Tale of two verdicts, 29 years apart: George Floyd got the justice he deserved but Rodney King never did
Before George Floyd, there was Rodney King. Here's what happened in 1991 and how the police assault on King led to one of the worst race riots in American history
On April 20, 2021, a 12-member jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man. Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter and reportedly faces up to 12 and a half years, or 150 months in prison. Netizens across the world and most of the nation rejoiced after this landmark verdict -- perhaps because 29 years ago, a case with glaring similarities got a very different verdict.
On April 29, 1992, a jury in Simi Valley, California acquitted four Los Angeles police officers accused of using excessive force and beating up an African-American man Rodney King. Despite evidence in the form of a videotape that was circulated extensively in television broadcasts, the cops walked away with their careers intact.
The acquittal led to widespread riots in LA that were reportedly one of the worst race riots in American history. Over a course of six days, 63 people died, 2,383 injured and more than 12,000 were arrested.
Atrocities and police abuse against the two Black men from two big cities, their deaths separated by a decade, was captured on camera. While Floyd died after a struggle of more than 9 minutes, King survived his police encounter. He went on to publish his memoir 'The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption' in 2012 - dying just months later on June 17, 2012. In light of the recent verdict and how riots broke out after George Floyd's death, it's time to revisit the similarities in the two cases and what brought on the big cultural shift that led to a different verdict this time round.
What happened in 1991?
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, an activist, was speeding on a Los Angeles freeway when a California Highway Patrol officer pulled him over. This involved a high-speed chase as King didn't immediately give in and tried to outrun the cops. He eventually stopped near an apartment complex.
Four police officers - three white and one Latino - were captured on video kicking and beating King after he got on the ground. A man named George Holliday, a plumbing salesman and amateur videographer, who lived nearby, reportedly filmed the incident from his nearby balcony and sent the footage to the local news station KTLA. The video would go on to be widely circulated on television.
For an estimated period of 15 minutes, the four police officers used batons, Tasers, feet, and fists to beat up King brutally. He was left with some serious injuries such as "11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken [bones and teeth], kidney failure [and] emotional and physical trauma".
After the video was circulated through television broadcasts, it became a flashpoint for race relations in the country. There was a huge outrage about the excessive use of force and the extreme brutality of the beat down for a traffic violation. There were demands that Daryl Gates, who was the then Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, step down from his post.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney did go on to charge the four police officers responsible, including one sergeant, with assault and use of excessive force.
With strong evidence seemingly against the police officers in both the Floyd and King incidents in the form of video footage, there is one key point - the jury. The footage in both cases was widely circulated and was responsible for a lot of public opinions. But the jury always plays a key role in such cases. In the Chauvin trial, the jury consisted of six white people and six people of colour. Whereas in the King case, the jury was composed of ten whites, one bi-racial male, one Latino, and one Asian American - no Black people and only two POC.
It must also be noted that in both cases, the defense attorneys attempted to put the victims on trial - pulling out their histories for character assassination. They used the defense that the victims were big Black men who scared police officers - tropes that have been used to a damaging extent for several hundred years.
On April 29, 1992, the jury acquitted three of the officers, unsure of the charges against one. The verdict wasn't even remotely celebrated - earning widespread criticism instead. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley said, "The jury's verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD."
Just hours after the verdict was announced, the streets of LA were filled with angry Black men and women.
It was one of the worst riots in the country resulting in a loss of life - 63 deaths - and property - more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.
On May 1, 1992, King even made an emotional television appearance asking for an end to the riots. "I just want to say - you know - can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?" he had said.
Overlaps between Rodney King and George Floyd
The two similarities between the cases might give you a feeling of déjà vu, save for the verdict, of course.
Sacramento State criminal justice professor Shelby Moffatt, who spent 20 years as a police officer in Sacramento, reportedly explained in 'Can You Handle The Truth', "I think the outcome of the Rodney King trial had a lot to do with the outcome of this trial. They say if you had this trial, their children’s trial in 1992, you might have had a similar outcome because people were not ready to make the change then."