William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of History at Spelman College. He specializes in post-Civil War African American history, 20th century American politics and the history of the Cold War.
The old adage holds that history occurs twice—first as tragedy, then as farce—but if anything is to be learned from the tragic tale of Rodney King, it’s that history’s encores are often just as brutal as its débuts. King, who died Sunday at age forty-seven, was inducted, unwitting and unwilling, into a fraternity of men whose experiences seem like a series of historical paraphrases. There’s John Weerd Smith, the Newark cabdriver whose arrest sparked the 1967 riots in that city; Marquette Frye, whose 1965 D.U.I. arrest in Watts ignited days of chaos and fire. In 1964, fifteen-year-old James Powell was shot and killed by an N.Y.P.D. officer in Harlem— word of his death was just so much kindling to an already tense city, and riots broke out in Manhattan and Brooklyn. During the Second World War, the police shooting of Robert Bandy, a soldier, inaugurated the 1943 Harlem riot. And there are more. That roll call explains why the disbelief that swaths of America felt when viewing the videotape of Rodney King’s beating was scarce in black America, why so many African Americans saw it through eyes jaundiced by similar experience—a civic violation as lived cliché. […] King was changed by what transpired on March 3, 1991, and we’d like to believe we have been also, though precisely how is hard to pinpoint. The three levels of bureaucratic self-defense are to deny a problem exists; admit that it exists but say it’s confined to a few rogue individuals; or admit to systemic troubles, create a commission, and then claim that reforms have completely eliminated the problem. After the Los Angeles riots, the L.A.P.D. went directly to level three. In the wake of the Christopher Commission’s findings, the department took steps to diversify its ranks. The removal of Police Chief Daryl Gates and the subsequent appointment of Willie Williams, the first black police chief in L.A. history, was directly related to King’s beating. But in 2009, television viewers saw grainy footage of another black man lying prone at the feet of a California police officer, this time in Oakland. The man, Oscar Grant, had been shot and killed. Earlier this year, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a report pointing out that in 2011 the N.Y.P.D. conducted nearly six hundred and eighty-six thousand stop-and-frisks, with blacks and Latinos accounting for more than eighty-six per cent of those targeted by police. A little leaguer has a vastly higher chance of being thrown against a mailbox and searched in New York City than when I was growing up there.