It started simply enough. I was a senior in college, living and studying in Southern California; I remember walking into the student lounge and meeting a friend. He asked, "You seen this yet? Some guy got beat up by the cops, and somebody got it on tape." And so we sat and watched the replay of Rodney King's beating, over and over again.
As a side note, you have to remember that video cameras were still somewhat rare in 1991. Since cell phones had yet to be invented, (well, other than Zack Morris' super-jumbo cellular telephone)
people weren't walking around with iPhones in their pocket, ready in case anything worth commemorating happened. (side side note: what's up with people using their iPads as video cameras? Really? Are we going to go down that road?)
So there was the obvious interest in what seemed an unfair beating at the hands of L.A.'s finest, but there was also the fascination of real-life police drama playing out on the TV - not something created in a studio for entertainment, nothing scripted (reality TV was still a couple years away - oh, what an innocent time that was). Real life, captured in all its grittiness.
Then the debates and rumors. King was high on PCP. There were pieces of the video cut out, pieces that showed King violently attacking the police. There had been a long car chase prior to the video. And a hundred other rumors and explanations used to vilify or justify King or the police, depending on who you wanted to see as the hero and who you wanted to see as the victim.
The trial carried on in the background of my second senior year in college, exploding into the L.A. riots, which broke out the week before graduation.
One moment, I was preparing for finals and rehearsing for choir tour; the next, I was in my apartment, watching the city just-down-the-road explode into a war zone. We watched the tape come in of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck at Florence and Normandy. A few hours later I walked outside to find burning paper floating down from the sky. The city was on fire, and her ashes were falling around us.
It was surreal. It was all happening right down the road, and yet, to a student safely ensconced in the confines of a college campus, it was still far away. Still, I had to call mom to assure her that we were all safe.
The next week we graduated, and left for our 3-week choir and orchestra tour, driving up through California, Oregon, Washington, and into British Columbia. Every night it was the same thing; we'd head home with our host families, and spend the next hour describing what it was like to attend college a mere 25 miles from the fear, the crime, and the chaos the rest of the world was witnessing via CBS News.
Over the next years I would find myself in Los Angeles; I would drive through that intersection at Florence and Normandy; I would stand and pray in the burned-out parking lots where once had stood markets and mini-malls. One night Dave and I got lost in a dark neighborhood as we went looking for a place to eat after a day at Long Beach. We passed scorched shops and large groups of young men who looked too much like those guys on TV who were looting and shooting. We were scared.
Yet, eight years later I took a group of high schoolers into that area, and most of them couldn't even remember those terrible days. Time passed. I moved away. The city rebuilt itself, mostly. And now it's 20 years after those riots, and Rodney King has passed on from this troubled world. I hope he found some peace in his life; from some of the reports I've read, he did, although the wounds from that beating haunted him the rest of his life. I can't speak much for L.A., since I've been away now for 15 years.
As to our world. . .I'm hopeful and encouraged, because I think today's young people, for the most part, have left much of the scourge of racism behind. And we have an African-American president. Not that we've arrived, by any means, but there is definite progress.
On the other hand, the L.A. riots were about economic disparity as much as racism. The easy explanation was the white vs. black narrative. But much deeper than that was the simmering rage of a class systemically pushed down and away by those with economic and political power. And on that end, our country is divided as much as ever. In fact, we have a growing number of unemployed and underemployed. How many million are still jobless, desperate for work, losing their homes because a few billionaires played fast and loose with our money? And how many of those billionaires were ever held accountable? None, I think.
For now, the minions are distracted by the NBA finals and Kim Kardashian. But you push people down long enough, build up enough resentment, and all it takes is a random person pulled over for speeding down a dark highway to open the floodgates for all that rage and anger. Once the riots began, it was too late for the "Can't we all just get along?" question.
Those are the questions we should be asking now - how do we create a world in which everybody gets their fair shake, where they don't have to fight for their scraps at the table, where they are treated with dignity and respect, and given opportunities to provide for their needs. In that word, it will be much, much easier for all of us to get along.