Cultural Artifact: L.A. Riots
In late August of last year, eighteen year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The events that transpired after the shooting shook the nation, reigniting age old conversations about race and its correlation with police brutality within the United States. The biggest detail that news headlines emphasized about this fateful confrontation was that eighteen year old Brown was an unarmed African American, and Wilson was a white officer. Members of the community cried out in outrage over Brown’s death, demanding that Wilson answer for his actions. Later that year in November, the jury during the hearing decided not to indict Wilson, despite the increasingly strong demands and protests shouting that black lives matter. If the protests prior to the ruling were tense, then the riots afterwards surpassed their energy tenfold. Fires and violence plagued the city late into the night, and it soon became difficult to tell who among the activists was truly advocating for change, and who was preventing change from happening.
In the weeks following the verdict, the confrontations between the citizens of Ferguson and the police department grew more and more serious.“Police state” was a term used frequently; questions arose whether or not the police response to the riots was excessive, as their presence became more militaristic, with riot shields, heavily armored SWAT trucks, and increased patrols through the streets. Other citizens from different cities throughout the nation gathered to protest, taking up the tagline “Black Lives Matter,” demanding for stricter standards for officers in regards to confrontations with citizens and racial minorities. Since the initial protests, the violence has decreased in Ferguson, but racial tension remains. The Ferguson riots and following Black Lives Matter protests were a culmination of built up tension and anger from police brutality cases, such as the Trayvon Martin incident from 2012, another case of white on black crime that spawned unrest around the nation.
During that summer, it was almost impossible to not hear about the Ferguson riots. Every time I turned on the television, there would be new details regarding either the Brown case, the damage done by protesters to the city, or comments about the events from public figures such as Reverend Al Sharpton, Barack Obama, and Oprah. If the television onslaught was not enough, anyone with a username and password on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram had something to say about the situation. Some of the commentary was intelligent, well thought out, and noninflammatory; it was apparent that they had done their research and were well versed in what had transpired. Most of the commentary online was the complete opposite. Racial slurs were thrown back and forth, misconception regarding the true events of what transpired was a common issue; essentially ignorance was unfortunately a common sight. As is the case with most racial situations, the public’s perception of the BLM movement was swayed by the perspective of certain media outlets (FOX comes to mind) inadvertently (or in the case of outlets such as FOX, most likely intentional) adding more fuel to the fire. As I watched as Ferguson burned, I found that the situation was all too familiar. From the spark that started the violence to the way it took over the headlines, to the way the police responded, it was all like watching history repeat itself.
After a high speed chase that lasted for 8 miles, several red light violations, and pleas from passengers in the car, Rodney King was pulled over by the LAPD. A helicopter whirred above several police cars and King’s car. The now infamous grainy video shot by George Holiday from his apartment shows King, and a group of four officers beating him with nightsticks and kicking him as he rolled on the pavement, yelling out in agony. Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon had their faces broadcast nationwide. King had testified that alcohol was to blame for his irrational behavior that evening, as he feared that would make a trip back to prison for violation of his parole. His alcohol level was twice over the legal limit, and once the first patrol car spotted him, he was on his way to another liquor store. Upon viewing the video, it becomes immediately apparent that although King may have been difficult to place under arrest due to his inebriated state, his actions during this altercation did not warrant the response it received. President George Bush was quoted as stating that the footage was “revolting.”
Once the footage made it’s way to television, thousands sided with King and believed that the officers deserved to answer for their actions. Tensions were high amongst the community and the LAPD, and this event served as a tipping point in a long escalation stand off between the two parties. The officers were charged several charges, including assault with a deadly weapon. The trial was meant to be held in L.A. but due to the fact that a fair trial would have been difficult to the publicity of the case, the trial was moved to Simi Valley. The jury was comprised of ten white people, one Hispanic person and one Asian person and no African-American jurors, a fact that many objected to. The officers were acquitted, as the jury found that they were not convinced the video represented the full story. Later that same day, the riots began at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in L.A. . The riots were a culmination of years of racism, police brutality, and other factors that included poverty, gangs, drugs, and cutbacks in aid. The contributing factors to the riots are so significant that the riots are not truly riots but rather an uprising or rebellion against the corruption that has been a long standing issue in the LAPD. Demonstrators gathered around police headquarters demanding justice. Fires, looting, and vandalism plagued L.A. and by the end of it all, 50 people were dead, 2,300 were injured, and there was around 1 billion dollars in property damage.
The riots had occurred a couple of years before I was born, so I did not actually watch the events as they happened, but I did learn about the riots later from documentaries and school. At the time I first learned about it I could not truly relate to the events that transpired, but in recent years, I have gradually started to see a pattern and have understood what it may have felt like to live in a time in which hostility between the community and the police force was so high. This situation is not new to America in 2015, nor was it new when it happened in 1992. The readings and information that we have gone over has revealed that conflict between black citizens and the police force has been a long standing issue, dating back as far as the patty rollers from the slavery era. Police brutality has and will be a significant issue in American lives. Reform must happen within the police force, and trust must be established between the people and the authority if there is any chance at making the situation better.
Whitman, David. “The Untold Story of the L.A. Riot.” US News. N.p., 23 May 1993. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
“What Happened in Ferguson?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Serrano, Richard A., and Tracy Wilkinson. “All 4 in King Beating Acquitted : Violence Follows Verdicts; Guard Called Out : Trial: Governor Deploys Troops at Mayor’s Request after Arson, Looting Erupt. Ventura County Jury Apparently Was Not Convinced That Videotape Told the Whole Story.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 30 Apr. 1992. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Hubler, Shawn, Myrna Oliver, and Larry Gordon. “AFTER THE RIOTS: THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS : Genesis of a Riot.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 07 May 1992. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.