African American Rodney King was no poster boy for civil rights, but fate makes its own choices. It was 20 years ago, March 3, 1991 to be exact, that King’s horrific encounter with four Los Angeles Police Department officers in which he was beaten – hit more than 50 times with police batons – kicked and tasered was recorded by George Holliday from his apartment.
King and two companions were pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If a similar rapid dissemination through uploading a recording of this infamous encounter had occurred in recent times we would be referring to it as having gone ‘viral’, but in the days before Youtube, television news outlets around the world picked up the nine-minute video recording.
The events that followed the wide airing of that visual evidence of the police brutality African Americans living in Los Angeles hade complained about for years were devastating.
Just over a year later, what followed the jury’s decision to acquit the four officers – a decision that even the U.S. president of the day, George H. Bush, questioned – we now refer to as the L.A. Riots. In their anger and frustration at seeing justice not served, residents of South Central Los Angeles set their neighbourhoods on fire. Six days of rioting resulted in $1-billion in damage. More than 50 people lost their lives in the riot and over 2000 were injured.
But the reaction did not stop in L.A. There were riots in other American cities, while here in Toronto we faced disturbances on Yonge Street (which some have also called a riot) when disenfranchised youth joined in the L.A. momentum by protesting the injustice and unequal treatment directed at them by institutions that are meant to uphold fairness and justice.
By the way, the four LAPD officers were later retried and two were found guilty.
In the hands of everyday people, visual recording devices – cellphone cameras and digital cameras – have been making a real difference exponentially since the Rodney King incident. They are influencing court decisions and giving rise to revolutions.
Beyond the King incident, an Ottawa tourist’s video recording of a police beating here in Toronto in 2003 was also the defining evidence that saved Somali refugee Said Jama Jama from charges by police that he assaulted an officer.
In fact, the video showed just the opposite and made clear that the officer’s recounting of the incident was in contradiction to the events that took place during that Caribana weekend. Thanks to that video evidence Jama Jama was saved from deportation and the police officer was given a 30-day prison sentence.
Cellphone recordings have also led Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit to reopen cases of police assault during last summer’s G-20 protests in Toronto.
Twenty years after the police beating of Rodney King, communications media in the hands of ordinary folks are also turning the Arab countries of North Africa into a massive field of revolutionaries fighting for democracy.
The pictures that we give to each other tell the world about what is happening and they do so through means beyond the control of the powers that be. Proving that an organized authority is not required for masses of people to function effectively, common people are the ones making a difference in today’s world. These unmediated pieces of information reach out beyond their points of origin and in effect are bringing the world together in ways that are important to pay attention to. We know the world is changing, but we need at times to stand back and get a true sense of how it is changing. There is a lot of bad news coming at us from so many directions but if we look at the courage that people all over the world show in our human desire for freedom and justice then it gives us a reason to continue to hope for humanity.
A note on trade-offs…
Whatever happens in Libya, which is now fighting within itself for freedom and democracy, those who depend on oil supplies from that nation want to be sure that they can have continued access to that oil. Therefore, they are hedging their bets. Rather than get into the middle of this bloody civil strife and risk being alienated by whoever wins, nations like the U.S. and Germany are holding back, resisting pleas from Libyan rebels and other Arab nations in declaring Libya a ‘no-fly’ zone to rein in Muammar Gaddafi’s attacks on Libyans. In order to ensure Western access to oil, thousands of Libyans will not live to see tomorrow.