By Mike Zacchino / Original to ScheerPost
Thirty years ago, on April 30, 1992, I woke up and called my supervisor at the LA Times.
“Is it still going on?”
“Yes, it is.”
“OK, I’m heading in.”
My shift didn’t start until 3 PM.
“It” was the civil unrest that began shortly after I arrived at work the previous day, April 29, when four white police officers were found not guilty of using excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King.
The officers were found not guilty by a jury that mostly resembled them, in a city 40 miles north of Los Angeles where only two percent of the population resembled Rodney King, the Black victim of the beating.
I lived in Irvine, a community 40 miles south of Los Angeles, where 74% of the community resembled me, and 2% resembled Rodney King.
After watching the video of the savage beating—leaving King with a broken leg, badly cut face with his eye swollen shut, bruises on his body and a burn on his chest from a stun gun—I never thought a jury could reach a verdict of not guilty. Like many, I was shocked, sad, and angry. Still, the next morning I thought it possible that the city had calmed down and that the unrest might have stopped.
Such a notion stemmed from one thing: White Privilege.
White Privilege wasn’t a term used 30 years ago, and it’s not something people who resemble me really understand today. But it’s what allowed a jury to acquit four officers of that savage beating. It’s likely why Derek Chauvin assumed he’d get away with murdering George Floyd. It’s why William Bryan thought that releasing his video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing would show that his neighbors didn’t do anything wrong.
That these words are a form of “whitesplaining” is not lost on me. I don’t pretend to have answers, nor am I trying to educate anyone. Rather, I look back to 30 years ago and wonder why more has not changed.
I had intended to share my recollections of what it was like to work in downtown LA during the worst civil unrest the city had seen since Watts in 1965; about seeing a Times security guard holding closed a door to the outside with one hand while gripping a pistol in the other, not knowing that the banging on the door was coming from one of our photographers trying to enter the building; about hearing a shotgun blast outside our lobby and retreating to a service elevator to rise to safety, then calling the lobby elevators to our floor to lock them into position so the angry people downstairs could not enter our realm; about feeling a breeze waft through the hallways of the first floor after all but two windows had been broken on the ground floor of our building, and the feeling of safety when I saw dozens of officers outside our building, having secured it from the shocked and angry mob.
The video of Rodney King’s beating was recorded by a man from his balcony, across the street from where King had been pulled over. A local TV station borrowed it to broadcast it that evening. The station called local print media outlets and offered to let them shoot stills of it for the next morning’s edition; they deemed it too important to keep to themselves. They would break the story for their viewers in a couple of hours, but they knew it called for a wider audience.
That I grew up learning never to distinguish people by their race or ethnicity is a testament to my mother, who made it her mission to teach her children never to discriminate.
A daughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe, our mother would walk alone to school through her diverse Newark, N.J. neighborhood. A group of older Black girls daily pushed her off the sidewalk into the street, frightening her and leaving an emotional scar she carried for 40 years. To my mother’s credit, it was not until my sister was in college that we learned about our mother’s childhood trauma.
My sister wanted to bring a friend home for Thanksgiving dinner. He was an exchange student from Africa, and our mother made several excuses as to why it would not be possible to host her friend. Finally, after my sister presented a series of logical questions that elicited no suitable answers, my mother explained that she simply was not comfortable around Black people. My sister was shocked; not once had we ever heard our mother utter a derogatory word about any people of color.
My sister asked why she had never mentioned this before, and our mother said that it was her experience, and she did not want to pass on her childhood fear and hidden prejudice to us because she knew it was wrong.
The following summer, our mother suggested that my sister bring a new friend, her fellow camp counselor, home for the weekend. My sister looked at her and before she could speak, our mother said, “Yes, Narda, I know Karen is Black. I’m trying.” She warmly welcomed Karen into our home and would surprise us again by voting for Jesse Jackson in the 1984 presidential primary.
The memory of Rodney King’s beating and the jury verdict in that case rushed back as I watched the video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd. Los Angeles erupted in 1992; the country erupted in 2020. The jury that convicted the three killers of Ahmaud Arbery resembled the defendants, but for one who resembled Aubrey. Maybe they learned something along the way. They got it right. Standing next to a coworker, I held back tears as I watched the verdicts being read. “Finally,” I said. Her reply: “It’s a start.”
Yes, it’s a start. Yet, I know I’ll not live long enough to see an end to institutional racism in this country. Knowing that no longer shocks me and knowing that leaves me sad and angry.
If only more people could be as enlightened as our mother.