America’s entrenched social chasm: revisiting the King riots

We're doomed to repeat cycles of anger as long as we live side by side without ever having the first inkling of what life is like for others

Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1992, I first experienced what has since been called “two Americas.”

I was fresh out of the insulated world of university and living in Los Angeles. I didn’t know I was about to have a front-row seat to the social disconnect and divide that can exist between citizens sharing the same space in the real world. It came into my consciousness because of Rodney King.

A year earlier, on March 3, 1991, local newscasts were filled with a video taken by Canadian-born George Holliday from his apartment balcony. In that prehistoric age before social media, the grainy footage of King being beaten still managed to quickly find its way around the world. Take that, millennials.

And that’s where perception and vocabulary began to determine how one viewed everything that came later. Was King an “innocent motorist,” as he was sometimes called, or a “fleeing felon,” as he was likewise labelled? It gave me an early lesson that the words we choose to describe events are loaded with meaning designed to build a response in line with our prejudices.

How many incidents of police shootings in the quarter-century since are still debated based on competing descriptions of what the victim was doing and how this was perceived by law enforcement?

And how many of those descriptions are determined by entrenched world-views based on privilege – of what law and order means to different communities and, less often talked about, on the disparity in economic security of the watcher and the person being watched?

Quite a lot of them, I would say.

Flash forward to 1992 and the riots sparked by the acquittal of four police officers charged in the beating of King. The intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles became the flashpoint when a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten by what was described as a a “mob” of rage-filled African-Americans.

Interesting that those who beat Denny were called a “mob” but I never once heard the white police officers who beat King referred to in that way. There’s that fascinating matter of word choice again – it insidiously sneaks into our discourse and plants the seed of over-coded ideology that we hope will take root with cultural allies.

The riots would rage for six days, from April 29 to May 4, 1992. In other countries – when we support citizen insurrection against the powers that be – we call such events “civil unrest” or an “uprising.” Whatever the name, 58 lives were lost and there was more than $1 billion in property damage. Order was only restored when the National Guard was called in and the city was placed on a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The nation and the world watched a racial conflagration unfold on television.

As did I. Despite my proximity, South Central may as well have been on the dark side of the moon. It was a place middle-class whites did not go. Ever.

And that’s the thing about Los Angeles – it’s not a unified or singular place. It is a hodgepodge, a collection of neighbourhoods all with their own distinct flavours and local culture, linked together in an urban patchwork of humanity that – much like the United States itself – gives to outsiders the illusion of a collective whole.

As long as we live side by side without ever having the first inkling of what daily life is like for our fellow citizens, we’re doomed to repeat these cycles of anger. The gasoline remains on the ground, just waiting for the appropriate match.

We might learn something if we spent time in one another’s neighbourhoods. We might, as King hoped, learn to “get along.”

But probably not. The response in my neighbourhood was swift and telling. They put an iron fence up around my apartment complex and installed security gates.

Just in case anyone from that neighbourhood ever decided to visit ours.

Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer and occasional lawyer. Blending insight and wit, he brings a unique perspective to the issues of the day.

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