Rodney King – 20 Years Later

Rodney King Beating   I wouldn’t have thought about it were it not for the articles and tv specials.  It was 20 years ago today that George Holliday shot his famous home video of the Rodney King beating in Lake View Terrace.  The video eventually found its way to KTLA, where my former colleague, the late Hal Fishman, viewed it and made the call to put it on the air.   A piece of tape that would shake us to our collective core.

Images remain.  Smoke rising from a city under siege.  Shopkeepers with rifles on the rooftops above us as we drove down Vermont Avenue.  A young protester naked from the waste up, trying to rip our video camera out of my camerman’s hands.  Street signs torn from their moorings and sent flying through the air, hurled by protesters at police formed up in a skirmish line in front of Parker Center.

Later that same day, after the protesters had been cleared away, Police Commission President Stanley Sheinbaum emerged from the headquarters building and uttered the words, “I don’t believe it…I just don’t believe it.”   I was standing on the roof of our van at the time and I remember thinking, “How couldn’t you?”

So many of us that worked the streets had been watching that same pot boil for years.  Eula Love.  Latasha Harlins.  A Chief of Police  who had absolutely no “feel” for community relations and who was at war with the city’s African American mayor.  It got to the point where the Chief and the Mayor weren’t talking.  Rumor was, they hadn’t spoken for months.  It was just a matter of time before the lid blew off.  I felt it coming.  I’m certain others did as well.

Years later, while doing media training for the LAPD, I told a group of detectives that their professional lives had been forever changed.   “From here on out” I told them, “you won’t be able to make a move without assuming that everything you’re doing is being videotaped by someone.”   It may seem all too obvious when viewed through a contemporary lens. However, back then it was new.  For better or for worse, the impact of what would come to be called “citizen journalism” was just beginning to be felt.   I suspect that some of it’s good and some bad.  I don’t really care for commercial tv stations encouraging their viewers to shoot tape or photos which are subsequently aired without compensation — and sometimes without adequate vetting with regard to their validity.  I do know that Fishman made history when he decided the tape needed to go on the air, and that none of us who were there at the time had any idea as to the impact it would have.

I don’t know how others who covered the trials and the riots and all the rest of it now feel.  For me the memories remain vivid but viewed through a tunnel.   They are both immediate and distant and not necessarily something I want to revisit.

If you haven’t had enough of it, CNN will be running a special Friday at 8PM Eastern.   I would also recommend Lou Cannon’s excellent book, “Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed the LAPD.”

I still have a copy of the FBI’s enhanced version of the beating but I won’t be hauling it out to mark the anniversary.  Don’t want to.  Don’t need to.  It’s burned into my brain.

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