Twenty years ago, when I saw the videotaped beating of Rodney King, like most Americans I was outraged. Yet even as I was appalled by what I saw, there was a part of me that was hopeful. Finally, I thought, the world can see what we had long known in Los Angeles -- excessive force by the very entity tasked with protecting and serving us was a fact of life for black people.
So before the verdict was announced there was outrage, but also hope. Yes, hope -- and even an expectation that a guilty verdict would forcefully state that police brutality, brutality too often inflicted on unarmed Black men, no longer would be condoned.
The fury over the verdict exonerating the four police officers on trial has to be put in that context. The legacy of police brutality and the larger society’s indifference to it is why the community exploded. I utterly condemned the violence 20 years ago and I still do today. It is direct, nonviolent action -- not chaos or conflict -- that has brought about the greatest lasting social change in this country.
On this anniversary, many are asking how far have we come in 20 years? I believe the answer is: far. We have a police department that today is actively engaged with the community. Police Chief Charlie Beck gets it: he understands that goodwill and trust between the department and the communities it protects is essential to peacekeeping. Furthermore, relationships between Korean-Americans and African-Americans – in tatters after the riots – have improved significantly since 1992, thanks to the work of leaders in both communities.
Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new developments have either been built or are in the works in South Los Angeles, and almost all the buildings that had been burned or damaged were rebuilt or replaced.
Our work, however, is far from complete. Although the civil unrest of 1992 was a primal reaction to local conditions, the struggle in communities of color with law enforcement is not a local problem. It’s a national, systemic one, existing whenever race and the judicial system intersect.
Twenty years since Rodney King’s beating and the exoneration of his attackers, we are now awaiting another verdict: in the trial of vigilante George Zimmerman for shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The parallels are have been widely noted. Once again, it is not only the violence of an individual or individuals that has outraged and shocked the nation; it is the judicial system's reluctance to act on behalf of a black male victim. Twenty years ago today, a jury condoned police brutality. In Trayvon's case, a police department shrugged off the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager who reportedly was minding his own business.
Yet, there are also striking differences. We know better now. Twenty years ago, we waited for a verdict to catalyze change. Today, we aren't waiting for any jury to tell us what needs to be done. Trayvon Martin's family, along with leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton and millions of ordinary citizens, is working to overturn the proliferation of right-wing "stand-your--ground" laws that seek to shield the perpetrators of violence.
We can never forget that we are in this struggle for the long haul, but I have faith that by working together, we will get there.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
We will get there.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas