What We Should Have Learned From the L.A. Riots

As the director of a documentary on the Rodney King uprising, I hope what we’re seeing today makes more of a difference than 1992 did

The author, at right, with George Holliday, who in 1991 used his new camcorder to capture LAPD officers beating Rodney King. (Photo: courtesy of the author)

In the right hands and on the right occasion, the pen is mightier than the sword — and a camera can be louder than a cannon. The one in the above photo blew a hole in America’s façade of equal justice under the law; the shots fired reignited an ongoing fight against racist policing policies and the savage tactics officers employ. It’s an age-old tug of war with both sides white-knuckled and heels dug in.

Today, this stalemate plays out in real time on cable networks as the George Floyd rebellion becomes the main attraction in post-quarantine America. But when I see the looted Target, the smoldering city blocks, the inconsistent police presence, and the hope for something new, I see echoes of the Rodney King riots that took place 28 years ago. And like everyone who has lived through that tsunami of rage, I am haunted by the question: What the fuck have we changed?

On March 3, 1991, George Holliday, an Argentinian immigrant who worked as a plumber, heard a commotion outside his window. The thumping of helicopters. The disorienting chatter of police radios. And shouting. Lots of shouting. He grabbed his newly purchased Sony Handycam camcorder — the one he’s holding in the picture — and went out on his balcony to investigate. What he saw chilled him to the bone: a Black man, Rodney King, being beaten by police like he was a runaway slave. Holliday pushed the record button on his new toy and set off a chain of events that would fuel the 1992 L.A. riots (also known, depending on your vantage point, as the L.A. uprising).

We tried, Generation Xers, didn’t we? But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we couldn’t peacefully march to victory or burn a pathway to fair treatment. We thought police everywhere would remember what havoc we wrought after Rodney King, but we overplayed our influence.

Sixty-three people died during the unrest, 10 of them killed by authorities. More than $1 billion in damages. The community has yet to recover from it all.

A few years back, I talked to Holliday for L.A. Burning, a documentary my partner One9 and I directed for A&E. As an immigrant, Holliday was stunned by what he saw happening in America. He couldn’t imagine what Rodney King did to deserve that type of abuse in the land of the free.

“My wife came out next to me on the balcony,” he told me. “In our minds, we were both thinking, ‘What did he do to deserve this?’ These are police officers, and they are trained to have restraint.”

But we knew. Black men everywhere knew. For L.A. Burning, I interviewed several key figures at the center of the “riots,” and they all seemed to know what Holliday did not: America, through a system of policing, had waged war on her Black citizens and was virtually undefeated.

We tried, Generation Xers, didn’t we? But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we couldn’t peacefully march to victory or burn a pathway to fair treatment. We thought police everywhere would remember what havoc we wrought after Rodney King, but we overplayed our influence. The fires. The standoffs with police. The looting. The live coverage that evolves into protest porn. Nothing we did stopped bloodthirsty police officers and their attacks against so many Black men — Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and now George Floyd. We now must face the reality that the system does not hear Black rage, does not entertain Black reason. So what chance do we have to make change in a George Floyd, #BlackLivesMatter America?

Before we throw up our hands, it seems that we are betting it all on White — White allies. And to their credit, many have joined the fray and put their privilege on the front lines for George Floyd. I’m not talking about the provocateurs, the ones who have always been a presence, or wild White folks vandalizing for shits and giggles but the well-meaning and sincere White people who saw the video of a White man kneeling on a Black man’s neck and decided it was their duty to put an end to murderous cops.

To be sure, White people have always played a role in Black protests. Even in the Rodney King riots, White people were there and pissed off. But at the flash point, the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, Black rioters targeted White people, ripped them from their vehicles, beat them bloody — just for the misfortune of being White and nearby on the day police officers had been acquitted for beating Rodney King till their billy clubs grew tired.

Today, the George Floyd protests show White people who are energized, with enthusiasm, picking up the mantle of Black Lives Matter. They chant, face off against the police, and hold signs high. The video of George Floyd struck a national nerve, and rage has galvanized otherwise passive supporters.

Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old girl from Minneapolis, had no idea what she was in for when she set off for the store with her cousin. But when she happened upon an arrest, she did what we’ve all been trained to do since George Holliday captured police officers beating Rodney King: She pulled out her phone and made sure the camera was rolling. By now, we’ve all seen the violent murder of George Floyd; perhaps we looked away, unable to stomach it all. But it wasn’t simply the sheer brutality of a willful knee callously placed on Floyd’s neck. Despite being in the presence of a small audience and a smartphone camera, Officer Derek Chauvin wore the expression of a man who is used to being in control — not of himself but of others. Those who had the power to stop him did not speak against him, and those who spoke against him had no power over him.

Maybe this look, through Frazier’s lens and into the eyes of White America, was too much for White women and men to ignore.

When the cops were acquitted in the Rodney King case, rioting began almost instantaneously. But the verdict wasn’t the only fuel on the fire. Around the time of the Rodney King beating, a Korean shop owner had shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins over a bottle of orange juice. Six months before the verdict in the Rodney King case, the judge sentenced that shop owner to probation for the killing. The punishment — or lack thereof — set the Black community on edge. By the time the Rodney King trial came around, the memory of Latasha Harlin was still thick in the air.

Likewise, the George Floyd video was not released in a vacuum. It came on the heels of several other cases of national news racism. While the world was quarantined, racism was working overtime. In February, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by two White men while out for a jog — one of them an ex-cop who attempted to make a citizen’s arrest for suspicion of burglary. Arbery’s killers were not charged until months later when the video finally surfaced and pressure began to mount.

In March, Louisville police executed a no-knock warrant, attempting to force their way into the house of EMT worker Breonna Taylor. Thinking they were being robbed, Taylor’s boyfriend called 911, and when the cops busted in his door, he fired his gun. The officers sent a barrage of gunfire into the room and killed Taylor; the man they had been looking for did not even live at the house. And in May, a White woman named Amy Cooper, the ultimate Karen, called 911 on a Black man in Central Park after threatening him that she would tell them an “African American man” was threatening her life.

During this period of online outrage, when Covid-19 kept people indoors, social media was at its most influential. Memes and messages surrounding these infractions bombarded timelines, including a gentle nudge to White friends and followers: “Dear White people, your silence is duly noted.”

The social media campaign to reach White allies may have worked both by asking for their voice and giving them permission to use it in an otherwise Black space. And as allies now, they are not just online and on the front lines of the protests, but politicians are beginning to pick sides in George Floyd’s case.

In the 1990s, when law enforcement hawks spoke of the Rodney King tape, they begged everyone to let the investigation play out. Or they’d say we needed to see the entire encounter in order to make a fair judgment. For them, the tape of the beating alone wasn’t enough evidence to tell if excessive force was used. But before the entire video of George Floyd’s arrest was released, everyone from Joe Biden to President Donald Trump and Fox News commentators condemned the act.

Attorney General William Barr called the video “harrowing to watch and deeply disturbing.” Even the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police has condemned Chauvin’s conduct.

But condemning Chauvin is cold comfort if we leave intact the system that allowed him to exist in the first place. It’s not enough for the president, not enough for police outfits, not enough for allies from all races, and not for us. To be sure, it will be a victory to have all four officers arrested, charged, and convicted. But it would not be justice for all. Without deep and meaningful reform that holds officers accountable to a higher standard of conduct, all the video cameras in the world won’t bring us justice. Just more protests and outrage and more videos in your feed.

As we worked on L.A. Burning, one of the most memorable interviews was with a neighborhood guy named Tana. He lived at the flash point of the riots. And while he was just a kid when it took place, he saw it all up close — and 25 years later, the riots still weighed heavily on his mind.

“You got Eric Garner and you got Michael Brown. Those are aftershocks,” he said. “An earthquake, first it’s going to shake a little, and then it’s going to shake a lot. That’s what’s to come. If we don’t change the way we interact with the police and they interact with us, y’all might as well just welcome the next riot.”

And here we are.

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