I’ve seen this movie before. When the verdict in the Rodney King case came down in April 1992, parts of South Central Los Angeles exploded. Groceries and shops located along the main streets were looted and set alight. Murders of passing motorists were filmed from the air by TV helicopters. One of the NBC correspondents on camera then, the urbane Keith Morrison, subsequently became a prominent voice on “Dateline,” which had debuted a month before with Jane Pauley as host. The program, which seems to have been envisioned as an “in-depth” newsmagazine, a rival to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” now focuses on true-crime stories, often set often in “small-town America.” The hosts, who gathered recently to congratulate one another on the show’s 28th season, claim to “ask the questions that the person in their living room wants to know.” You could be forgiven for thinking that America’s voyeuristic interest in violence has evolved since 1991, away from the predictable inner city to the otherwise placid suburbs –“Dateline” runs everywhere in syndication; it’s “almost like binge-watching in a way, because it’s on all the time”–except that a crowd of cable cop shows still purport to give a glimpse into the gritty “reality” of policing.
So, when the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police brought protesters out this week, parts of the narrative were already familiar. You could almost expect that at some point, “the community’s anger” would boil over into seemingly indiscriminate looting and arson. Fires would burn against the evening skyline, random passersby might be in danger. Having broken into stores, neighborhood “shoppers” would be seen carting off bulk items at a steep discount. But what cemented the parallel, of course, was the fact that the brutal beating of Rodney King decades earlier had been captured on film. To be sure, the footage is grainy. Mr Holliday was equipped with only a primitive videocam as the prolonged attack on King unfolded across the street. What came to mind, watching this incident, was not so much the other groundless killings of black men by police–including the suffocation of Eric Garner–much less the deeds of white vigilantes shielded by ‘stand your ground’ laws. Instead, it was the whole cycle, the full scope of violence unchanged over years, even centuries, recapitulated before my eyes. In contemporary America, technology has finally caught up with the minute-by-minute drama of racial confrontation; cellphones make everyone a cinema verite’ artist, with social media providing instant worldwide distribution.
The difference is that George Floyd will not go on to become a commentator on his own story or on the state of race relations in America (“can’t we all get along?”). He is dead. Like Rodney King and Michael Brown, Floyd was a large black man. In retrospect, all three were described sympathetically as “gentle,” as if the fact that they were unarmed is not sufficient cause for astonishment. Only one element of this situation interests me right now: the attitude of non-black viewers. Have we come to believe that scenes of young hooligans committing acts of wanton destruction, brought to us by the media, retrospectively justify the official acts that prompted them in the first place? What do we make of cases like the shooting of Walter Scott and Philando Castile, in which violent reaction was forestalled by a semblance of justice? But black people, especially large black men, can be dangerous if they are on edge. And why wouldn’t they be? No white person expects to be treated the way George Floyd was. No white person can imagine the psychological injury inflicted by witnessing a murder, in which you know that you have something indelibly in common with the victim, a skin color that you did not choose.
In short, a profound injustice is reflected in “policing” that effectively denies African-Americans their citizenship. For a whole generation, views of how black people see us were framed by the alleged dichotomy between the careers of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. During this golden age of TV news, there was no shortage of images of a prayerful Christian appealing to the conscience of America, on the one hand, and a hostile Muslim forcefully contesting its existence, on the other. In a valuable online discussion that happened to coincide with the Floyd killing, two black scholars recently deconstructed the simplistic contrast of the non-violent King with the vengeful Malcolm. In fact, they pointed out, both of these men arrived at a shared, revolutionary understanding of America’s fundamental economic and social racism. Perhaps it’s no longer the case that a complacent majority can confidently reject the angry demands of black militancy and rely instead on the goodwill of peaceful reformers and the “thin blue line” of police protection. Perhaps it’s also true, as one of the scholars put it, that “everybody’s going to have to lose some aspect of privilege” in order to establish a community based on equal rights, if that’s still the goal.