“MSP (Minneapolis/St.Paul) people, stay safe” was a message that crossed my WhatsApp feed on April 20th. The concern was not for the virus, but because the George Floyd murder trial verdict was imminent.
Many were expecting a verdict that would enrage people enmasse. Minneapolis was boarded up and the police and national guard were on high alert. Cities across the country were bracing for violence.
Derek Chauvin, the policeman who snuffed out George Floyd’s life in full view of the public, was convicted of all charges. The nation breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing burned, and America seemed to have turned another page in it’s complicated history.
When I arrived in the US in the early 90s, another video had gone “viral”, this was probably the first of its kind. There was no social media then, but every television channel showed the grainy images over and over again until it was seared into everyone’s conscience.
The images were of Rodney King brutally being assaulted by a gang of 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 at its core.
Like George Floyd, Rodney King was not docile or compliant to the police, and so began his troubles.
It was March 2, 1991 after a night of watching basketball on TV and heavy drinking, Rodney King and his two friends left home. Around 12:30 AM a couple of Los Angeles policemen 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 risk that.
After approximately eight miles, with several police cars and a helicopter on his tail, he gave 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 him at which point he began to resist causing one of the officers to fall. The officers withdrew and King got back on his feet and an officer deployed a “Taser”.
The electric shock immobilized him but not completely. The officers then proceeded to pummel him with their batons, hitting him hard on his joints.
After 56 blows and 6 kicks and surrounded by seven officers he was subdued, cuffed 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. A video camera in a citizen’s hand for the first time had unlocked the doors to what was to come.
The trial 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 condemn 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 triggered 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.
Why a jury convicted Derek Chauvin and not the LA policemen is the sign of the times we find ourselves in today. There has been a shift and the hope is that it is permanent.
Rodney King lived to tell his story. George Floyd’s story was captured in excruciating detail on crystal clear video.
But what makes their story similar are the circumstances in which they found themselves in, by who they were and how they behaved and looked.
What is abundantly clear, is that if a video did not exist of what transpired, these assaults would have been checked off as routine police encounters with black men who are not considered “model citizens” and therefore deserve the treatment meted.
While the conviction of Derek Chauvin may give some policemen pause, what would not have changed is the basic nature of policing in America and the infestation of guns that plague this nation.
The militarized police will always be quick on the draw, whenever a black man or boy makes the slightest of moves, as it is assumed a gun will be pointing back at them. This equation is not going to change anytime soon.
Since George Floyd’s murder, there have been many police encounters where black men have ended up dead. Donald Trump has been relegated to the trash bin of history for the time being and the new president is trying to make some changes on the edges. He is speaking of “systemic racism” in speeches and has a bill in congress named after Gorge Floyd which promises to bring some change to policing in America. Whether the bill will pass in a divided government and in a climate that has significantly changed, is anyone’s guess.
While there is still some energy left in people to protest, the Covid induced pressure cooker is releasing and with it is the momentum and passion we saw last year when people poured into the streets.
Rodney King and George Floyd are no heroes. They were never meant to be. They were flawed like any of us. They had prior run ins with the law. They did not have Ivy League educated parents or grand parents to look up to. They were products of their circumstances.
But they did not deserve to be treated the way they were, especially by men in uniform. Even in their state of indignity they deserved dignity just for being citizens of this land.
The HBO documentary series “Exterminate all the Brutes” by Raoul Peck, is a powerful sweeping work that examines the origins of white supremacy and the horrific historic destructive nature of racism, colonialism and imperialism, whose impact is felt to this day.
In the series Peck re-enacts the slave trade by flipping it. A gang of chained white children are whipped and dragged through the African jungles by black slave masters. By asking the viewer to entertain an alternate history, he challenges our sense of morality.
Unless we are able to examine the narratives we have been conditioned to believe and sustain, change will only occur at the edges. To bring about systemic change the truth must first be confronted and acknowledged.
Many in power, find the truth threatening.