Essential California: 30 years after Rodney King
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Thirty years ago this week, a 25-year-old Black man named Rodney King was savagely beaten by LAPD officers.
[See also: “From the Archives: The Rodney King beating” in the Los Angeles Times]
What started as a routine vehicle pursuit initiated by the California Highway Patrol just after midnight on March 3, 1991, ended with a large group of officers from multiple law enforcement agencies watching as a prostrate man was brutally clubbed and kicked.
More than a few of the Los Angeles Police Department officers present had no particular reason for being there as they watched, according to the independent Christopher Commission report, and others had been on the force for decades. But they all had one thing in common: None filed a formal report of misconduct, despite what they had witnessed.
The sound of the helicopter and sirens woke a 31-year-old plumber sleeping in the apartment building across the street. A few weeks before, George Holliday had purchased a new camcorder as a Valentine’s Day present for his wife. The Sony Handycam was intended to document the special moments as the Hollidays started a family; it would instead vault the amateur videographer to an unlikely, Abraham Zapruder-like position in the annals of American history.
From the second-floor balcony of his Lake View Terrance apartment, Holliday filmed as multiple officers inflicted 56 baton strokes and numerous kicks on an apparently defenseless man. The video would later spark explosive outrage and counter the official police narrative about what had occurred.
All of this happened in the early morning hours of Sunday, March 3, 1991. On Monday, King’s brother went to the LAPD’s Foothill Station to make a complaint about his brother’s treatment. That same day, George Holliday phoned the station to say he’d witnessed officers beating a motorist.
No personnel complaints were generated from the visit or the call. Perhaps because neither of the men were telling the department anything they didn’t already know.
Less than an hour after the beating, one of the units on scene sent a message to the watch commander’s desk at Foothill Station through an internal messaging system, saying they had just had “a big time use of force” against a suspect. The station’s immediate response included the word “Haha,” according to the Christopher Commission report. A further message from the station said, “They just tased and beat the susp up big time in the pursuit.” A few minutes later, the station referred to the beating as “basic stuff really.”
Many Black and brown Angelenos already knew this was basic stuff for the department, part of the brutality that activist and community groups had long rallied against to little avail. But this time it was on tape.
With the LAPD seemingly uninterested in what he had to say, Holliday took his video to KTLA, which aired it on its Monday night newscast. By Tuesday night, it had saturated the airwaves across the country, becoming what has often been referred to as the first viral video, albeit in the pre-internet era.
“Whether there even would have been a Los Angeles Police Department investigation without the video is doubtful,” as the Christopher Commission would later write in its report.
But the incident was far from an aberration. The commission found that a “significant number” of officers on the force repeatedly employed excessive force, and that the problem was “aggravated by racism and bias.” The commission reviewed several years of messages sent through a patrol car messaging system and found “brazen and extensive references” to beatings and “disturbing and recurrent racial remarks.”
In a recent op-ed, Rep. Karen Bass wrote that her emotion upon first watching the video wasn’t horror or surprise, but hope. “I believed that now, finally, the public would believe what Black and Latino activists had been saying: that police brutality is real and continues a long history of treating Black people like their lives do not matter, while simultaneously attempting to hide that reality in plain sight,” she wrote.
As she watched the video, she and others “were convinced that justice would finally be served, and the truth would be exposed to the world.”
Halfway across the country in Houston, a 16-year-old student named George Floyd had a similar reaction as he watched the video airing on loop.
“There was a level of excitement, like finally it’s caught on camera,” Floyd’s friend Jonathan Veal said, recalling their group discussions in a conversation with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
[Read the story: “30 years after Rodney King, friends of George Floyd see parallels in upcoming Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis” in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune]
Vaughn Dickerson, another childhood friend of Floyd’s, told the Star-Tribune that the boys had all believed the four officers charged in the King beating would be convicted.
But you already know what happened next.
On April 29, 1992, the four white officers on trial for beating King were acquitted in a Simi Valley courtroom. The verdict sparked five days of violent uprising in Los Angeles.
A lot has changed over the last three decades. The cameras, for instance, have gotten a lot smaller. And the democratization of technology has given the lion’s share of the country the ability to hit record at a moment’s notice. Video, as people have been saying since the first week of March 1991, changes everything. But it wasn’t enough to bring justice under the law for Rodney King.
In the decades since, videos of police violence directed at Black Americans have become ubiquitous, with the deaths of men including Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and George Floyd caught on video.
Floyd’s friends Jonathan Veal and Vaughn Dickerson told the Star-Tribune that they will travel north to Minnesota next week for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
Chauvin’s trial is set to begin on Monday.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
In a major shift in policy, California officials said Wednesday night they will now devote 40% of available COVID-19 vaccines to residents in the most disadvantaged areas in a move designed to slow the spread of coronavirus and speed up the reopening of the economy.
After roughly another 400,000 doses are administered to people who live in California’s hardest-hit communities — which could happen within the next two weeks — officials in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration said the state intends to significantly relax the rules for counties to exit the most restrictive tier of California’s coronavirus reopening blueprint. Los Angeles Times
L.A. is entitled to federal aid to put homeless people in hotels. It hasn’t asked for any yet. Despite facing a budget shortfall, local, state and federal officials say the city hasn’t applied for millions in reimbursements for the money it has spent on Project Roomkey. Los Angeles Times
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Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager declares victory in the state Senate seat race to replace Holly Mitchell. If her lead holds, Kamlager would avoid a runoff election to represent a district that stretches from Century City to South L.A. Los Angeles Times
How Jeff Grosso helped create skateboarding culture and became a legend in the sport. This story is now available only to Times subscribers. Los Angeles Times
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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER
Human smuggling is suspected in the tragedy that claimed 13 lives in Imperial County: The Ford Expedition carrying 25 people that was struck by a big rig Tuesday morning, killing 13, had crossed from Mexico after breaching a section of the border fence, federal officials said Wednesday. Los Angeles Times
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Democrats narrow who gets $1,400 checks in the COVID-19 relief bill: Tens of millions of people are still expected to get a check, but fewer will receive one than under the version passed last week by the House. Los Angeles Times
House Democrats passed a landmark election bill as parties war over voting rights: The House voted to pass a bill that would set nationwide standards for federal elections, a major expansion of Washington’s authority that Democrats say is needed to protect voting rights against restrictions in Republican states. Los Angeles Times
Political San Francisco’s favorite parlor game: Assessing the field of potential candidates to succeed Nancy Pelosi. There’s no open seat yet, but the 80-year-old Democrat has signaled that her congressional days have their limit. When campaigning for the House speakership, she agreed to hold the post no more than four years — until after the 2022 midterm election. Los Angeles Times
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to make phone calls in county-run jails and juvenile detention facilities free. San Diego would be the second county in California to make phone calls from detention centers free, following San Francisco. San Diego Union-Tribune
“Muni, the transit agency that slowly trundles people and urine around San Francisco, is in a bad way.” Joe Eskenazi examines the agency’s troubles and San Francisco’s transit future. Mission Local
HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Los Angeles and Orange counties are inching closer to being able to significantly reopen their economies. The earliest either county could advance into the more permissive red tier is two weeks from now, and they’ll only do so if select measures of coronavirus transmission hit certain state-set benchmarks. Los Angeles Times
“We’re born Indian and we die white.” California Indigenous leaders fear the deaths that have shadowed their communities this past year have been undercounted. Cal Matters
Several San Francisco puppies were sickened after reportedly ingesting drugs in a popular park. “The San Francisco SPCA says half the cases they see of dogs eating marijuana or methamphetamines involves ‘unknown exposures,’ meaning the pet ingests it out on the street or in a park.” ABC 7
It’s prime blossom viewing time in the agricultural heart of Tulare County. In a bid to boost the county’s budding tourism industry, the local tourism bureau mapped a self-guided driving tour around the orchards in bloom. Foothills Sun-Gazette
A poem to start your Thursday: “Denial is a Cliff We Are Driven Over” by Joy Priest. Poets.org
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Los Angeles: sunny, 66. San Diego: sunny-ish, 64. San Francisco: partly sunny, 59. San Jose: sunny, 68. Fresno: sunny, 72. Sacramento: sunny, 68.
Today’s California memory comes from Kate McCorkle:
In the early 1960s, there was an abandoned stable up behind Knowland Park and the zoo in the Oakland hills. A couple of girlfriends and I whitewashed the walls and installed our horses there, coming up every morning before school at San Leandro High to feed them. In the afternoons, we would ride through the zoo after it closed (horses do not like elephants, by the way). On the weekends, we could ride across the hills all the way to Castro Valley over open fields and dirt trails lined with eucalyptus trees. All built over now, of course, and such enterprise and freedom would be impossible.
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
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