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From Rodney King to George Floyd: How we've changed — and haven't — in 28 years

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I was one week shy of my college graduation, in the spring of 1992, when the news broke that Los Angeles was on fire. The city was being burned and looted, many of its residents furious over a shocking acquittal.

One year earlier, Rodney King was hogtied, beaten and kicked 56 times in 81 seconds by four LA police officers. A bystander videotaped the incident, and jurors viewed it during the trial. Their verdict for the officers came in ’92, and it was a clean sweep: Ten separate not-guilty counts, including excessive use of force as a police officer.

This has been a long week of reflection for me, and the spring of ’92 is just one reminder of how much we’ve changed — and haven’t — in the 28 years since.

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I can still remember my agitation over the verdict. I remember my refusal to accept the logic that the King jury composition (10 whites, one Asian-American, one Latino) led to the acquittal.

You’re telling me they can’t see or grasp the injustice of it because they’re mostly white and he’s black? Nonsense! That’s a copout.

I remember my anger and impatience.

There were politicians, preachers, and pundits all saying some version of the same thing: This event was a historical tipping point, we’d all have to do better, and respectfully listening to one another was a good place to start.

That was the scene from ’92. Many of the snapshots then are similar to what we’ve had in the country this week. 

 

George Floyd was murdered in plain sight when a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck.

I say that and the 22-year-old me, idealistic and full of righteous indignation, wants to believe that what I just wrote is enough. He wants to believe that a democracy, and its people, will prevail… so much so that the unjust act — a public servant literally using his power to kill a handcuffed citizen — will lead to outcries before we even talk about the race of the perpetrator or victim.

Are we there yet? At the tipping point, I mean. Or is that something we say because it’s too painful to confront that our moral compass is either outdated or broken?

I’m not as idealistic as I was at 22, but I’m more hopeful now than I was then. There are personal and professional reasons for that. My faith is stronger. My family is bigger; I’m not just fighting for myself anymore. And when I go to work, the voices are louder.

What do I mean by that?

I already told you that I was a week from graduation when the King verdict was announced. Well, the next week, I started my first job.

I was a sportswriter near Cleveland, and the Cavaliers were in the playoffs. Suddenly I was talking to and writing about some of the best athletes in the world. I don’t say this as a judgment, but just as an example of changing times: None of those athletes talked about protesting. None of them used the platform to bring awareness to conditions in the country then that still exist now.

That year, the Cavs played the Celtics in the conference semifinals and the Bulls in the finals. It was incredible to see Larry Bird and Michael Jordan perform in person, but that’s all the top stars of that time — across all our major sports — were willing and expected to give.

The early 1990s sports culture was one of compartmentalizing. I’m glad that we’re not there anymore. I was inspired to see Jaylen Brown, 23, participating in an Atlanta protest and Marcus Smart, 26, doing the same thing in Boston. As crazy as this sounds, I was encouraged to hear Brad Stevens state the obvious in that “every decent person is hurting’’ over Floyd’s death.

For too long, many people haven’t stated the obvious — or anything at all. For too long, we’ve observed blatant distortions of justice, offered some clichés, and fallen back into our familiar patterns. I don’t know if this case has pushed us to a new place as a nation. No idea.

I do know this: None of us has the luxury of being silent or leaving the work to someone else. When the chaos ends, the last thing we need to do is go back to normal.