Gary: For several days, a stunned nation watched violence fill the streets of Los Angeles. More than fifty people killed. Twenty-three hundred injured. A billion dollars worth of damage.
“It was a disaster. It looked like a war zone. It was terrible. It was bad. Smoke for days; it was really, really bad.”
“There was a sense of despair, of hopelessness, anger and a perception that African-American life was not valued in this community.”
Gary: The deadly violence began with an incident caught on tape a year earlier in 1991.
L.A. police officers were videotaped as they kicked and repeatedly hit a driver, Rodney King, after he was pulled over following a high-speed chase.
On April 29th, 1992, a jury found the four officers — three white and one hispanic — not guilty. Within an hour of the verdict, South Central Los Angeles exploded. Thousands of furious L.A. residents — mostly black– took to the streets.
They broke into businesses, set buildings and shopping centers on fire and at the worst of the rioting, Rodney King made this plea:
Rodney King: Can’t we all get along? Can we all get along?
Gary: Rodney King became a household name, a symbol of police brutality and injustice in a country that has been dealing with racial division for 300 years.
Today, the country has been reminded of those tensions in the case of Trayvon Martin. The African-American Florida teenager was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who is white and hispanic, said it was self-defense. Trayvon did not have a weapon.
The shooting sparked weeks of protests from those demanding justice for Trayvon. And there was concern that Florida could see racial violence like that in Los Angeles, prompting Trayvon’s parents to ask for peaceful protests as they called for Zimmerman’s arrest.
Following that arrest, threats have been made against Zimmerman, and he has gone into hiding, fearing retaliation. Yet most of the protests and responses have been peaceful, as a law professor told the newspaper USA Today.
“People now may be asking, ‘How do we get attention in a way that’s more positive?’”
Gary: The King case and Trayvon’s situation are very different but there is worry the anger, resentment and frustration that fueled the Los Angeles riots still exists in minority communities, where people fear they will not be treated fairly by police and the justice system.
The riots in 1992 prompted the L.A. Police Department, and law enforcement agencies across the country, to change their policies about appropriate force, and improve their relationships with minority communities. And the use of non-lethal tools by police, like pepper spray and stun guns, is encouraged. And video cameras in police cruisers are common to record encounters.
But two decades later, the city and the country, are still struggling with racial injustice and inequality.
“We’re not done. We’re not where we need to be but we’re a long way from where we were twenty years ago.”
Gary: Gary Hamilton, Channel One News.