The two letters in this week’s essay title have captured the imagination of Black America. Contributing to this L.A. mystique has been the L.A. Lakers with such basketball legends as Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, Erving “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Showtime,” Shaquille O’Neil, and Kobe Bryant. Ironically, the L.A. Clippers have become the team of note from Los Angeles. This is not an endorsement, but L.A. gangs have also been etched in our imagination. The movie “Straight Outta Compton” showed us the hip-hop equivalent of the rise of the Black Panthers in opposition to police violence. One of the instrumental names to emerge out of the rap group NWA was Dr. Dre. Yet, for all of these contributions to Black popular culture L.A. has also captured our imagination based the Watts Riots of 1965. President Lyndon Johnson was caught off guard by the riots. Five days earlier, with blessings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act. What Johnson had failed to understand was that when a people are held in bondage for over two hundred years and then subjected to a century of systemic discrimination and racial violence, there are many problems that need to be addressed. Voting, although extremely important, was only one of those problems that needed to be addressed. Yes, another problem that had been addressed in 1964 was ending the public specter of Jim Crow segregation. Dr. King had also supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Movement was essentially a southern agrarian movement that had national support and possessed national implications. What the Watts Riot pointed out was a major urban problem that the 1964 and 1965 legislation did not address. This was the reality of police violence against Black America in urban settings. The Watts Riots grew out of a negative encounter of Black motorists with White police.
Earlier, I mentioned the name of NWA. As stated, one of the significant artists to emerge from NWA was Dr. Dre. Gangsta Rap was basically placed on the map with Dr. Dre’s debut album, entitled “The Chronic.” The Chronic was released in December 1992. The release came about seven months after the L.A. Riot/Rebellion of 1992. The album was heavily influenced by the 1992 riot which has come to be known one of the most deadly urban disturbances in American history. The L.A. Rebellion also began with a negative encounter with the police. The motorist, Rodney King, was beaten by several White police officers. The beating was captured on tape. In the court of public opinion, there was no way that the four policemen charged in the beating could not be found guilty. An all White jury in Simi Valley, California acquitted the officers. When the verdict was handed down, violence began to erupt into several days of rage from April 29th to May 4, 1992. Moreover, this was an election year within which George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton. Very few would attribute Bush’s lost to the L.A. Rebellion. Nevertheless, the riot happened on Bush’s watch just as 9/11 happened on the President’s son’s, George W. Bush, watch. Neither President had an adequate response to the travails that befell them.
This past weekend marked the 25th anniversary of the L.A. Rebellion. Since the filming of the Rodney King beating, many incidents of police brutality have been captured on film. With the Rodney King film, many people of color believed that the tape only confirmed what had been alleged for years. However, on the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King beating and many subsequent videos of police violence, the issue of police violence has not abated. Some of the more sensational images include Eric Gardner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Philando Castile. It also appears that police are behaving as if to say that it does not matter in they are caught on tape or not. All that is needed for acquittal is the standard narrative that the police felt threatened and were simply attempting to keep order and carry out the law.
Given all the voluminous volume of evidence of police violence, one must ask oneself, “Why do we have a Justice Department that is signaling a green light on abhorrent police behavior?” As a consequent, we can conclude about a major lesson learned from the Rodney King beating and police acquittal. Although people might have eyes to look, they often fail to see.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”