Twenty-nine years ago, an amateur videographer stood on his balcony and used his camcorder to videotape an unarmed black man being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police. This video was one of the earliest video-taped evidence of modern-day police brutality against unarmed people of color in America.
These are photos of the man – Rodney Glen King – three days after the beating. He had a broken leg, a bruised, swollen and cut face, and a burn on his chest from a 50,000-volt stun gun.
This was 29 years ago.
During the same month, a 15-year-old African-American girl named Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a store-owner after being suspected of trying to steal orange juice. It was later discovered that Latasha had intended to pay for the juice and was holding the cash in hand when she was shot. The killing was caught in a grainy security footage.
The store owner was charged with a $500 fine and probation. The four officers involved in King’s beating were tried but all were acquitted. Less than three hours after the verdict was announced, unrest began, a rallying cry turned into the 1992 LA riots – 6 days of protests, looting, fires and destruction.
This was 29 years ago. Today, African American youth protesting the same injustice likely know little about Rodney King and Latasha Harlins. But, here they are, fighting the same fight, because the generation before them failed to care.
Only after a closer look are you able to tell that these two photos are almost two decades apart.
Twenty-nine years is a long time. I was six years old then, living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. An African dreaming about a life in the great America, the land of opportunities. Opportunities I’d enjoy because of the strong, beautiful black people who’d come before me, whose fruits of labor I proudly consider myself to be. But six-year-old me was naive and oblivious to the repeated horror I would witness against people my color. Against young men who could easily be my own brother. Even more horrifying – that even after the recurrent trauma of viewing evidence of racism in its flesh and bone, no real change would ever come.
Tamir Rice wasn’t even born at the time of King’s beating, but the LA riots were a cry for you to care about his life. The same cry of today – that his life, a black life, does matter. For you to care as though King and Harlins were your own.
But you didn’t. Or perhaps you didn’t care enough. Thus, Rice became another victim of the same injustice 23 years later, when he was only 12 years old. A beautiful, innocent black boy, unarmed and gunned down by a white officer.
Twenty-nine years ago, George Floyd was only 18 years old, and Eric Garner 21 years old. I wonder how it made them feel to see King being beaten, and all four white officers who beat him go free. America, their country, simply moving on.
Over two decades later, at the age of 43, Garner cried out “I can’t breathe” as he was suffocated to death in the hands of white officers. This led to protests and outcries, yet another pleading for you to care. To be convinced that black lives should matter to you. But you weren’t convinced. So here we are today, watching as Floyd echoed the same last words – “I can’t breathe” – as he, too, was suffocated to death in the hands of a white officer.
Twenty-nine years. Sandra Bland had just turned four, Ahumad Arbery had just turned three. Mya Hall wasn’t even born yet, it’d be another three years before she would be. They were innocent and unknowing of their tragic fates.
As I try to account for all of the black lives lost due to injustice, it’s impossible to see their names and not get lost in them; my vision blurs. The sheer density is dizzying. And it also makes me feel uneasy – like peering into a killer’s secret manifest. But it’s the easiest thing we have to show you. Look. And these are only the ones we know about.
Twenty-nine years ago, it was a camcorder. Today, it’s the cell phone. Twenty-nine years ago, it was a local news channel. Today, it’s the Internet. That seems to be all that has changed. Everything else is the same. The recurrent scenes of horror and blatant injustice seem to only haunt and traumatize us. The cycle continues:
Video-taped evidence of brutality or injustice against people of color ➡ psychological trauma ➡ anger, unrest, protests and vigils ➡ no action at all or only superficial action (e.g., a fine, a firing, charge followed by acquittal) ➡ anger, unrest, protests and vigils ➡ the whole country waits for us to quiet down, collectively shrugs and eventually turns away ➡ return to normalcy.
The word “normalcy” sounds so benign. But we aren’t fooled. The state of “normalcy” in America isn’t “normal”. It’s characterized by the insidious kind of racism. The subtle and everyday kind. The less overt and more institutional kind. Eventually, it isn’t a singular, isolated, colossal thing that leads to the murder and injustice of an unarmed person of color. It’s the minuscule but chronic and pervasive occurrences that you are apathetic about.
Here is a tiny sliver of the current state of normalcy in America:
- COVID-19 is killing a disproportionally higher number of African-Americans than it is white Americans. This is because of existing health disparities (higher burden of chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes), long-standing housing and economic disparities (lesser likelihood of owning a car and a single-family home) and the higher likelihood of working in the service sector without the luxury or option to tele-work.
- African-Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.1
- African-Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans, although they are less likely to be armed.2
- African-Americans are imprisoned for drug charges almost 6 times the rate of white Americans, although both use drugs at similar rates.1
- Over 20% of African-Americans live below the poverty line, compared to 8% of white Americans.3
- There is a pervasive distinction between African-American history and American history.
- Black history, slavery and racism are taboo subjects.
Look at the picture.
What is the difference between current attitudes and behaviors of white America and those of the women in the front of the bus in this photo? Complacent and silent in the face of a sickening state of normalcy. Accepting of white privilege. Veiled and protected by white blindness.
What is the difference between these two images, besides being 57 years apart?
Whether 57 or 29 years, it’s disheartening to realize not much has really changed. You see, “black lives matter” isn’t just about not killing black people. It’s also about the quality of life lived. Are people of color really free to pursue happiness? As free as you? Do we have the same quality and quantity of life as you?
People of color only make up 13% of America’s population. They’ve been asking you – you, the majority – to care about their lives. They can’t dictate or demand how you care. Which is why the ask seems so low; just first and foremost, simply understand that their lives matter, equally as yours.
Now, for more specific asks:
Start with yourself. Reflect on your biases – implicit or explicit. We all have them and we all need to do this. Whether you are a teacher, doctor, scientist, lawyer. How do your biases dictate how you see the world and your everyday interactions with people of color compared to white Americans? How do people of color benefit from the work that you do for a living, and your passions, compared to white Americans?
If you’re a parent, why don’t you talk about race with your children? Why don’t you talk to them about ideals of beauty, so that they can grow up seeing that brown and black faces are beautiful, too? And non-menacing.
Why don’t you question the default Eurocentric setting of the American educational system and do your own research to understand that Black history is also your history, because you benefit from centuries-old attitudes, behaviors, policies and laws that provide you with the social position you now have?
Why don’t you become incensed enough to march on the streets, the same way you did for women’s rights, donning “black lives matter” masks the same way you did your pink pussy hats, or holding high a “Justice for George Floyd” sign the same way you held a “There is no Planet B” sign during a climate march?
Why don’t demand transparency and accountability from leaders and individuals in institutions that sustain racial disparities in your community? Or if you see this happening point blank, why don’t you say something or do something?
If you’re in law enforcement, why don’t you fight to have policies in place that would’ve prevented an officer like Derrick Chauvin from being able to continue to police after having had a total of 12 police brutality complaints against him?
If you’re a social scientist, why don’t you conduct qualitative studies to tell the stories behind the raw data on racial disparities (in the criminal justice system, law enforcement, health, education, gender identity and human rights, environmental rights, income and many more sectors of our lives)?
We have got to find a better way. I understand this more than ever now. I wholeheartedly feel the gravity of my own inaction, too. Listen to the cracking voice of this 31-year-old black man pleading with a 16-year-old black boy to “find a better way.” He exemplifies everything we are all feeling – completely devastated, angry, and tired. We are tired. But we know we have to find a better way for this 16-year-old black boy.
The better way is for you to care and do better. This time, even the whole world is imploring you to.