"There's way worse videos"

Today's students on Rodney King:

I mentioned Rodney King in an Intro to American Government class. I got the blank "Is that a thing we are supposed to know?" look that I have come to recognize when students hear about something that happened more than six months ago. "Rodney King?" More blinking. "Can someone tell why the name Rodney King is important?"

One student, god bless her, raised her hand. I paraphrase: "He was killed by the police and it caused the LA Riots." I noted that, no, he did not die, but the second part of the statement was indirectly true. God bless technology in the classroom -- I pulled up the grainy VHS-camcorder version of the video, as well as a transcript of the audio analysis presented at trial. We watched, and then talked a bit about the rioting following the acquittal of the LAPD officers at trial. They kept doing the blinking thing. I struggled to figure out what part of this relatively straightforward explanation had managed to confuse them.

"Are there questions? You guys look confused."

Hand. "So he was OK?"

"He was beaten up pretty badly, but, ultimately he was. He died a few years ago from unrelated causes (note: in 2012)."

Hand. "It's kind of weird that everybody rioted over that. I mean, there's way worse videos." General murmurs of agreement. [...]

This is a generation of kids so numb to seeing videos of police beating, tasering, shooting, and otherwise applying the power of the state to unarmed and almost inevitably black or Hispanic men that they legitimately could not understand why a video of cops beating up a black guy (who didn't even die for pete's sake!) was shocking enough to cause a widespread breakdown of public order. [...]

These kids have grown up in a world where this is background noise. It is part of the static of life in the United States. Whether these incidents outrage them or are met with the usual excuses (Comply faster, dress differently, be less Scary) the fact is that they happen so regularly that retaining even one of them in long term memory is unlikely. To think about Rodney King is to imagine a reality in which it was actually kind of shocking to see a video of four cops kicking and night-sticking an unarmed black man over the head repeatedly. Now videos of police violence are about as surprising and rare as weather reports, and forgotten almost as quickly once passed.

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7 Responses:

  1. Aaron says:

    Was it shocking to see it happen, or was it shocking to see it happen?

  2. Gordon says:

    I think when it was never seen it was easy to ignore. And now it's routinely seen it's easy to ignore. But at that moment where it's seen for the first time it's hard to ignore.
    It's the same with privacy right, most eveyone ignored govt surveillance before Snowden and most everyone ignores it now.

  3. Someone says:

    Well, i was shocked when i saw a short clip from the video in a documentary (Raoul Pecks „I am not your Negro“, to be specific) a few weeks ago. I am german though, and not that familiar with US history.

  4. MattF says:

    He wasn't even publicly tortured and then beheaded. We were such wimps, back in the day.

  5. robert_ says:

    I wonder if it's not the case that they have become numb but rather they have bought in (if you're being generous, 'indoctrinated' if you're not) to the right-wing/FOX News mantra that anyone beaten up by the police must have deserved it.

    "Conformity is the only freedom"

  6. NT says:

    Another example: back in the VHS days, punks used to trade grainy 10th-gen copies of snuff videos and it was this kind of sick thing like why would you even want to have such a thing.
    Then at some point like ten years ago everybody was turning their Twitter icons green to let people know that they too had been moved by watching video of a young Iranian woman being murdered. Eww.

  7. PaulJBis says:

    Now I am curious: were the majority of kids in that class white, or black/hispanic?

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