From Rodney King to George Floyd: Police Brutality and Racial Inequality in the United States
Disclaimer: this article includes descriptions of police brutality and violence against black people. If this is something that you might find distressing or triggering, please feel free to give this one a miss.
With former police officer Derek Chauvin being found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, the case has evoked memories of another infamous example of police brutality which took place 30 years ago. In 1991, images of Los Angeles police officers beating a young man named Rodney King lit up airwaves across the United States, provoking national outrage. However, these images did not immediately lead to a criminal conviction.
This article will look at the striking similarities between the injustices suffered by both Rodney King and George Floyd 30 years apart, and how this reflects a country still marred by police brutality and racial inequality.
The assault of Rodney King
In March 1991, 25-year-old construction worker Rodney King was stopped by police for speeding on a dark Los Angeles street after initially refusing to pull over. What happened next would shock American citizens and become one of the defining moments in the country’s history of police violence. Four Los Angeles Police Department – known as the ‘LAPD’ – officers proceeded to kick and hit Mr King repeatedly with their batons, including when he lay on the ground unarmed. The injuries he sustained included skull fractures, broken bones and permanent brain damage.
Unbeknownst to those involved, the assault had been captured on video by a nearby resident. As images of the attack aired on national news, provoking widespread outrage, four of the officers directly involved in the attack were charged with assault and other lesser charges. These were crimes punishable with up to seven years in prison. At their trial, the officers and their lawyers claimed they had used appropriate force to arrest Mr King.
Prosecutors disputed this, arguing that the beating went beyond acceptable levels of force.
The jury, which contained no black members, found the four police officers not guilty of all but one minor charge. This verdict was the major spark that ignited the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots, during which 63 people were killed, more than 2000 injured and countless businesses were burned to the ground.
The killing of George Floyd
Nearly 30 years later, with the world consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic, images circulated on social media showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man for several minutes until he became unconscious.
George Floyd, 46, had been arrested after having allegedly attempted to purchase a pack of cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. Minneapolis police officers claimed that Mr Floyd actively resisted being handcuffed when they arrived on the scene, yet body cameras worn by the officers show that he then became cooperative. It was when the officers tried to put the already-handcuffed Mr Floyd into their police car that a confrontation ensued. At this point, Mr Floyd resisted being placed inside the car, reportedly saying that he felt claustrophobic. According the official report, this led Mr Floyd to fall to the ground, where he remained face-down with his hands handcuffed behind his back.
It is from this point that onlookers began to film the incident as they became concerned by Mr Floyd’s increasingly distressed state. Police officer Derek Chauvin then proceeded to kneel on Mr Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes despite him repeatedly calling out that he was unable to breath. After about six minutes, Mr Floyd became non-responsive and bystanders urged the police to check if he had a pulse. A few minutes later Mr Chauvin removed his knee from the neck of Mr Floyd, who was rushed to hospital by ambulance. However, he was officially pronounced dead less than an hour afterwards.
These final moments of George Floyd’s life, captured on camera for the entire world to see, sparked indignation and outrage. Protests in Minneapolis in the days following Mr Floyd’s death led to several nights of rioting as many in the local community expressed their frustration and anger with policing and the justice system. Soon after, these events would provide impetus for the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the US and the rest of the world last summer.
Police brutality and the use of force
The reason why the assault of Rodney King and the killing of George Floyd provoked such strong reactions is not just due to the shocking nature of these crimes. For many of those watching, the infamous videos in question had not merely captured isolated incidents. Instead, it is argued that these were examples of a widespread problem which is too rarely brought to light unless caught on camera.
The wider issue brought into question is that of police brutality, something that has become almost synonymous with American policing. Police brutality refers to the unwarranted or excessive use of force used by police officers against civilians. Both the Rodney King and George Floyd cases appear to demonstrate a culture of brutality that pervades through American police forces.
Police brutality = the unwarranted or excessive use of force by police officers against civilians
In the assault of Rodney King, the infamous video showed at least four police officers giving him a vicious beating while other officers looked on, seemingly unperturbed by their colleagues’ actions. In radio messages sent shortly after the attack, officers were heard laughing and joking about the beating they had inflicted upon King, suggesting that a culture of violence was readily accepted within the force. At their trial, the officers’ defence team was supported by a number of colleagues and experts, including those within the LAPD, who helped to develop a story of scared police officers acting with appropriate force.
In the case of George Floyd’s murder, this culture of police brutality is instead demonstrated through the clear lack of empathy shown for his wellbeing. The Minneapolis police department and the wider policing community have since turned their back on Derek Chauvin, stating that his actions were inconsistent with protocol and training. Nevertheless, the fact remains that similar incidents of brutality and wrongful killing occur far too often to merely be considered isolated events. Indeed, more than a dozen complaints had previously been made against Chauvin, yet he remained in his post and even became a field training officer to oversee rookies.
The blue wall of silence
Another element of policing in the United States that has angered protesters is the apparent lack of accountability for police officers. This is aided by what is known as the ‘blue wall of silence’: the culture within police forces that encourages officers to protect each other from any scrutiny or punishment for wrongdoing. Due to this informal code of silence, police officers are less likely to report a colleague’s misconduct and, in the rare occasions that an officer is charged with a crime, their peers rarely testify against them.
1127 people were killed by US police in 2020. Only 1% of these cases saw an officer charged with a crime.
According to the Mapping Police Violence project, 1127 people were killed by the police in the US in 2020, most of which occurred when police were responding suspected non-violent offenses. Although 80 of these victims were unarmed, officers have been charged with a crime in only 16 cases. This is around one percent of all police killings.
Both the killing of George Floyd and the assault of Rodney King are rare examples of police brutality coming under scrutiny, almost certainly because they were filmed. Throughout the trial of Derek Chauvin, his former bosses and colleagues have been keen to condemn his actions, perhaps showing a crack in the blue wall of silence. As more officers wear body cameras and instances of police brutality are increasingly captured by smartphones, there is cause for hope that policing in the US is becoming more accountable.
Racial inequality in American policing
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the two victims in these cases, Rodney King and George Floyd, are both black men. Like so many other features of society, the issue of police brutality does not impact all Americans equally.
Although Rodney King and his lawyers did not originally wish for his assault to be viewed in racial terms, many of those who watched the video of the attack considered it to be yet another example of racially-motivated police violence. This attack was at the hands of a much-maligned Los Angeles police force long accused of discriminating against the city’s minority ethnic communities. The independent Christopher Commission, set up in the wake of the Rodney King attack and subsequent riots, found that a significant number of LAPD officers regularly used excessive force against citizens and that the use of force was “aggravated by racism and bias”.
Nearly thirty years later, the problem of racial bias in American policing sprung to mind once again following the killing of George Floyd. His death breathed fresh impetus into the Black Lives Matter movement, with protesters arguing that it was a fresh example of systemic racism in policing and American society at large. Delivering the eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral, veteran civil rights campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton spoke of the wider issue of racism in the United States; “George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to being is you kept your knee on our neck”, he said.
What do the numbers say?
Many of the statistics on policing and justice in the United States support the notion of systemic racism in the United States. According to the NAACP, a leading civil rights organisation, a black person in the US is five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than a white person, and 65% of black Americans feel unfairly targeted by the police. The organisation’s figures also show that one out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
"one out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in their lifetime"
These disparities extend to the use of police violence. One study has claimed that one in 1000 black men in the United States can expect to be killed by the police. Whilst there are conflicting studies over whether racial bias exists in police shootings, research indicates that black civilians are more likely to be subjected to other forms of force, such as pepper spray or chokeholds, even if they cooperate with the police.
The Stanford Open Policing Project investigated racial disparities in traffic stops, the most common form of police interaction, but which has served as the opening scenes of countless police killings. Their research shows that police forces tend to stop black drivers more often that white drivers and that black drivers are more likely to be searched when stopped. However, it is important to exercise caution when interpreting such statistics as it is difficult to differentiate discrimination in these cases from effective policing.
A new dawn in America?
Here lies the reason why the assault of Rodney King and the killing of Georg Floyd gained such national and international importance. As shocking as these cases may be in their own right, their true impact is in revealing the truths of a broken system often hidden from the more comfortable and affluent sections of society.
Whilst Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict provides direct accountability for the killing of George Floyd, real justice cannot be achieved until there is fundamental change in policing and the wider American society. If a culture of police violence, limited accountability and systemic racism is allowed to continue, the only thing that will change will be the names of the victims.