April 26th, 1992: there was a riot on the streets. Tell me, where were you? You were sitting home watching your TV… while I was participating in some anarchy. – Sublime –
I had only just turned five years old some weeks before this. It was before I had entered kindergarten, which occurred the next Fall. Still in pre-school, I was not really taught much about the outside world. We were taught lessons about numbers, letters, sharing, and most importantly, caring. But we weren’t taught much about the social structures or problems which faced us in the years to come.
All that said, there is one particular issue that definitely caught my attention: Rodney King and the 1992 L.A. Riots.
On March 3, 1991, the world caught a glimpse of multiple LAPD officers brutally beating King nearly to a pulp. This grisly attack was terrifying to watch and, at that age, wholly confusing.
While the media frequently portrayed young black men as terrorizing hoodlums, they simultaneously cast cops as heroes. The show COPS was an early influence. Launching in 1989 the show has been syndicated worldwide presenting a caricature of American criminality. Be it from drug addicts, wife abusers, or general disturbers of the peace, the Cops are always here to stop, frisk, and capture the bad boys.
But Rodney King proved that situation wrong. Very clearly, in fact. I remember hearing the news stations talking about it but not really minding the facts, I was more concerned about the video. Many cops beating an unarmed man nearly to death. Why?
The incident itself began the night before. It started with a high-speed chase, resulted in a confrontation, ultimately leading to what we saw on the video. There is no denying that King had provoked the incident in some ways, as he was trying to escape from the police. In fact, King provoked them further when he got out of his car and made provocative gestures not only to the immediate officers but the chopper flying in the sky.
What followed, and was recorded, was the beating of an unarmed man. He was struck 33 times, including six swift kicks to the body, by a swarm of police officers both men and women. This is what sparked an outrage nationwide shedding light on a very real problem: police brutality.
While we are led to believe that the police are here to protect us, it’s hard not to be intimidated by the force when you know exactly what they’re capable of. Corruption in the LAPD is not much of a secret anymore. I’m sure you followed the situation we had last month with Christopher Dorner, who was willing to sacrifice his life and the life of other cops specifically to bring more light to this big problem. Sadly, he was burned out of his hide-out, Waco style.
Corruption, in 2013, is obvious. We hear about it all of the time. It’s really no secret. But in 1991 it was far less known. And that is precisely why in 1992 there were gigantic riots on the street of Los Angeles. Bradley Nowell of Sublime, from the song first referred to above, says it well: “it wasn’t about Rodney King. It was about this [X] situation and these [X] police.” Like the LAPD, he wanted to let it burn.
Rodney King was, like Trayvon Martin, a symbol of a bigger problem. Racial profiling, police brutality, the corruption in the LAPD and other large police units, and of course broader injustices found in impoverished areas that simply don’t take place otherwise. To me, however, the problem was trust.
Like I said, I was only 5 years old when the riots in Los Angeles broke out. But I was 4 when the tape was released. I was just a very young boy. And it forever imprinted on my mind that the police are not to be trusted. In fact, I remember most of my life not only feeling distrust but a deeply rooted anger towards them. Anyone I ever saw, regardless of their position.
When I went to Kindergarten the following Fall I was introduced to someone you may also know: Officer Friendly. He came to our school to tell us all about how the police protected us and how we should be friends with them, help them as much as we can, and obey the law because it is good for us. Basically, he wanted us to trust him. He took our fingerprints and let us ask him questions. I remember wanting to ask him about King but I didn’t. Needless to say, the whole time he was there I could not help but feel angry. Why was he lying to us? I knew the truth. He was violent and not to be trusted.
The sad fact is that Officer Friendly in Saint Paul, Minnesota actually is quite friendly. Especially at the predominately white school I went to. Chances are, if something ever happened to me Officer Friendly would probably be there to help me. In time I learned that I was casting the same shadow on the cops that I thought the cops were casting on my fellow citizens.
The problem of trust is theological. Because trust is, in my estimation, deeply connected to the problem of Love and of Justice. Reinhold Niebuhr says that Justice is the public form of Love. He does not believe an over-ideal or over-ethic like Love can ever be attained in the social sphere without Justice first. Personally, I don’t believe we can have justice without trust.
What exactly is Justice without trust? To me, it seems like another form of violence. Someone’s justice is most certainly another’s injustice. Justice seems to be aimed at a restitution of differences. Someone feels something has happened which deserves compensation of some kind and, in their eyes, reconciliation is to be found through the arm of Justice. But I am unsure if that’s really the best way of approaching it. I think a more basic form of trust is necessary to the equation, or else the difference will perpetuate itself.
What do I mean by this? When we cast an enemy, be it Cop or Hood, we set them as someone we simply do not trust. Not only should they be brought to justice, but they should be punished. We want to punish them because we want them never to forget their mistake and, in effect, never do it again. It isn’t really even about ‘injustice’ per se, but about a deep mistrust of that social stereotype. Sometimes we are on the receiving end and other times we are on the giving end.
Sadly, in King’s situation we did not see anyone brought to justice and the situation of distrust has been perpetuated even further. The cops all got off basically scot-free. This is precisely what set off the 1992 riots in the City of Los Angeles. People were outraged that after such clear evidence of injustice the cops could play the justice system like a violin.
I see this problem growing since 1992, not getting better. Not only is Dorner’s escapade a perfect example, but so is the Occupy Movement. Living in New York, and particularly at Union Seminary, our dose of Occupy Wall Street is heavy. While there are certainly those who want reconciliation, see the police’s life struggle as one in the same, there are also those who would rather sing the gangster national anthem: [X] the Police.
To be honest, this is one of my all-time favorite songs.
It’s hard not to feel this way when arrests happen in droves, when there are examples of cops beating protesters just like King, when there is evidence that cops have planted scandalous devices amongst the crew to stir up trouble, and other things of this nature. Not only this, but the FBI has recently come out saying they treated Occupy like an internal terrorist organization. As someone who has in fact been to these protests, I find that all quite silly and probably unnecessary. But only time will tell on that front…
Joseph Campbell used to say the myth of our time is Man versus the Machine. We portray this story all of the time in our various movies, music, art, books, etc. It is deeply ingrained in our minds. The myth, I think, is a positive one. It usually results in Man overcoming the Machine and ultimately fulfilling his destiny as being free and good. In reality, however, it seems like this is far from the case.
People look at the police as an extension of the Machine. They do not look at the police as real men and women who, themselves, are also part of the battle against the Machine. But there is one difference that needs to be observed and made clear: Officer Friendly has a license to Kill. You don’t.
I recall Morpheus’ wise words:
The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
Ultimately, how can we trust someone who has just cause to kill you should you present yourself hostile or threatening in their eyes? You simply cannot. They will always be someone you cannot trust under most circumstances. Eazy-E said it well: “My identity by itself causes violence.”
Personally, I think Chris Dorner went about it the wrong way. Though I deeply sympathize with his position against the corrupt LAPD forces, he broke the one rule: No guns, no killing. This automatically discredits and disgraces him, in spite of his just cause. Because of this, we could not trust his words and it was easy to paint him as a maniac and a villain.
Instead, I really wish people would take more seriously what King himself had to say in response to the riots in 1992: “can we all just get along?”
He himself reflected he would always be a poster child for police brutality, but thought perhaps we could use his image as a positive force geared towards ‘healing’ and ‘restraint’. But he also wanted people to know that this sort of brutality is “happening right now… it’s just not on film, it’s not being recorded.” It’s happening all of the time.
But time, precisely, is the measurement of healing. He believes that time does in fact heal everything. Sadly, 22 years after the release of the video, I hate to say that it seems he is wrong. At least not yet.
King recalls wisdom he received from his mother, saying: “Vengeance belongs to God. It’s up to him to wreak vengeance.” At the end of his life he said, “I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a vice. Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I’m a fool for believing in peace.”
It’s very sad that one could be mocked for believing in peace. But from my encounters with those who do not see Peace as a viable option not just in time but in OUR time, it’s usually because they are not trusting of each other and the ultimate plan.
King’s death, like Martin’s, will not be forgotten any time soon. We are forced to remember because we have to. We are not yet at the point of Peace because we do not trust each other. We do not see justice as universal reconciliation, but instead a mode of punishment. That is not our place to decide. I agree with King, it’s God’s alone.
Above all: Who’s the Man with the Master Plan?