Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Riot Within

A grainy shaky video of someone being ruthlessly beaten by a gang of uniformed men dominated America's television screens over and over in 1991 and 1992. There was no "youtube" then, or else the word "viral" would have been associated with this video which etched itself into millions. I had just arrived in the United States as a fresh graduate student from India, and watching this from a remote mid-western campus in Ohio was deeply disturbing and unsettling. The man being beaten was Rodney King and the gang doing the pummeling were Los Angeles policemen. When the story behind the video eventually emerged and the severely bruised and swollen face of Rodney King with a blood shot red eye was published, the horror of it all shook America to its core.

It was March 2, 1991 after a night of watching basketball on TV and heavy drinking Rodney King and his two friends left a friend's home. Around 12:30 AM a couple of Los Angeles policmen spotted them speeding down a highway. The officers pursued the car which turned into a high speed chase. Rodney King had enough alcohol in his body to get arrested for drunk driving. He was out on parole for a prior theft and an arrest could send him back into prison and he did not want to take that risk. After approximately eight miles, with several police cars and a helicopter on his tail, he decided to give up. The police asked his two passengers to exit and face down on the ground. They complied. When Rodney King was asked to do the same, he acted strange, giggling and waving at the helicopter above. King then grabbed his buttocks and the officers thought he was reaching for a gun. At this point one of the officers drew a pistol and King complied by lying face down. Four other officers proceeded to hand cuff King at which point he began to resist causing one of the officers to fall off. The officers withdrew and King got back on his feet and an officer deployed a "Taser". The electric shock immobilized King but not completely. The officers then proceeded to attack him with their batons, hitting him hard on his joints. After 56 blows and 6 kicks and surrounded by seven officers he was finally subdued and cuffed by his hands and legs and dragged on his stomach to the side of the road for an ambulance to arrive. Unknown to the policemen the whole incident was captured on video by George Holiday from his apartment window. Video technology in a citizen's hand for the first time had unlocked the doors to what was to come.

The video was first shown on a local television station in its entirety and the response was immediate. Within hours the video went national and Rodney King became a household name. The court case that finally got underway had the nation gripped. The color line grew thicker and wider and the justice system was under a microscope to see if the officers would be prosecuted for their brutality. The graphic video to many seemed enough to prosecute the white policemen. A year later an all white jury acquitted the officers of assault and hours later an already simmering city burst into flames. The "LA Riots" as it came to be known ignited the "City of Angels". It was certainly not the first race triggerd incident, but the extent of it was wide. By the time the US Army, Marines and the national guard controlled the violence it was six days and 53 people were dead and $1 billion dollars worth of property was damaged by looting and arson. Most of the violence took place in poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Smaller riots were reported in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

In the midst of the rioting Rodney King appeared on television. Hunched over a microphone he pleaded "can we all get a along?". His voice tempered by emotion added "We're all stuck here for a while". His plea had little effect. His plight had exposed the racial divide in the country and like the O.J. Simpson trial a couple of years later and the Trayvon Martin shooting early this year, the polarization of opinion was stark.

Rodney King eventually sued the city of Los Angeles and won $3.8 million in restitution. Even though he was made into a symbol of resistance by many civil rights leaders, he never fit the mould. He became a victim of his celebrity. His drinking problem only exacerbated. He squandered his fortune in bad investments and could never hold a steady job. He also had trouble keeping away from the law. He was arrested in 1995 for hitting his wife with his car and in 2003 for drunk driving. In April if this year he published a memoir titled "The Riot Within" to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his ordeal. On June 17th he was found dead in his own swimming pool. He was 47.

Rodney King was no saint or a civil rights leader. For that matter he was no hero or an activist. Like many of us he was a deeply flawed individual, probably a victim of his upbringing. But his story acted as a catalyst in exposing the divide which America still struggles to bridge.

The 1992 feature film "Malcolm X" opens with the grainy video of the Rodney King assault. The image then dissolves into the letter "X" and the movie takes you back a few decades. Spike Lee, who's films mostly deal with the subject of racial tension in America, was trying to make a statement that not much had changed since Malcolm X embarked on his struggle from a street hustler to a charismatic leader. Though America has come a long way enacting laws to blur the color lines, every now and then when there is a crime where race is a factor, and justice seems to falter, the nation erupts in a polarized debate that often turns appalling. In a recent interview with the LA Times Rodney King said "Obama he wouldn't have been in office without what happened to me and a lot of black people before me". While there must be some truth to this statement one thing is certain the Presidency of Obama has certainly psychologically pushed the nation further in the direction of racial amity. More so by default, rather than design. It is what it is.