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As LA remembers race riots, Trayvon Martin's name is invoked

Twenty years ago this weekend, South Central Los Angeles erupted after four police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. On the anniversary of the riots, some are drawing parallels to the Trayvon Martin shooting.

By Patrik JonssonStaff writer / April 28, 2012

Rodney King, whose police beating set off the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of King sparked rioting that spread across the city and into neighboring suburbs.

Matt Sayles/AP



On tour promoting his new book, Rodney King, the Los Angeles man whose videotaped beating by Los Angeles police became a flashpoint for the 1992 LA riots, is often asked to put his ordeal into contemporary terms.

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On the 20th anniversary of the riots, the name Mr. King often mentions is Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida boy who was shot and killed on Feb. 26 by a suspicious neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman.

The police’s original decision to not charge Mr. Zimmerman with a crime again raised questions about the treatment of black men by police and the courts, questions that in 1992 exploded into looting, arson, and violence when the four officers charged with the beating were acquitted by a jury. Fifty-five people died.

“It's nothing for them to come along and just shoot you, put a bullet in you because they know that, hey, … he's a black guy,” Mr. King told NPR this week.” They think about it like it's nothing when a citizen go out there and kill an innocent child, like in this case of Trayvon Martin.”

IN PICTURES: The Los Angeles riots, twenty years later

There are of course several differences between the two events.

Mr. King, out of jail on parole, was driving drunk and evading cops before the beating began. Video of the beating was replayed for months. Trayvon, a high school student, was on his way to his father’s house in Sanford, Fla., after making a snack run when he was shot by Zimmerman after the two fought. No video exists, only testimony from Zimmerman and several witnesses.

What’s more, tensions between police and inner city Angelenos were higher in 1992 than they are today, thanks to new policing strategies and the professionalization of the force. Politically, America is different, having elected its first black president in 2008, although some have raised concerns that racial polarization has increased under Obama. And overall crime rates in the US have plummeted since the time of the Los Angeles riots.

Moreover, experts say that they’ve seen a calm resolve amid those who protested to have Zimmerman arrested, perhaps in part “because the riots didn’t accomplish as much as people would want,” Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson tells USA Today. “People now may be asking, ‘How do we get attention in a way that’s more positive?’”


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