Chauvin Trial: A Look Back At 1992 LA And America Since Rodney King
Listener advisory: This hour contains explicit language. When quoting language used by police officers assaulting Rodney King in 1991, a guest uses a racial slur. The word is stated as a quote and occurs in context between 00:34:25 and 00:34:49. The word is uttered by John Burris who represented Rodney King in his civil lawsuit against LAPD in 1994.
Almost 30 years ago, four Los Angeles police officers went on trial for brutally beating a man named Rodney King. Now in Minneapolis, a different trial, a similar defense. From LA in ’92 to Minneapolis today, what has and hasn’t changed in America?
John Burris, civil rights attorney who represented Rodney King in his civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department in 1994.
Vaughn Dickerson, co-founder of 88 C.H.U.M.P., a nonprofit social activism organization. He grew up with George Floyd in Houston.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.
Closing arguments in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin are expected on Monday. Yesterday, as prosecution and defense teams rested their cases, Chauvin, the man accused of killing George Floyd, spoke for the first time.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MINNEAPOLIS TRIAL COURT — JUDGE: “Have you made a decision today whether you intend to testify or whether you intend to invoke your Fifth Amendment privilege?”]
[CHAUVIN: “I will invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege today.”]
CHAKRABARTI: Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck last May. Cell phone video of Floyd’s death sparked protests across the nation.
Well, almost 30 years ago, another violent arrest, another video, and another trial ignited protests and felt like a possible turning point in American history.
On March 3rd, 1991, after a high speed chase, Los Angeles police pulled over a man named Rodney King. They brutally beat him. The moment was filmed by a nearby resident, and that video shocked the world. Four officers were eventually put on trial in Simi Valley, California.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1992 LAPD CRIMINAL TRIAL — KING LAWYER: “This evidence will show that whatever Rodney King was or whatever he did, it did not justify what you saw, what you saw on that videotape.”]
CHAKRABARTI: Well, today we’re going to talk about the similarities and differences between these two moments; across decades, distance, technology and social reckonings. What do the trials reveal about what has and has not changed in America?
We’ll begin with the story of a woman whose life was transformed that night in 1991, the night LAPD assaulted Rodney King.
LORA KING: It’s part of my life. It’s something that I will never, ever be able to escape from. It’s something that was in my 12th grade history book. And it’s something that will be part of history to my children, as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Lora was seven years old in 1991. And to this day, she remembers exactly where she was when she first saw images of police beating her father in the video that shocked the world.
KING: I was watching the news in Montclair, California.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 KTLA TV CLIP: “Dramatic videotape obtained by Channel five News.”]
KING: Me and my sister were playing.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 KTLA TV CLIP: “Shows what appears to be a group of LAPD officers beating a suspect.”]
KING: And all of a sudden I look on the screen and they mentioned the name.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 TV CLIP: “Prior to his release from jail last night. Twenty five year old Rodney King showed his injury to reporters.”]
KING: And I’m like, he has the same name as my dad. What a coincidence, you know? And then as I looked around and looked at my family’s reaction, I put two and two together, like, wait, what’s going on? And then my mom yelled, ‘That’s Rodney!’”
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, LAPD CHIEF DARYL GATES: “In our review, we find that the officers struck him with batons between 53 and 56 times.”]
KING: And my heart shattered because right before she said that, I thought to myself, whoever this human is, there’s no way they can live through that.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 ABC NEWS REPORT: “The bruises, broken legs and the scars from the stun guns which jolted him with 50,000 volt shocks.”]
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, RODNEY KING, 1991 POST-ARREST INTERVIEW: “After the first three good licks with, you know, one with that shocker and the next with the billy club across the face, I was scared. I was scared. I was scared for my life.”]
KING: And I just think about, often, like and we’ve all been in T-shirts and we’ve worked out so we know how this is. When you work out and your shirt is, like, sweaty. Now, imagine that. But being that your own blood. And you’re constantly being tased and you’re getting yelled at to be still.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 TV REPORT: “King claims, and several witnesses support him, that he never resisted.”]
KING: I’ve never been tased, but I got ‘whoopings’ as a kid. And it’s like my mom would be like, ‘Be still!’ Well, you’re ‘whooping’ me. How am I going to be still? Because my nerves are going to have a reaction.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, RODNEY KING, 1991 INTERVIEW: “I kneeled to my knees and spread my hands out and hit the ground as slow as I could because I didn’t want to make any stupid moves because I’m already wondering, like, why are these guys, why are they drawing down on me?”]
KING: And I can’t run from that videotape. That’s something that can’t escape from because that comes out in regular conversation. I could be anywhere. And so that’s the part that bothers me, to actually watch a human being cry for his life, let alone it just so happened to be my father.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, ABC NEWS REPORT: “Against the growing national furor over last weekend’s police shooting of an unarmed Black motorist, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said today that all 14 officers involved will be disciplined and that three will face criminal charges.”]
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, LAPD CHIEF DARYL GATES: “The officers, we believe, used excessive force in taking him into custody.”]
KING: Some of the egos that the officers, not all of them, because some of them, I feel like they were remorseful, but I felt like a few of them were a little ego-based. And it was like, Come on, you know, we didn’t do anything wrong, kind of thing. And for a child to watch that, it’s kind of heartbreaking because we live in a world that says, you know, all men are created equal. But in fact, we have to ask ourselves, are they? Are they created equal, or are we just saying that just to make people feel better? Because in my eyes, they were conducting themselves like nothing was wrong.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 NIGHTLINE REPORT: “The evidence is new. It’s dramatic, and it’s devastating to those Los Angeles police officers involved in the March 3rd beating of that Black motorist. The incident, as you’ve no doubt seen, was videotaped.”]
KING: My grandfather that I lived with was a Los Angeles sheriff and he was a right is right, wrong is wrong type of person. He didn’t say, well, he’s Black, give them a break. Or, he’s white. He didn’t think like that. So for me, it was a little hard to watch because it wasn’t making sense to me.
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 NETWORK REPORT: “The police communications released today included regular radio transmissions as well as computer messages between police cars. One of the two officers who wielded batons that evening relayed a message after the arrest to another car saying, quote, ‘Sounds almost as exciting as our last call. It was right out of Gorillas of the Mist.’ Response: ‘Ha, ha.’]
KING: And I have to question myself … how many Rodney Kings have they done this to? How many that didn’t get a videotape?
[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 NETWORK REPORT: Car one again: ‘Oops, I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time.’ Car two responds: ‘Oh, no, not again. I thought you agreed to chill out for a while.’]
KING: You know, even though my dad lived through the incident, 90% of him died that night. You know, people are like, Well at least he lived. No, he didn’t actually. He was never the same. He lived with excruciating pain for the rest of his life, as well as a fractured skull. So then you’re forced to live with this name Rodney King and of course, get a job. Well, who could get a job? Because everybody knows that name. Everybody knows that name.
I always try to be like a spark of light around my dad because I knew he was dealing with a lot all the time. So I never personally talked about the incident. I think the first time I talked about the incident with him was when he was on Celebrity Rehab. And Dr. Drew asked, are you guys embarrassed of your dad? And I’m like, no way. Like what? And my dad looked like he was in shock. Like he was surprised that we weren’t. And I’m like, absolutely not.
I feel like we failed my dad. We failed my father as a human being for the simple fact that he should have been given mental health for the rest of his life as well as any other African American or white, or Black, or Asian, or fat, skinny, blue, green person that’s been beaten by the police. They should be given mental health for the rest of their life. This is not a temporary Band-Aid. They will never be the same.
Of course, my father’s beating is everywhere on social media, but at the time it was just a videotape that they would show over and over. In this case, George Floyd’s case. It’s everywhere. It’s on Instagram. It’s on Facebook. It’s on Google. It’s on YouTube.
My first thoughts were, I wonder, does he have children? I wonder how old they are. And I thought to myself, like, his kids, they have to live the rest of their lives watching their dad being murdered over and over and over again. And I was watching the video thinking, I wonder if my dad’s still living. Well, there was a little life moving because he was still scrambling for his life. So there was still movement.
But in their case, they see him. He knew that it was over. That’s why he called for his mother who was deceased. Most people that are getting ready to take their last breath, they call for a person that’s dead already. And to me, it saddens me that that man knew he was dying because he said it over and over, I’m out of here, I’m out of here, which means I’m dying. He still didn’t get up.
And for me, it’s like, it’s really sad because he never got up. He never got up, and he died. And they just rolled them over, they rolled them over and said that, you know, he took opium. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter what he took.
A Black man’s life is not a state of emergency around here, it’s just another birth certificate and death certificate. That’s it.
I feel like America has learned hashtags. That’s basically it, but no, honestly, I’m going to tell you this, I am hopeful because I’ve seen something last year that I’ve never seen before, and that’s different nationalities being fed up. That’s different nationalities speaking up like, Hey, no, no, no, this is wrong. These people don’t deserve this. And that gives me hope.
CHAKRABARTI: Lora King is the daughter of the late Rodney King. She’s also CEO of the Rodney King Foundation. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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