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.
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.”
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?’”
Civil rights leader and MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton appeared at a church rally in Los Angeles this week commemorating the two-month anniversary of Trayvon’s death, and in a piece for the Huffington Post called for calm and introspection in light of the riots 20 years ago.
“I’ve fought for justice for Trayvon,” Mr. Sharpton wrote, “because I believe in America and I don’t believe we should burn it down. Let’s prove that we are in fact the United States of America, and let’s not miss another opportunity to show just how great we can be.”
Six weeks after Trayvon’s death, a special prosecutor in Florida pressed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman, who posted bond on April 20. The looming trial will be high-stakes, legal experts say, both for the ability of the courts to give Zimmerman a fair trial as well as the possibility of an acquittal, given the limited evidence prosecutors have to convict Zimmerman.
“Unless some previously undisclosed evidence emerges against George Zimmerman, he will not be convicted of any crime, and in any event I’m confident he will never be convicted of murder,” writes a concerned Jack Dunphy, the nom de plume of an LA police officer, at PJ Media. “When he is acquitted, or when a mistrial is declared with a hung jury, what will happen?”
And at least one central figure of the LA riots agrees that there is cause for concern.
“Enough is enough,” Henry Watson, one of a group of people to assault truck driver Reginald Denny in the opening moments of the riots, told KNBC in Los Angeles. “And you know, history has a tendency to repeat itself, you understand? So it’s boiling. It’s hot right now with the [Trayvon Martin] issue in Florida…. You can’t keep killing black folks. We’re not going to allow it.”
Indeed, the extent to which parts of America are still a racial tinder box may be tested by the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial, Ben Crump, the Martin family’s lawyer, tells USA Today.
On Thursday, Mr. Crump, Sharpton, and Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, attended a rally in Los Angeles.
"You want to believe change has happened" since the riots, Crump said. "We will get a more definitive answer when the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case is rendered."