On this day 3rd March 1991, Rodney King was brutally beaten by LAPD officers after fleeing from them whilst driving under the influence. When the police caught up to him, he was tasered and beaten with batons whilst on his knees thankfully the attack was caught on camera as the officers involved had manufactured a more reasonable story to justify Kings injuries. Despite the video footage the officers walked free which caused a six-day riot throughout California as African Americans rightly believed the attack and the release of officers were racially motivated.
The riots were violent and resulted in 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. During the riots King asked for peace famously asking, ‘Can we all just get along’. The riots only ended when the national guard, army, and marine corps arrived to control the situation. Eventually two of the officers involved went to prison and Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in separate civil rights cases.
This was the first attack of its kind caught on film but as we know it was far from the last. Thanks to improvements in technology we all always have a camera in our pockets which has led to the rise in videos of police brutality especially against African Americans. In 2012 Trayvon Martin was killed by a ‘concerned’ citizen who saw him as a threat, he was unarmed. After his killer was acquitted in 2013 protests of angry and scared people arose in his home town of Miami Florida, Alicia Garza believed people were dealing with their anger destructively and wrote a ‘love letter to black people’ which along with the accompanying comment left by Patrisse Cullers featuring #BlackLivesMatter went viral; with many others using the hashtag to express solidarity and their own stories.
This could have been a fleeting moment but a few months later when Eric Gardner was killed on camera by police using an illegal chokehold, the hashtag and the protesters returned. This time spreading the video featuring the haunting last words of Gardner; ‘I can’t breathe’ and organising demonstrations where protesters chanted those same words. Individual moments of brutality and injustice were starting to be connected, these were attacks on the black community not just on black individuals.
A few months later Browns death was live-tweeted, and his lifeless body was left in the street for four hours, police later returned and destroyed the pop-up memorial dedicated to the eighteen-year-old their colleague had just killed. This lack of respect and remorse caused the people of Ferguson to take to the streets like never before, black people of all ages were out together demanding justice. The growing protests were not only about Brown, everyone on the streets had their own tale to tell of brutality, they had lost trust in the police and the police in return showed no humanity to a scared, grieving and angry community.
During the protests the militarisation of the police was revealed in full force. Innocent civilians were attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets and sound canons. Ferguson became a magnet for activists with 500 BLM members from across the country joining the protests with a freedom march as a sign of solidarity. There was a sense from journalists that Michael Browns death was different than others, from the beginning it was clear the community’s anger would not be easily contained.
Black Lives matter began as a response to police brutality but has evolved into an intersectional movement fighting for economic as well as legal justice. This is evident in the evolution of chants from ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ in 2013 to ‘The whole damn system, is guilty as hell’ in 2017. It is a leader-full movement as Patrice Cullors emphasises ‘I’m not passing the torch, I’m helping you light a fire’, this is not just a movement this is the uprising the founders believe that if society improves the lives of those at the bottom a ‘bubble up’ form of economics and justice will follow improving everyone’s lives.
Black lives Matter were criticised for favouring African American males over the experiences of women who also suffer at the hands of police. Many believed that the deaths of the men above received much more attention than the deaths of Kayla Moore, Sandra Bland, and Rekia Boyd. In response the campaign Say Her Name was created to raise awareness of these tragic deaths. They have also been criticised and demonised by White Americans who have twisted the campaign claiming that Black Lives Matter mean that White lives do not this is ridiculous as is the Blue Lives Matter movement these movements were unnecessary before BLM and are unnecessary now.
Today African American men and women are regularly filmed being beaten and murdered by the police and most of them still walk free. News this week that the officer who killed unarmed Stephon Clark in his Grandmothers backyard will not face charges are devastating and highlight the need for Black Lives Matter and the fear African Americans feel.