28 years ago, on a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1992, we waited pensively for the verdicts in the trial of the four police officers who beat Rodney King, hitting him with batons and kicking him for what seemed like forever. This was way before cell phones, so it was very unusual to watch the horrible scene out of someone’s home movie over and over on TV. There were several cops, some just watching. Mr. King was down but moving on the ground, trying to get away from the assault. Later, LAPD said Mr. King was resisting arrest. Multiple officers participate in a prolonged attack, blow after blow.
The general response of white people to watching this play out was, “Oh my God! I cannot believe this! Something has to be done!” Many black people interviewed on TV said they weren’t surprised. The sentiment I heard was, “We’ve been seeing and living the mistreatment of our community by law enforcement for decades. We told you this was happening.”
About a year earlier, a teacher with whom I worked and her husband, both African Americans, took my fiancee and I to the diamond district in downtown Los Angeles to a jeweler Larry knew. After choosing and purchasing our wedding rings, we went to South Cental L.A. to stop and visit Larry’s mother in the house where he grew up, just one house down from the intersection of Florence and Normandie. Next we went to local burger joint for lunch. I asked if we were going to stand out there, and Larry’s response was, “Oh, yeah. It’s a walk up. They don’t have indoor seating.”
Janette, my fiancee and I laughed. Janette explained to her husband that I was asking if we would be conspicuous, being a couple of white folks in the neighborhood. Larry said, “Oh, oh, yeah,” and he laughed. “It won’t be a problem because you’re with me. Anybody gives you trouble, I’ll set them straight.” We definitely attracted the attention of a few guys standing across the street. Larry stood facing them full-on with his arms crossed, staring them down. Not a word was exchanged. The burgers were really good, as promised.
When the trial of the policemen was moved from downtown L.A. to Simi Valley, many cried foul. It wasn’t like the population from the San Fernando valley, where the demographics include a higher percentage of white people, hadn’t heard of the Rodney King beating. Leaders of the black community said this was just another demonstration of the system working for white people. I didn’t think a change of venue would make a difference. All you had to do was watch the video, for crying out loud!
On the last Friday in April, officials announced around noon that the verdicts would be announced in the late afternoon. After work, I headed home and turned on the news. When the verdicts were announced, ALL not guilty, the waiting crowd erupted. At home, my jaw dropped and I was speechless. I still can’t understand how the jurors could justify those verdicts.
Not long after, many residents of South Central L.A. came out of their houses. Rage exploded. Soon, the intersection of Florence and Normandie was flooded with people, and I knew Larry’s elderly mom was so close. We watched as Reginald Denny was dragged from the cab of his truck, thrown to the ground, kicked, punched, and then threw a brick to his already bloody head.
Fires and looting ensued. For three days, destruction was on television 24/7. All of Los Angeles had a curfew. It was a tense, angry and scary time. I checked in with Janette. She said Larry had gone down to stay with his mom.
When Monday came round, I had to decide how to broach the subject with my class of second and third graders. I didn’t question whether or not to talk about what was happening. Having earned my Master’s in School Counseling, I felt strongly we needed to acknowledge and process the events at the students’ developmental level before I could expect them to focus on learning.
After arrivals, attendance, lunch count, etc., I told the kids we were going to take some time to talk about what we’d all been seeing on TV over the weekend. Students responded to questions I posed. “Do you know why people are so angry? Why were those police officers on trial? What are some of the things you saw on TV? What questions do you have?” By approaching it this way, they let me know what they’d seen and heard, so I wasn’t introducing any aspect or topic outside their awareness. We probably talked for 10-15 minutes. I assured them they were safe and we’d be able to talk more later if they wanted. The mood was more relaxed.
The students got out their books and began to read the assigned pages. A couple of minutes later, I noticed a second-grade girl crying. I went to her desk and crouched down next to her. “Are you feeling sad?” She nodded and the tears streamed down her little brown cheeks. “Do you want to go in the workroom and talk more?” Another nod.
Between two classrooms, there were small workrooms the teachers shared with a table, a couple chairs, and file cabinets. I took Liana by the hand. I explained to the class that she was feeling sad so we were going to talk some more. Leaving the door slightly ajar, I sat on a small chair and pulled her onto my lap. She cried and cried. When she could talk, I asked her if she was sad about the riots. She nodded and said, “They’re saying black people are bad.” I hugged her and rocked her, my cheek against her braids. We talked about how there were white and Latino people looting too, because there are people of all colors who make good choices and people of every color who make bad choices.
Recent events have me reflecting on that experience in 1992 and where we are today. First, I will never forget Liana choking her words out through tears, “They’re saying black people are bad.” It was heartbreaking.
I’m saddened and disgusted that we are here, again, outraged over a video of a black man murdered by the police, which have become all too common. Rodney King’s attackers didn’t know anyone was watching or recording their excessive use of force. In Minnesota, Chauvin and his accomplices knew they were not only being watched by people, who were yelling at them that Mr. Floyd was dying, but also that the long, slow, tortuous suffocation was being recorded – and they didn’t care! Chauvin appears casual, one hand in his pocket, not in the least concerned about the consequences for Mr. Floyd or himself. I’m sure he didn’t think he’d get fired and charged with second-degree murder. Mr. Floyd had been handcuffed for some time and was not posing a threat, particularly for almost three minutes at the end when he was completely unresponsive.
I am encouraged that protests have brought out thousands and thousands of peaceful marchers and organizers who have worked with authorities to shut down looting. I’m encouraged by police officers kneeling with protestors. I am encouraged by the timely arrests of the four men involved. I am encouraged by the diversity and unity of people making the message heard that police brutality will not be tolerated and will, in fact, be punished.
Although it’s frustrating and sad that we’re haven’t progressed further with racial equality, I do think the heretofore silent majority of people are making it known in overwhelming numbers that we hear our brothers and sisters of all colors. The road is long but hopefully we can achieve justice.
Police the police. Watch and record. Not one more.