This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles — a rebellion that took place after the acquittal of police officers in the brutal videotaped beating of Rodney King. The grainy recording, captured by George Holliday, made the routine, racist abuse of the Los Angeles Police Department blatantly visible.
But there is something about the beating that remained largely hidden from public view. Just minutes before pursuing King, two White officers involved in the incident, Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind, “jokingly” described a Black family in a domestic dispute as a scene “right out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist.’ ” After the assault on King, Powell, Wind and other officers exchanged messages over their vehicles’ communication system that included comments like “I haven’t beat anyone this bad in a long time” and “Oh well … I’m sure the lizard didn’t deserve it … HAHA.”
Holliday’s shocking videotape exposed the American public to police violence like never before. But the everyday, on-the-job behavior and fraternizing that made such a vicious beating possible was far less visible. Yet, these two cruel activities were — and remain — deeply connected. Casual racist joking has long worked to dehumanize the victims of police violence, while at the same time bonding officers as colleagues and friends. And this problem has only grown worse in the three decades since King’s beating.
After the beating was broadcast, the city commissioned an independent investigation of the LAPD led by attorney Warren Christopher in 1991. The Christopher Commission Report revealed that a significant number of officers abused their power and used excessive force against communities of color in particular, and that there was little to no oversight or disciplinary action taken to stem officer misconduct.
The report concluded, among other things, that “[t]he problem of excessive force is aggravated by racism and bias within the LAPD.” This conclusion was bolstered by findings that laid bare what officers said about communities of color while on patrol, illustrating how systemic racism in law enforcement negated “protect and serve” and normalized “ridicule and abuse.”
As the report noted, many of the violent racist remarks routinely shared by officers “describe[d] minorities through animal analogies.” Officers made these dehumanizing comments regularly while “discussing pursuits or beating suspects,” or while referring to shooting individuals in pursuit. The investigation uncovered numerous malicious exclamations that included, “Go get em my — man, and shoot him twice for me” and “Everybody you kill in the line of duty becomes a slave in the afterlife.”