‘It’s worse today than it was back then’: Watching Minneapolis, some Angelenos recall Rodney King

Elyssa Wells and others protest Thursday on Grand Avenue downtown, defying police orders to leave the area.
Elyssa Wells and others protest Thursday on Grand Avenue downtown, defying police orders to leave the area.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

For millions who’ve watched it since Monday, George Floyd’s final plea to the Minneapolis police officer now charged with his murder was an echo of Eric Garner’s dying words: “I can’t breathe.”

For the second time in six years, those words have become a rallying cry for protesters across the country, including hundreds in Los Angeles, where demonstrators stopped traffic on the 101 Freeway on Wednesday evening and again on Friday.

But for some black Angelenos, footage of Floyd’s killing and the civil unrest that has followed in Minneapolis are also painful reminders of a much older tape. Nearly 30 years after the police beating of Rodney King, the rage and despair remain familiar — but hope for justice has ebbed.

“I don’t feel better, and it troubles me to say that,” said Kerman Maddox, a public affairs consultant who lived near the epicenter of the uprising in 1992 and covered the riots as a reporter in South L.A. “It’s worse today than it was back then.”


Disturbing as it was, Maddox said the Rodney King tape had felt briefly revelatory — at last, he and others believed, white Americans would be forced to confront how police treated black men.

“My first response was, finally someone caught it on videotape,” Maddox said. “Some of us had been the victim of that ourselves, but there was never a camera. We thought, finally we’re going to get justice, because it’s clear what’s going on, it’s clear as the nose on your face.”

Even after a Simi Valley jury found the officers not guilty, Maddox consoled himself that the riots would make such police violence singular.

“When you saw the destruction after, you thought people got the message, and this will never happen again,” Maddox said. “But it happens over and over and over again and nothing seems to change. Nothing seems to get better.”

Watching the civil unrest in Minneapolis, he said he felt the same pain and rage as when his neighborhood was ripped apart around him in 1992. But as the father of a teenage boy, that outrage is now shot through with terror.

“Back then, they used to beat the crap out of us, but they didn’t kill us,” he said. “Now when my 13-year-old son goes to the park, I worry ... is someone going to call the cops on him?”

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) was already working on police misconduct through the Community Coalition, her South L.A. social justice organization, when video of Rodney King being beaten surfaced. In an interview Friday, she recalled widespread hope that the tape would mark a turning point for communities like hers.

“I remember feeling that — it was visceral,” the congresswoman said. “With the invention of the video camera, we were sure we would finally get justice. Since then there’s been I don’t know how many recordings of black people being shot in the back, shot when they are running. In the overwhelming majority of cases, officers were either not charged or not convicted.”

On Friday, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder in connection with Floyd’s killing. But videos of the incident appear to show several officers standing by as Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck, and Bass said they too must be arrested and held responsible.

“These officers stood and assisted in the commission of a crime, they deserve to be arrested too,” Bass said.

In the meantime, she urged her constituents not to lose hope.

“In spite of how we feel, we have to soldier on,” she said. “I want to see despair expressed in action that moves things forward.”

That’s the message Dominique DiPrima has emphasized to callers this week on her early morning talk radio show on KJLH. The longtime Angeleno was still living in her native Bay Area when the verdict was handed down in 1992, but she remembered protesting in the streets of San Francisco.

Since then, she said, police violence has been “a constant conversation” in her work.

“What I’m hearing the most is frustration, like when is this going to stop?” DiPrima said of the recent calls to her show. “I’ve had some people say we’ve got to start shooting back. And I’ve had people saying they give up.”

Though she said the task of reform feels Sisyphean, she pointed out that recent protests have brought concrete change.

“When people get on the phone and say all we do is protest, I say [State Assemblywoman] Shirley Weber passed a bill that changes when police can use deadly force,” DiPrima said. “We now have a sheriffs’ oversight committee with subpoena power — that doesn’t happen without Black Lives Matter.”

Still, she said, that progress had come at an enormous cost — both in lives lost, and those weighted down by the struggle to hold law enforcement accountable.

“A couple of years before his death, I got the opportunity to interview Rodney King at KJLH and it was really very haunting,” DiPrima said. “Because you could see the weight of that: not just the incident and being beaten, but the weight of carrying that for us.”