Twenty years before Trayvon Martin’s death, Rodney King’s brutal beating showed Americans how heavily race factors into our system of justice, from law enforcement to trials.
Sunday’s announcement of King’s death, at the age of 47, reminds Americans—as Martin did earlier this year—of the power of a single person in symbolizing systemic social problems. King’s 1991 beating has informed discussions of police brutality and race relations ever since.
On March 3, 1991, King, on parole for a robbery conviction, was pulled over by police. He tried to run away, but the police caught him and began hitting him with batons, kicking him, and shooting him with Tasers. King would later tell a grand jury, “I felt beat up and like a crushed can.”
A resident of a nearby apartment building captured the incident on video, which national new networks broadcasted repeatedly. Many people thought, as then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley did, that the video alone was enough evidence to obtain the officers’ convictions for use of excessive force. But the jury acquitted three officers, and the court declared a mistrial for the fourth officer. Within hours of the clerk’s reading the verdicts, the Los Angeles riots began. The tumult lasted for six days. When it was over rioters had damaged $1 billion in property. More than 50 people died in the riots.
Media coverage of King’s death on Sunday included the famous video, along with images of rioters looting stores and setting buildings on fire.
In an opinion piece published in the Huffington Post this April, the Rev. Al Sharpton called the 1992 beating a “missed opportunity” and called for a different reaction to Martin’s killing. “Twenty years ago, our anger led us to burn and loot, and when the dust settled, we had changed nothing,” he wrote. “Today, whatever the outcome of the Zimmerman case, let us channel our anger to build.”
In Martin’s and King’s cases, it is impossible to remove race as a factor when trying to understand what happened. Many people in 1992 questioned whether police officers would have treated a white man as they did King. Similarly, many people today doubt that George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., who shot Martin, would have found a 17-year-old white boy wearing a hoodie suspicious enough to tail.
The questions being asked today are similar to those asked 20 years ago: Why did police let Zimmerman walk free for six weeks after Martin’s death? Would a black man who confessed to a killing have been treated the same way?
In King’s case, would the outcomes of the police officers’ trial—three acquittals and one mistrial—have been the same had the 12-member jury contained at least one black member and fewer than the 10 white members it had? Would it have been different if the four officers on trial weren’t white?
In addition to the video, King also left a mark on our collective memory for his televised plea for peace during the riots. “Can we all get along?” he said.
Following the riots, Federal prosecutors brought charges against the four officers. In a second trial, before a racially mixed jury, two of the police officers received convictions for violating King’s civil rights and 30-month prison sentences. King sued the City of Los Angeles and won a $3.8 million settlement.
King suffered problems with alcohol until his death. He was repeatedly arrested for driving under the influence and appeared on the television shows “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sober House” on VH1. He walked with a limp as a result of a 2003 car accident and showed scars from his beating. A Los Angeles Times story in April described him as “jobless and virtually broke.”
In that same story, published 20 years after the riots, King told The Times he would go through it all again. “I would change a few things, but not that much,” he said. “Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn’t, but that’s not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place.”
We still discuss today the issues that King’s case brought to attention—racial profiling, police brutality and sentencing disparities between races. A paper published last month by economics and law professors at the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan found that on average, “blacks receive almost 10 percent longer sentences than comparable whites arrested for the same crimes” in federal cases.
The images of King’s beating revealed in plain sight those very problems that persist to this day, 20 years later.