It has been twenty five years since the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. The event continues to resonate internationally, especially given recent events in India
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March 3, 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of the late Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers. Over a year later in May 1992, the tumultuous scenes of civil unrest in Los Angeles could not have felt any closer to home, even as my family and I watched them on the television in Goa. The newscaster offered a recap of the story that we had been following intently since April. Tensions had flared in the aftermath of the verdict in the King beating trial. Despite videotaped evidence by George Holliday who lived near where the beating had taken place, the jury exonerated the policemen responsible for violently assaulting the black motorist. The acquitted policemen, as well as the jury, had been all white. In a year, we would be emigrating to the United States. Los Angeles was our destination. And, like King, my first name is Rodney.
King was so much a part of my consciousness that I would often introduce myself as “Rodney… You know… like King? Rodney King?” I needed the added qualification because, as I was told on more than one occasion, it was odd that someone of my racial background would have “a name like that.” In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, multiculturalism does not equate with awareness or the lack of segregation, and the same could be said for the many places I have called home across the world, India included.
During the unrest, when King famously made his televised plea for the people of his city to “get along,” his statement became the stuff of legendary ridicule. Was it that the notion of co-existing amicably was so simplistic, or that the sentiment had come from an ordinary black man with a rap sheet who had been beaten by the police? What the incident had done was to raise questions about police brutality and whose rights the keepers of the peace were protecting. For South Asian Americans, among members of other ethnic communities, similar issues of racial profiling and civil rights violations rose to a crescendo in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. Racial injustice may not be unique to any one minority group, but it is this very ubiquity of violence that should make us more mindful of its existence, as well as the role the state plays in using violence to undermine the rights of minorities.
Echoes of the legacy of King’s beating can be heard 25 years later in the contemporary United States where the Black Lives Matters movement continues to draw attention to the deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Similarly, the movement incited by the January death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in India has underscored how state-backed educational institutions perpetuate upper caste privilege while turning a blind eye to the plight of Dalit students. It is no coincidence that in the Vemula moment, charges of anti-nationalism have been levied against those on campuses that have been allegedly involved in questioning abuses of state power. Even so, it is essential to note that current discussions of political dissent and freedom of speech cannot stand in for the struggles of Kashmiris or Dalits.
King’s arrest still resonates internationally 25 years later as evidence of how it is often the targets of state violence who bear the brunt of having to prove their victimisation. If even after his death, there continue to be efforts to depoliticise Vemula’s suicide through ludicrous claims by the police that he was not actually Dalit, there are parallels to be drawn to the fashion in which Black victims of police violence in the United States find themselves having to prove their lack of criminality. In her article “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” (1993), Judith Butler explains how King’s body was made synonymous with a threat that required policing to ensure white safety. Similarly in India, Dalit bodies become the site of recognition of upper caste privilege; in effect, saying Vemula may not have been Dalit attempts to reduce upper caste culpability in his death.
While King’s beating highlighted the racialised nature of state-sponsored violence, it was never his intention to be a cause célèbre. “Long after your case is closed, you are going to have to be Rodney King for the rest of your life. Do you think you can handle that?” attorney Steven Lerman had asked his client, the Los Angeles Times reported in a story following King’s death in 2012. “Steve, I just don’t know,” King replied. The article also quotes an earlier interview in which King mused, “People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks … But it's hard to live up to some people's expectations...” King was an ordinary man upon whom national attention had been thrust. Yet, 25 years later, his story still bears relevance. The same will be true of Rohith Vemula, an ordinary man whose mind was “a glorious thing made up of stardust”, a young person who could not live long enough to see things change, but one who hoped his death would not be in vain.
R. Benedito Ferrão is a writer and academic. Connect with him at thenightchild.blogspot.com, or on Facebook at The Nightchild Nexus