This year marks the 25-year anniversary of the beating of Rodney King, an African American man, at the hands of four Los Angeles police officers. The incident created widespread attention because it was caught on videotape by a bystander who sent the recording to a local news station. The acquittal of all four officers sparked riots in Los Angeles so virulent that they were quelled only when the National Guard was summoned.
The incident stands as a watershed moment in the power of video in documenting police brutality against racial minorities. In recent years, the recording of these events by increasingly sophisticated and widely available technology such as camera phones and surveillance cameras has brought the issue of police brutality to light so that it is a significant issue of national concern.
Though the technology documenting police abuse is relatively new, the underlying problem is not. King’s beating stands at one point on a historical continuum of abuse of communities of color that stretches back to slavery and Jim Crow.
Policing of black communities began during slavery and is rooted in “slave codes,” which allowed white slave owners to savagely beat slaves for disobedience with no legal repercussions. In the antebellum South, white police forces arrested newly freed African Americans at alarming rates— especially in cities Montgomery, Nashville, Atlanta, Raleigh, and Richmond—and the majority of these arrests were for minor crimes such as vagrancy, petty larceny, and disorderly conduct. Arrests on “general warrants” became a tool of social control and even money-making, since local officers received fees as county constables.
As the Great Migration swelled black populations in northern cities, these communities often faced brutal treatment by police. One observer in Cleveland reported that police were quick to shoot and kill blacks for minor crimes and were not concerned about hitting black bystanders.
Black communities also faced police non-protection when white police forces failed to respond to calls for help or to stop white violence against blacks. The Chicago race riots of 1919 started when local police failed to arrest a white man whom a group of young black men accused of killing another black man. That night, groups of whites roamed the streets killing and beating any black citizens they came across with complete impunity. Police did not even try to stop the violence, allowed blacks to be terrorized by white mobs, and sometimes even participated in the violence. Throughout the early 1900s, the Ku Klux Klan often forged alliances with local police, sheriffs, and other governmental officials in southern states. Law enforcement often participated in, condoned, or were indifferent to the almost 4,000 documented lynchings throughout the Jim Crow era.
Race riots in Detroit and Newark during the 1960s and in Miami in 1980 and 1989 were sparked by police killings of black citizens and subsequent acquittals, but were undergirded by simmering resentment of black communities against systemic police abuse. Notably, these riots featured escalating police violence against black citizens, often resulting in citizen deaths, as the riots progressed.
More recently, a ProPublica study of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010–12 reported by police agencies to the FBI found that young African American males were 21 times more likely to be killed than white males of the same age.
Those in the African American community and other communities of color point to today’s videos of police brutality as examples of typical police treatment they experience in their communities. Others who have never personally witnessed such police behavior in person have been sensitized by the videos to the problem in much the same way that the violence against civil rights advocates captured on television in the 1960s had a transformative effect on public opinion. Technology may accomplish what dialogue and debate, passionate advocacy and peaceful protests, civil rights complaints, and race riots could not do alone. Police body cameras and citizen recordings of police activity provoke us to reconsider profound questions about the criminal legal system that are sometimes easy to dismiss. What this technological eye into the experiences of our neighbors should also make us ask, however, is what else have we not seen with our own eyes? Perhaps technology may also be the trust-building tool that enables us to see the other injustices occurring just outside the frame.