“People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?” Rodney King famously plead for peace during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Six weeks prior to the appeal, George Holliday released a tape displaying the Los Angeles Police Department violently beating Rodney King to KTLA, one of Los Angeles’ local news networks. The public received an unabridged view of the incident as the tape went across the airwaves. Violence erupted in South Central Los Angeles when four white police officers were acquitted of charges related to the incident. Almost 10,000 military personnel were dispatched to Los Angeles to restore order. Over 11,000 arrests were made during the five-day riot which left dozens dead and over $1 billion in damages according to CNN.
Rodney King challenged Americans to exhibit tranquility in the face of injustice 27 years ago. So, have we achieved the peace Rodney King exhorted nearly 30 years ago? We have a lot of work to do. A short history lesson may help illuminate our progress and guide what should happen next.
The LA riots are far from an isolated incident. In fact, race-related incidents of civil unrest are well-documented dating to the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1943, broiling racial tensions caused Detroit residents to riot. The people of Los Angeles rioted before, in 1965, as pressures between police and residents reached furious levels. In 1967 residents in Newark, New Jersey took to the streets as racial profiling inflamed racial hostility. People of Washington, Baltimore and Chicago used civil disobedience in reaction to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination.
But, perhaps the events after LA in 1992 are more telling of our progress toward Rodney King’s plea than the incidents preceding the now famous riots. In August of 2014, police in Ferguson, MO, outside St. Louis shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old. Protesters and riot-gear dawning police jointly attended a vigil for Brown the night after his killing. Violence erupted once more in November, 2014 when Officer Darren Wilson was not charged for the crime. The previous July, New York City resident Eric Garner died from injuries sustained while in police custody. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Gardner in a chokehold when apprehending him for selling illegal cigarettes. During his arrest, Gardner could be heard yelling “I can’t breathe.”
In April of 2015 a Baltimore man, Freddie Gray died from spinal cord injuries received while in police custody. Baltimore residents rioted in disgust, burning cars and stores. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency. Curfews were enforced for weeks after the incident. Protests ensued again after the acquittal of some officers involved in the incident.
Protests erupted in Baton Rouge in 2016 when Police shot and killed Alton Sterling from close range. No charges were filed. In 2018, protests enveloped Dallas, Texas when a police officer indiscriminately shot and killed Botham Jean inside his apartment. Officer Amber Guyger was charged with murder. Since 1992, five major protests occurred as a direct result of the strained relationship between minority residents and police. Many other incidents also occurred without brandishing national news headlines.
History alone does not properly demonstrate our status on Rodney King’s request for peace. History provides us with necessary context to understand that racial inequality still permeates the manner in which police protect and serve across the United States. Police are more likely to kill black and hispanic people than white people. In 2012, 31 percent of people killed by police were black even though they comprise just 13 percent of the population. 52 percent of people killed by police were white, though caucasians compose 63 percent of the population. In addition, 39 percent of the people killed by police while not attacking were black according to Vox and FBI data. Data from the Guardian conveys that unarmed victims of deadly force by police are more likely to be minorities. 65 percent of unarmed people killed by police were minorities in 2012.
Police are still far more likely to arrest black and brown people than white people. In 2013, 9.5 percent of white people and 10.5 percent of black people indicated illicit-drug use in the past month. However, Police arrested 332 per 100,000 white residents and 879 per 100,000 black residents on drug charges according to FBI data. The data themselves illuminate the amount of work to be done to adhere to King’s wishes.
Though there is much work to do, it should be noted that we are making progress, slow as it may be. These incidents sparked widespread police reforms in the mid 2010s. Hundreds of police forces now utilize body cameras with widespread public support. Additionally, police officers across the nation’s largest cities received renewed training on confronting racial biases. State and local governments also implemented community based policing policies. Community Policing is buoyed by public confidence as a result of relationship building between police officers and residents.
Former President Barack Obama formed the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2014. Six months later, the White House acknowledged ten police departments for swiftly reforming police protocols to build public confidence. Police departments in California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin all engaged in renewed community based policing efforts.
In 2018 the Charleston City Council formed a citizen advisory group to be an intermediary between citizens and police officers. Charleston Police also hired an independent body to investigate its police tactics. Both of these measures were meant to increase transparency. Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said these programs are extremely effective at building public trust in police. Before becoming police chief in Charleston, Luther Reynolds worked for the Montgomery County, MD police department, a law-enforcement agency nationally recognized for its innovative police work in a highly diverse area according to the Post and Courier.
A recent Gallup poll suggests 85 percent of Americans trust the institution of the police. Although this number appears to illustrate an adequate level of progress, we still have a lot of work to foster Rodney King’s nearly 30 year old plea for peace. Though we have come a long way, we must continue to push for progress so police statistics reflect our values. As Americans, we believe that the law applies to everyone equally and we ought to be determined to collectively declare and uphold our values. 27 years after the LA riots it is clear that collaboration is how we honor Rodney King’s wishes. When we work together, we can precipitate real change.