There has been a rude awakening
That I have marched until my feet have bled
And I have rioted until they called the feds
-Rap group Arrested Development, 1992, from their single “Revolution,”
On April 29, 1992, a predominately white jury acquitted LAPD officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno of all but one of the charges associated with their brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King. The court ruled a mistrial on the lone remaining charge: a count against Powell of using excessive force. One juror remarked that King—who was clinging to life while cops viciously delivered 56 blows to his body with a bevy of kicks and nightsticks—deserved it.
If not for a bystander capturing the footage and tipping off a local news station, the intensity of the LAPD’s savage beating of King and the police department’s systemic racism may have never reached public consciousness. Heading the LAPD was its police commissioner Daryl Gates. As the founder of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams–the paramilitary units that have had a long history of disproportionately targeting communities of color—Gates once asserted in his 14-year tenure as police chief that black people were more susceptible to die from chokeholds than “normal people.”
This practice of stripping black people of their humanity—whether finding that a man who hadn’t committed a violent crime deserved to be beaten into submission or unconsciously using whiteness as a barometer for normalcy—fueled the 6 days of unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal. Blacks around America were unconvinced that King’s beating was merely a case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. His brutality appeared to be the physical manifestation of a police system and society that intrinsically detested and sought to extinguish blackness. In exchange, thousands of black Americans spilled into the streets to eliminate the symbols of their oppression.
African Americans were facing another harsh reminder that the American half of their identity was not merely outweighed by the stark reality of their unequal treatment. Rather, it was hanging precariously off the balance. In turn, a wave of black representation flooded the mainstream while Afrocentricity returned to prominence in black American culture. Instead of suffocating in the ashes of LA’s burnt out storefronts, many African-Americans gasped for the security of each other and an identity that preceded the one alternately forced upon them and denied in their tumultuous 373-year history in the United States. Like other black American social movements that preceded the L.A. uprising, black people once again partnered political action with reaffirmations of their culture.