From Rodney King to Michael Brown

The events in Ferguson, Missouri remind me of the infamous case of Rodney King in the 1990s, which I assume younger people don’t know much about. Despite the differences in the two events, there are still a number of similarities. In Ferguson, demonstrations broke out in a city with a black majority, in protest against the shooting death of an unarmed black 18-year-old by the hand of a police officer firing an unknown number of rounds. The police department hid the officer’s identity and claimed the boy attacked him in his car — which led to the officer firing at him.

As for the ’90s case, in 1991 an amateur cameraman recorded four police officers in Los Angeles kicking and beating a black man named Rodney King, leading to the trial of the four officers. All four of the officers were acquitted in 1993, precipitating demonstrations in the city in protest of their acquittal after the whole world had seen the shocking video clip. In those riots, dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured, and the hostility migrated to other cities. Things didn’t subside until the federal government got involved and retried the officers.

The differences are clear: In the first story, a young victim was killed; in the second, King remained alive, though humiliated. In the first, the protest was over the killing of a boy and the police’s protecting one of their own instead of protecting the citizens; in the second, the protests were against injustice in the court system. The resemblance, however, is striking when looking at the protests that broke out in other cities as a result of the initial triggers. The most important thing in all of this is the pervasive discrimination shown to this day in a variety of ways by the American police force against black Americans. This has never been a problem exclusive to the Los Angeles Police Department or the Ferguson Police Department. You hear about the New York Police Department getting out of control and overstepping their bounds with blacks, or maybe the departments in Ohio or Texas, etc.

So this is still an issue even today.

As a matter of fact, in the same month that Michael Brown died, three other people were killed by the police in three other states. In Ohio, New York and Los Angeles, as well as in Ferguson, Missouri, American police killed four black men. In New York, a video clip recorded how two policemen killed a black cigarette salesman by wrapping their arms around his neck from behind and choking him. In Los Angeles, an officer killed a young black man complying with his request to be frisked. In Ohio, police fired at a young black man inside a Wal-Mart because he was lifting up a rifle, even though Wal-Mart sells rifles! The problem, then, is that this racism hasn’t been dealt with since the time of Rodney King.

But the situation is worse than ever before for two reasons. First, the police are not the only ones doing the killing; it is also done by civilian white individuals, as back in the days of segregation. This has become a cause for extreme concern among black families for their children, especially their sons. The story of Trayvon Martin, who was killed last year in Florida — having committed no crime except being black — has not yet been forgotten. This was followed in the beginning of this year with the killing of Jordan Davis.

The second point is that things have taken a turn for the worse, and it would have been very clear if you saw footage from Ferguson last week, right after the demonstrations broke out and before the police pulled out. It really looked like the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. The policemen are heavily armed and wearing military outfits, using armored vehicles identical to those seen in pictures from Iraq and Afghanistan! All that to face hundreds of black American protestors! The hysteria that prevailed in America after September 11 drove the United States to militarize their police force under the pretense of combating terrorism.

And through several federal grants, local state police obtained weapons, equipment, planes and other vehicles used by armies during war — unusual for civilian police. In the midst of that hysteria, no restrictions were placed on the use of those weapons against civilians, and no standards were put in place to keep the police accountable. And the first victims, of course, are minorities, especially blacks, because the police have a long history of discriminating against them.

I started watching what was going on in Ferguson live, and listened to Ferguson’s white chief of police trying to justify the actions of the officer who killed Michael Brown, commending his murderous colleague. I thought about what was said by the police the day prior — that Brown had been in the process of robbing while he was killed — then the fact that they went back on what they first said. I said to myself, “From Rodney King to Michael Brown, to whoever comes after Brown, the whites in America are still in a state of denial. White America does not want to acknowledge the extent of injustice against blacks. A boy has actually been killed; they’re trying to figure out his crime while praising his killer.”

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