In March of 1991, I was 16 years old and a junior in high school. I had lived in Milwaukee for about 18 months, after being born and raised in white rural Wisconsin. The now-infamous Rodney King video was just released to the media. The national news aired the video of Officer Koon directing multiple officers to continuously use their batons on the already tasered King. He was struck 33 times and kicked/stomped seven times in a video that lasted a mere minute and 19 seconds.
In 1991, there were no cell phones, Ring doorbell cameras or Go Pros. It was just becoming the norm for the average family to have a camcorder. Things did not go viral in an instant, like they do today, but the video of Rodney King’s beating did. For the first time, I saw on the ten o’clock news what I had only heard about in NWA lyrics. The entire country saw it!
In my circle of friends, we all thought, “Finally, we got you! The police are finally caught doing what White America swore never happens.” The stories of survival after an encounter with a racist cop were no longer just rumor or innuendo to the masses. What blacks and Latinos had been claiming for years was now on full display and getting national attention. Because of the national media, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office filed charges against those officers, and they were arrested for assault and the use of excessive force.
Even though I was young and naïve at the time, I know I was not the only one who was in shock when on April 29, 1992, after seven days of deliberation, three officers were acquitted, and the jury was hung on the fourth. Hours after the verdict, protest and outrage turned violent, and what is now known as the L.A. riots began. Over the course of three days, more than 60 people were killed, 2,000 plus were injured and more than $1 billion in property damage was caused, due to the burning of more than 3,000 buildings. According to the History Channel website, it is known as “the most destructive U.S. civil disturbance of the 20th century.”
This case set a precedent and a clear message was sent: The police have a license to do as they please, wrong or right, video or no video, and they have continued in this pattern since. Time and time again, we hear of and see incidents of police officers, and those who think they are allowed to take police action, taking the lives of black men and women with no repercussions. Their “punishment” is little more than a hiccup in their lives, and then they are allowed to go about their business.
Nearly 28 years after the L.A. riots, here we are again. Not for the beating of an unarmed black man but for the murder of George Floyd caught on video. We are no longer in shock by these videos as we were in 1991. This time, instead of a video being shot from emerging technology providing grainy footage, we saw an up close, clear video of Officer Chauvin casually kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes, with Chauvin continuing to kneel on Floyd’s neck for two more minutes after his cries for help ceased and his body went limp. We saw Officer Chauvin nonchalantly kneel on the neck of a man for almost ten minutes with his hand in his pocket as he confidently posed for the camera. The same store, where someone called the police regarding a counterfeit $20 bill Floyd used minutes earlier, was now calling the police on the police, as it watched the murder of George Floyd. The entire world saw it!
As the wife of a former police officer, I know some of what police officers face every day. I know about the sacrifices they make. I know that some officers can become hardened over time or feel overwhelmed with all of the despair in the communities they serve. I am sure that some of you go to work and at times think that today could be your last day. But if that’s not what you signed up for, perhaps you are in the wrong profession.
I believe that if you became an officer because of the power it gives you, you are in the wrong profession. I know that if you are not willing to hold yourself and your fellow officers accountable to the same laws you enforce, then you are in the wrong profession! If you cannot hold yourself and your fellow professionals responsible for your actions, in and out of uniform, then you are no better than anyone you arrest! Actually, you are worse.
I was taught that we learn our history so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. Yet, as a nation, we are in this constant cycle of division and oppression. We met some milestones and then we got comfortable. The Trump administration woke us up. I believe that we are going to continue to be pushed out of our comfort zones until we can truly say we have achieved the liberation of our most oppressed communities.
As I pondered my call to action over the weekend, I was struck by the closing monologue on the season finale of “Mrs. America,” a Hulu FX original about the feminist movement in the 1970s.
“Still today, we select our leaders, first by eliminating women, then minorities and then those with too little education. Changing this will take a very long time. After all, we are dealing with 10,000 years of patriarchy and racism, but we must continue to move forward in waves. What will keep us going is the revelation of what we can be, what the people around us can be, without the crippling walls of the prisons in which we have been forced. We are just beginning to discover, each of us, who we can be and no matter how long this revolution may take, there can be no turning back.”