It was because he was driving a car that was speeding down a Los Angeles highway. It was a little after midnight. And he didn't stop when police indicated that he should pull over; in fact, there was a chase.
That's why Rodney King and his two friends were stopped on March 3, 1991. And what followed--the Los Angeles Police Department's beating of King, caught on videotape by a bystander--is a story of vulnerability and brutality that is not over.
The most important thing, of course, is to look. (Note that this version of the video has the sound removed, which, as others have pointed out, reduces evidence of the trauma laid bare before us: the screams, the sound of the batons on the skin. This is the soundless version that the jury studied in the first trial.)
Just last night, I finished a collection of essays by poet Elizabeth Alexander that finishes with a long piece on what the Rodney King beating (and the initial acquittal of the four officers that attacked him) triggered in what she calls the 'collective memory of black people'--a long memory that was likewise visible in the firsthand accounts of slaves and former slaves that witnessed the lynchings and beatings of people who could easily have been themselves. The story played out again in the 1955 murder and display of Emmett Till. Alexander contends that this collective memory is a visceral one -- one of a people being fundamentally unsafe, still.
A year after Rodney King was beaten, a mostly white criminal court jury in Simi Valley, California acquitted the four LAPD officers -- cuing an urban insurrection that left 53 people dead and 4,000 injured. TIME Magazine remembered, in a fifteenth anniversary profile of the key figures of this story that "In the midst of the harrowing violence, King nervously uttered the phrase that would forever be synonymous with him and the riot: 'Can we all just get along?'"
The full quote is this: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?"
A later federal trial for civil rights violations found two officers guilty and sentenced them to prison; the other two officers were acquitted.
Today, twenty years later, I am thinking of George Holliday -- the man who was woken up by the beating, grabbed his camera, and filmed this video. It was perhaps the first massively influential instance of the "citizen journalism" that we talk so much of these days. As the Los Angeles Times points out in its coverage today, this was a minor miracle of coincidence: Holliday was there, awake, willing, and he had a camcorder handy in 1992 -- which itself wasn't particularly common. It is his legacy that we see in, for example, the subway full of cell phone cameras in Oakland that collectively witnessed the Oscar Grant death on a train platform a few years ago. (A federal investigation in that case continues.)
This is powerful business. There is an increasingly deep culture of transparency that is building from a base of watchful citizens with access to technology. I have no doubt that this cuts powerfully into tactics of police brutality, and other kinds of corruption and cruelty. As with Michel Foucoult's panopticon: even if you are not being watched, you could be -- and that is enough to check our behavior.
That kind of "people power" of citizens with cameras can itself be abused, of course. That's evident in the onslaught of cruel, rude, invasive, stalker-ish, immature, abusive, and other sorts of homemade media available online that, at best, don't do much more than invade privacy.
Like the Los Angeles police cars that, in the wake of the King beating, had cameras installed on them (a process that continues to move slowly, slowly, ever so slowly), the rest of us might take a cue of using the power that we literally hold in our hands to our best ability, while also being willing to watch ourselves. When do our actions cause harm? What are our justifications? How do we act as beings of nonviolence when we face the great suffering in the world, our own suffering, the suffering we cause others?
How do we do this? What do we do?
Looking. I think that is the first step, the ongoing step.
That sounds nice and all, but this is quite a painful experience. It hurts to watch that King video embedded above, even if you've seen it many times before. It hurts to witness the harm that comes into the world at our own hands: I hurt people. I hurt myself. I hurt this earth. A glance seems like enough, in those moments -- just enough to get the gist of what is happening, then look away. But it's not enough. Nothing, really, is understood through a glance.
No, let's look.
Image Credit: The Los Angeles Times/ George Holliday