The nation sat riveted and horrified as a major American city burned. People angry about injustice took justice into their own hands. Property was burned and looted. People were injured. Trust was shattered.
You’re thinking Baltimore. But I’m talking about Los Angeles.
On this day, 23 years — April 29, 1992 — the City of Angels erupted in what would be six days of rioting after four police officers were acquitted of charges of assault and excessive force against Rodney King.
In March 1991, King was in a car with two other men on a Los Angeles freeway when they were stopped by police. But they then led the cops on a high-speed chase that ended with King being viciously beaten by five white police officers. What made the attack a national story was that it was captured on videotape. For the first time, we saw with our own eyes what African Americans had been protesting for decades: excessive force by police.
And still, those officers were set free, which proved too much for the community to take. Fifty-three people died and as many as 2,000 people were injured during the Rodney King Riots, including Reginald Denny whose vicious beating after being pulled from his truck was caught on camera. There was an estimated $1 billion in property damage. Thank God that was not the fate of Baltimore on Monday. But there is a straight line that connects Los Angeles 1992 to Baltimore 2015.
The sense of oppression and injustice at the hands of police that sparked the Rodney King riots are at the root of the Freddie Gray riot. Gray died on April 19, one week after suffering a nearly severed spine while in police custody. How it happened remains unexplained. An investigation is underway, but the excesses of the Baltimore Police Department are well-known. That’s why Gray’s mysterious death was a spark that ignited kindling that had piled up for years. Nothing excuses the violence that happened in Baltimore, but knowing this history certainly explains the anger that fueled the riot and the peaceful protests that preceded it.
When he was asked about Baltimore during his press conference with the Japanese prime minister yesterday in the Rose Garden, President Obama said, “I’ve seen this movie too many times before.”
We all have.
Twenty-three years ago, we watched a black man beaten by police in Los Angeles. But in the last 12 months alone, we have watched black men and boys being killed by police. Eric Garner on a street in Staten Island. Tamir Rice in a park in Cleveland. John Crawford in a Wal-Mart in Ohio. Walter Scott in an empty lot in North Charleston, South Carolina. Eric Harris on a street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Levar Jones survived his shooting by a South Carolina state trooper after he trying to comply with the officer’s request for his license.
And it was all captured on video. For African Americans, each instance was another example that their lives don’t matter.
But here’s one silver lining in this mournful litany. Modern technology has proven that what was once deemed the paranoia of a minority is actually an endless loop of the pain and fear they have endured.
That African Americans are no longer alone in their revulsion and concern is what makes America 2015 better than America 1992. That blacks today continue to fight battles that have been waged since before Los Angeles erupted 23 years ago shows that the silver of that lining remains tarnished.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj