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Est. April 5, 2002
May 25, 2017 - Issue 700

No, We Can’t All Just Get Along
Putting the Rodney King beatdown
in historical context


"The 1992 acquittal sent a reverberating message
that even with a horrific, irrefutable visual proof of
brutality, white police would suffer no consequences
for their actions. As a long, hot summer approaches,
we need to study the 25 years before the acquittals
and the 25 years since to sharpen our analysis and
to inform our strategy around state repression."

Recently we received a bitter reminder of this country’s history of police terrorism: The 25th anniversary of the acquittal of the Los Angeles cops in the brutal beat-down of Rodney King. Several documentaries, including one by South Central L.A. native and independent filmmaker John Singleton, reveal the ruthless policing in communities or color and the lack of progress in police-community relations. Today, we're still a police bullet or bully club away from a black or brown body being the point of contact. We're a heartbeat away from the next explosion of human rage. The 1992 acquittal sent a reverberating message that even with a horrific, irrefutable visual proof of brutality, white police would suffer no consequences for their actions. As a long, hot summer approaches, we need to study the 25 years before the acquittals and the 25 years since to sharpen our analysis and to inform our strategy around state repression.

Twenty-five years before the infamous acquittal, all hell was breaking loose across the nation as nearly 160 cities experienced urban uprisings in 1967. The rebellions were the result of continued racial discrimination ignited by persistent police violence. More pointedly, the system of white supremacy had doubled-down after people of color, poor folks and allies had fought for important reforms such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The monumental 1963 March on Washington exposed the so-called American Dream has unachievable for most of the country. The entrenched patterns of increased oppression and repression generally follow successful struggles for equality and justice (even though sometimes short-term). Can we say “Reconstruction”?

Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson could not ignore smoldering urban ruins and destruction of human life that started in 1965 with the LA Watts rebellion and escalated in 1967. He pulled together the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, aka the Kerner Report, to examine the root causes of the uprisings. The original draft report was direct and unapologetic about the causes of unrest. Racism-pure but not necessarily simple.

One of the memorable quotes for me from the blistering draft was “A truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold, an unwillingness to compromise or wait any longer, to risk death rather than have their people continue in a subordinate status.” Johnson was already embroiled in a fractious relationship with white conservations moving to consolidate The Southern Strategy. He was consumed with demands from the black community for civil and human rights as well as the flailing Vietnam War. He wanted no further hits to his fragile administration that would embarrass him. Commission Chair Otto Kerner was ordered to sacked the 120 policy wonks and community advocates who had helped to shape the report and the 11-member commission released its own report ironically during Black History Month in 1968. Nobody could foresee that another round of national uprisings would rock the country with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Still, even the watered-down report couldn’t soften the underlying causes of the rebellions--racist policies and practices across the board in employment, housing, education, health care. Add to that the combustible nature of the racist judicial system aided and abetted by occupying police forces in black and brown communities. Many community advocates, political observers, social scientists believed that the Kerner Report had laid out enough of the problems and possible solutions to begin disruption of the developing of “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Johnson and White America rejected the report; it pointed fingers at systemic racism and the attitudes of whites that helped to create and perpetuate the situation. The report was published and it became a New York Bestseller. (Can anybody tell me where the money went?) White supremacy prevailed once again and the opportunity to boldly tackle domestic issues was decisively suppressed. The fate of addressing race relations head-on was sealed when Johnson decided to increase the military budget over investing in societal changes at home.

In the 25 years since the L.A. police acquittals, the white power structure has gotten a firmer handle on its repressive tactics in the face of weakened community organizing. There have been dramatic increases in police violence, including the documentation by citizen video-taping. Police departments have become militarized not only in their tactics but they were using actual military equipment in residential communities. There have been few indictments or convictions of killer cops. Emboldened police fraternities and unions have organized introduction of “Blue Lives Matters” laws that are sweeping the country making more encounters with the police likely to lead to criminal charges and harsher sentences. States like Louisiana added cops to their existing hate crimes law which means police will receive the same protections that were once reserved for people of color, religious groups and members of the LGBTQ community.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was a direct response to the savage 1991 beating of Rodney King. The law gave the U.S. Department of Justice the authority to sue police agencies when a pattern and practice of excessive force is used or when citizens’ civil rights are violated. Since the law was enacted, there have been 60 investigations into police agencies rife with corruption and discriminatory practices. Currently there are about 20 cities whose police departments are under consent decrees including Ferguson, MO after the police murder of Michael Brown. Most don’t come to the table as willing partners and many are resistance to implementing any meaningful changes.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has publicly criticized the use of consent decrees, citing the reduction of “morale of the police officers.” Translation: When cops can’t freely violate black and brown bodies without consequences, it makes cops sad. Sessions has sent a message to rogue departments that he doesn’t intend to take these decrees seriously. The weight of implementation of consent decrees and demanding accountability of police departments will fall on our beleaguered communities—organized or not. There is no cavalry coming to save us.

The country is at a crossroads as to how it moves forward and who gets to be included in its future. The issues highlighted in the Kerner Report are just as real now as they were 25-30 years ago. Jobs with livable wages, affordable housing, accessible health care, quality education, etc. could go a long way in impacting both poverty and equality.

I suggest that black, brown and poor communities are also at a crossroad when it comes to policing, the daily enforcer of the racist status quo that hovers over us like heavy metal. The community I know the best has two divergent sentiments about policing. One is that we completely move away from any police occupation in our neighborhoods. The other is that police are necessary but we need to change the way they police in our hoods. What would be taking on either of these scenarios look like? In either case, a new and different kind of aggressive organizing would have to be undertaken as part of an overall strategy that comes from a place of collective analysis.

Some communities are starting with changing the narrative around public safety. In St. Louis, community organizers have embarked upon an ongoing campaign to “re-envision public safety” moving away from the arrest-and-incarceration model that sucks up resources with little impact. Baltimore has also been engaging in innovative ways to re-invest in people and neighborhoods. We need to examine these and other models to see how and if they can transform the way we live.

A Trump Administration has vowed to take us backward and to not spend a dollar on poor and working class people, especially black folks. We will never “get along” if there is an intractable commitment to preserve and perpetuate racism, poverty and injustice. Those who are destined to get the back-hand of neo-slavery and neo-fascism policies will resist and rebel automatically as part of protecting our humanity and dignity. The nation is poised to an endless war with itself until the fundamental injustices get resolved. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Jamala Rogers, founder and Chair Emeritus of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis. She is an organizer, trainer and speaker. She is the author of The Best of the Way I See It – A Chronicle of Struggle.  Other writings by Ms. Rogers can be found on her blog jamalarogers.comContact Ms. Rogers and BC.




is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion by Jamala Rogers