II and South Africa after Apartheid.  We can too.

Rodney King said it best.  “Let’s just all get along.  We’re all stuck here for a while, let’s try to work it out.”

Amy, from the Facebook Archives

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