Have We Become Accustomed to Police Brutality?

If the Rodney King beating had happened a year ago, would anyone notice?

When King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase in 1991, it became a national scandal. The vast majority of Americans condemned the brutality. The officers were acquitted of criminal charges. This verdict angered African-Americans who saw it as proof of institutional racism, a reaction with which 80% of Los Angeles residents sympathized. The verdict also sparked riots that engulfed the city, taking fifty-three lives, injuring thousands, leaving behind a billion dollars in property damage. Vast majorities of all races saw this lawless response as completely unjustified.

To say the beating of King elicited a reaction would be an understatement. It was the first major American incident of gratuitous police violence caught on videotape and distributed for the world to see. New technology had shed light on a dark side of public institutions.

In the twenty-one years since then, police brutality has continued to make the news. There are high-profile cases that linger for months in the background of the public consciousness. Particularly egregious cases, especially where the victim dies, will even make headlines more than once—like that of Aiyana Stanley Jones, the seven-year old sleeping on her couch in her Detroit home, set on fire by a flash-grenade and shot in the head by police; or Oscar Grant, shot in the back by a Bay Area officer while lying face down at a BART station on New Years Day, 2009.

Hundreds of Americans are killed by police every year. Many are criminals. But a horrifying number are non-threatening or even completely innocent—shot in their homes while responding to a noise in the living room, unarmed but tazed to death over some misunderstanding. Dozens of lesser cases of brutality, corruption, and criminal incompetence occur and are publicized every day.

As the internet and ubiquitous camera phones have reduced the cost of spreading information of misconduct to nearly zero, we have arrived at a saturation of footage and credible reports indicating gross police misconduct.

I am not trying to argue that it is much more frequent than it used to be, although I think it probably is. I am also not trying to argue some broader point about the police in general based on any given ratio of good to bad police behavior. From a certain standpoint, of course any injustice is too much. From a realistic standpoint, there will be some injustice in any system. I think the United States could do far better simply by enacting a few reforms, but that fundamental change requires a whole rethinking of the state’s current relationship to law enforcement. I consider this change desirable but here I am concerned with another matter. I am concerned with the trajectory in American society, and especially with what is to me one of the most troubling indications of a seemingly declining culture.

Have we become desensitized to police brutality? I return to my original question—if the Rodney King beating were to happen today, would it go unnoticed?

I suspect the answer to both questions is yes. There would hardly be the outrage there was 21 years ago, because such incidents are recorded and made public all the time and have become an accepted, if regrettable, part of modern life. Today, the Rodney King video would become one of hundreds or thousands of other videos, readily available, depicting state cruelty—perhaps getting its fifteen minutes of fame, but failing to dominate even one news cycle in a country with a quickly diminishing attention span.

The Orange County DA has just released video footage of last year’s brutal beating of Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, seemingly non-violent and mentally troubled homeless man hit with batons, suffocated and tazed by half a dozen officers, crying out for mercy, crying out for his father, before he is left lifeless in a pool of his own blood. Thomas finally died five days later. His father, an ex-cop, refused to accept $900,000 that the city of Fullerton offered him to make him go away.

This has certainly become something of a story, but I would bet a pretty penny that it will be forgotten twenty-one years from now, or perhaps even twenty-one days from now. Rodney King’s name will still be remembered. Thomas’s plight is certainly not getting nearly the attention that the death of Trayvon Martin got, a tragedy with considerably more ambiguity surrounding it as to the facts of the case.

I often see the question posed as to whether institutional racism has lessened much since the beating of King. But one power dynamic is forgotten in all this—the relationship between the state and mere subject. The Martin case, a tragedy concerning two private individuals, was blown into a month-long national story largely because it served to frame various popular narratives concerning racism, gun rights, and self-defense.

At least as important as any of these issues is the theme of the power of the state over individuals. The King beating 21 years ago raised uncomfortable questions about what kind of society and institutions we had. In two decades, it does not appear that we are any closer to a satisfactory answer to the many questions raised about the relationship between state power and the governed. To me those questions appear as urgent and fundamental as ever as when that single video shocked the world in 1991. Like a pebble in the eye, it was impossible to ignore. And yet, in the face of an avalanche, I fear the public has gone blind.

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