Sunday, April 29, 2007

Rodney King 15 Years Later

Sunday April 29, 2007 - On Sunday afternoon NPR broadcast a really fascinating episode of the Tavis Smiley Show from Los Angeles that looked back on the riots that gripped the City of Angels in 1992 in the wake of the acquittal of the four white LAPD police officers charged with beating African-American motorist Rodney King.

California State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, Maxine Waters the US Representative from California's 35th congressional district and LA Mayor Antonio Villagrosa were all on the program. Former LA police Chiefs Darryl Gates and Willie Williams were both guests on the program as well.

Gates was surprisingly candid about how shocked he was when he walked into work the day after the videotapes of the vicious beating of King were released and his secretary told him something horrible had happened. After examining the tapes himself, Gates said he was as disturbed as anyone.

Some have accused Gates of creating something of a "occupational force" mentality within the LAPD ranks in regards to the controversial police tactics used in the mostly African-American and Latino communities. So I admit to being somewhat taken back hearing this from the mouth of the same man who created SWAT teams in part to deal with urban violence stemming from the riots that broke out in southern Los Angeles' mostly African-American community in the 1960's.

Willie Williams (the former LAPD chief hired in the wake of Gates departure) expressed concern that the rapid clean up of the landscape and streets of LA had the effect of clouding the deeper issues of prejudice and racism that have existed in the city of Los Angeles for decades. Tensions between African-Americans, whites, Koreans and Latinos stem in part from the lack of education, community investment, economic planning, career opportunities and jobs that affect the poor communities of color.

Each of the politicians reported that it is in fact these socio-economic conditions that lie at the root of these problems that explode into the media spotlight in the wake of incidents like the OJ Simpson decision, the acquittal of the LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King or when Soon Ja Du, the Korean grocer who killed 15 year-old African-American Latasha Harlins when she shot her in the back of the head after a physical confrontation over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice; Du received 5 years probation, a $500 fine and 400 hours of community service from Judge Joyce Karlin. Karlin's decision outraged community activists and further fractured relations between the black and Korean communities in LA.

Let's get serious; can you imagine the reaction if a 15 year-old white girl from Westchester County was shot in the head for stealing a bottle of juice from a convenience store?

The causes of these incidents are not just racism, it's about perception; nearly 70% of the LAPD is now made up of people of color yet the tensions between police and residents of poorer communities continues to exist as do incidents of police brutality by the LAPD.

America can never collectively evolve as a nation until all citizens have a better understanding of how substandard education, exclusion, lack of economic opportunity, fear and ignorance spark the prejudice and racism that continue to divide our nation and pollute our collective conscious.


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