It just takes one monster off the job and off the street.
Reprinted from Politico, April 24, 2021.
OPINION | RACE IN AMERICA
Have We Really Come That Far Since Rodney King?
Three decades ago, it felt like America was finally waking up to police abuse. And yet here we are.
People celebrate at George Floyd Square after the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. | Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
By ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN
04/24/2021 07:00 AM EDT
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a journalist in Los Angeles and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
It can’t be said enough: This week’s resounding guilty verdicts in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd are a good thing. At a crucial moment, the people have prevailed, and this time “people” means more than African Americans, who have disproportionately carried the concern about police abuse; many people of other colors and even other countries are claiming the victory, too. This is progress.
And yet the progress shrinks in comparison with the breadth and depth of the oppression we’ve tolerated for the last generation and a half.
I’m a native Angeleno who got my start in journalism in 1992, the year Los Angeles erupted in protest after the acquittal in the criminal trial of the four police officers who nearly beat another Black man, Rodney King, to death. All four officers participated in the savage free-for-all that the world saw on videotape, captured by an onlooker in a nearby apartment building. And what came next? Not decades of dismantling police culture that had produced crises like the Rodney King beating and countless other undocumented assaults and deaths, but something almost opposite: escalating law-and-order policies that viewed Black anger, however justifiable, as something to be contained, and criminalized. The fundamental tragedy of Rodney King led not to more justice for the Kings of the world, but to far less, in the form of draconian drug sentencing, three-strikes laws and mass incarceration.
The tremendous human cost—to say nothing of the actual cost—of all this is something we have only now begun to deal with, as Floyd’s murder in 2020 opened up big questions about racism and criminal justice that engaged the public in an unprecedented way. But the awakening is not quite a year old. The previous 30 years weigh on us very heavily, and it will be some time before we can get out from under that weight.
The good news is that more people want to get out from under it. This has not always been the case, and it certainly wasn’t the case 29 years ago, on the April afternoon when the verdict for the cops in the King case was announced. But I didn’t realize that at the time. While the unrest in Los Angeles after the trial—five days of protest, curfews, fires, looting and the deaths of 50 people—was tragic in one way, it was energizing in another: a rare, galvanizing civic moment that proved beyond any doubt how frustrated Black people were, and how essential it was to acknowledge and address that frustration. I thought the unrest could actually be unifying, because hadn’t we all seen the same video? Couldn’t we all agree that what happened in that video was wrong, and the reasons why? Rodney King had forced us all together, had us all considering the same questions, which to me felt hopeful.
My hopefulness was also fueled by the fact that the Los Angeles Times, whichunderwent some quick soul-searching after the unrest, had expanded its coverage of L.A.’s urban core and hired me to write for one of the new sections it launched that year. My excitement was tempered by history—I had grown up with detailed stories about the massive unrest in L.A. in 1965 and how it, too, had been fueled by a Black encounter with law enforcement gone south. I knew that in the 27 years between that event and 1992, too little progress had been made, that Black people were more economically stratified than ever, more thwarted than ever and therefore still targeted by police. Still, after Rodney King, I felt this time would be different. It had to be.
It wasn’t different enough, by a long shot. The L.A. Times gig should have clued me in. The section I wrote for circulated in the inner city, with stories only occasionally going into the main paper. It was the very model of marginalization, albeit a benevolent kind that had the sheen of progress. Meanwhile, California went into punishment mode, spurred by the crack epidemic and the specter of gangs that occasionally spilled over into more pristine L.A. neighborhoods and triggered fears of crime and mayhem anew. The real takeaway of ’92 became clear: The line had to be drawn more firmly than ever, and the police continued to draw it. This despite the fact that the city always seemed to be on the hunt for a “reformer” police chief, and even though certain reforms were implemented—community policing, for one—they felt like experiments that never took. The Los Angeles Police Department was shaken by scandal and exposés of rogue policing that led to a federal takeover in 2000. In Inglewood, a mostly Black and brown city where I live that borders South Central L.A., four fatal police shootings happened in two months in 2008. The blue wall of silence around all of it was deafening—but expected. It’s how things were.
It’s “how things are,” we know now, that has to be reformed, and it goes well beyond any single program or policy. It goes to Americans seeing each other as equally worthy of empathy from and protection by police. And yet throughout our history, whenever we seem to approach this realization, there is backlash. During Donald Trump’s presidency, too much of the country followed him sharply in the direction of racism and xenophobia, in the process valorizing police (and military) as keepers of true American values—that is, guardians of the ancient social and racial order on which this country was founded. Republicans by and large have acquiesced to such sentiments, acquiescence that turned violent in the white riot/insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 that featured the participation of, and the desecration of, law enforcement.
That’s the national picture. At the local level, where most policing happens, things are much more encouraging. The city of L.A. is hammering out compromises with the People’s Budget, a coalition led by Black Lives Matter that seeks to increase social service spending, and has already reduced police funding by $150 million—unthinkable as recently as a year ago. We are not there yet, but at least it feels like a real fight, a more equal fight. With the philosophy of Black Lives Matter gone mainstream, critics of police abuse at least don’t have to be defensive about their cause. That’s progress, too.
But the backlash is also local. Blue Lives Matter, a message I read every day on lawn signs in Southern California’s tourist-friendly beach cities, pits police against Black humanity, with never the twain meeting. This is not a new paradigm, just affirmation of an old one, but it’s disheartening nonetheless. Recently, a White Lives Matter rally was staged in Huntington Beach, a surf town in Orange County. It fizzled, but the disturbing thing is that it happened at all. A more recent effort among extremist Republicans in Congress to form an America First caucus—described in a memo as supporting “Anglo-Saxon” traditions—fizzled, too. But it’s worrisome for the same reason.
The intensifying crisis of police abuse parallels another intensifying crisis: climate change. In both cases, we have spent too many years doing too little or doing the wrong thing entirely, assuming that we always have more time to get our act together before things really fall apart. The whole police abuse problem is indeed a crisis of climate—the racial atmosphere of the country is dangerously poisoned, perhaps irreversibly. In the shadow of the Chauvin verdict, the deaths of Black people by cops continues everywhere in the country. During the trial, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was Black, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was Latino, were killed by police gunfire; neither was armed. And almost at the same moment the verdict was being read, we learned about the fatal police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, also Black, in Ohio. The victory is real, but it hasn’t solved anything. It has only officially acknowledged how bad the atmosphere is, how much more we need to do to clear it.
Daunting as all this appears, I am optimistic that substantive change will happen. My late father was a racial justice activist of some local renown who drilled into me the idea that, for Black people, optimism is the only choice, because the only other choice is cynicism, which is a dead end. It’s why I believe that even at this late date, there is still a path to change, fraught though it might be, narrow as the window of opportunity might feel. Not an ideal scenario, but when it comes to police reform, we’ve never had one. Which means that we are getting closer. This time, it will happen. We really have no other choice.