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The History Of Protests In Los Angeles: What Has Changed Since The Rodney King Riots


A thousand National Guard troops were deployed to Los Angeles this weekend to address the unrest unfolding in response to the killing of George Floyd. The sight of military vehicles and armed troops brought back memories of the 1992 Rodney King protests for many people here in LA, both because of the images of vandalism and looting that flooded news channels, but also because of the message that the protesters are bringing - a message against police brutality.

Here to talk with us about what has and has not changed in the last 28 years is Jody Armour. He's a criminal justice and law professor at the University of Southern California.

Thank you very much for being here.

JODY ARMOUR: It's good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Can you tell me - how old were you during the 1992 Rodney King riots?

ARMOUR: Yeah. I was, at the time, 22 years old, and I remember them vividly. I was back in Akron, Ohio, which is where I hail from. And it was a national story. I would turn on the TV, and there you would see the airwaves saturated with the images of Rodney King being beaten by four police officers.

CHANG: Absolutely. I remember I was a sophomore in high school in California at the time. And drawing parallels between today and almost 30 years ago is very tempting. But what I want to talk to you about is what feels different about what's happening today in your city versus back then. Is the energy different, the boldness? What do you think?

ARMOUR: Well, it seems that we've learned something from the earlier incident. You know, when these kinds of incidents arise, when we see vivid, graphic examples of police brutality that trigger passionate responses, in the past, a lot of times, what that meant was we're going to cue up a commission, bring in experts, hold some hearings, let people express themselves and then we're going to have police carry body cameras.

We keep telling ourselves that somehow, technology or training will end police misconduct. But in this case, we saw that in Minnesota, the police department did a lot of that stuff. And still, here we are. This is not a technology problem or something that a little policy tinkering is going to solve. It's a reflection of deep structural racism.

You know, when Black Lives Matter started as a movement, they weren't trying to say that white lives don't matter or Latino lives or Asian lives don't matter. They were trying to say black lives matter, also. Black lives matter, too. And this country very often acts like black lives don't matter.

CHANG: And when you look at the coalition of people taking to the streets today, what feels different about the makeup of those demonstrators versus the people who protested in 1992?

ARMOUR: The protests and marches today you see are multiethnic, multicultural, even multigenerational. And the allyship is something that is more pronounced now than it perhaps once was. You know, I think a lot of people, when they saw that video of George Floyd, who weren't in the black community felt agony. And I think this time around, more people feel that sympathy and empathy for members of the black community and are standing in solidarity with them.

CHANG: Do you think that there was a greater empathy - a greater societal empathy that occurred when people viewed the death of George Floyd versus when people viewed the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers?

ARMOUR: Yeah, I think at the time of the Rodney King beating, it was easier to view it as an isolated incident or as a few bad apples, right? But now, over time, we see a persistent and pervasive pattern - right? - over years and years. We see Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia - 25-year-old black man jogging and is shot dead. Two prosecutors look at the facts and don't bring any action. Breonna Taylor in Louisville - no-knock raid, wrong house. She's killed.

The procession of hashtags that made up the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2014, '15, '16 years - we - I think more and more people are seeing that it isn't just isolated incidents, that there's something more pervasive and more ingrained in America that we have to address. The police officer's knee on the neck of George Floyd for many was a grim symbol of kind of America's knee on the neck of black America.

When a - you know, when a police officer takes an oath of office, pins on a badge and straps on a gun, he or she becomes kind of our collective representative and agent. And everything they do under color of law in our name and on our behalf implicates us collectively as a nation.

So you know, I remember one of our police chiefs, Charlie Beck, here in LA a few years ago asserting that an attack on a police officer is an attack on America. Well, by the same token, an unjustified attack by a police officer on a black person is an attack by America on that individual. You know, that was America shooting Walter Scott in the back in South Carolina a few years back and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. And that was America choking Eric Garner to death as he gasped, I can't breathe, in New York. And that was America, I think many people saw, digging its knee into the neck of George Floyd as he gasped his last breath in Minnesota.

CHANG: So what is your sense of where these protests go from here?

ARMOUR: Well, yeah. My sense of where the protests can go from here, hopefully will go from here is we'll have a serious reckoning with the racial injustice that has really provoked and continues to provoke these kinds of eruptions. This is really kind of a generational upheaval. We can either make some serious structural changes, redistribute power and wealth in a way that we haven't been willing to consider in the past, you know? I think more people are willing to consider things like - as even just as a result of the coronavirus crisis - things like universal basic income and "Medicare for All."

I think that, you know, as a result of this other kind of crisis - you know, I think that racism is a kind of virus, too, that mutates and changes from time to time but continues to persist - that we will take on the necessary work of redistributing wealth and power in such a way that we don't have Skid Rows, 75% of which have black faces in them, you know, that we don't make the faces at the bottom of the well always black faces and we do start to act, as a society, like black lives matter. And if black lives are lifted, all lives are going to come up because those faces at the very bottom of the well - when they rise, you know, everyone's fortunes are going to improve.

CHANG: Jody Armour is a criminal justice and law professor at the University of Southern California.

Thank you very much for sharing your time with us today.

ARMOUR: Thank you very much, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.