I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles.
However, I felt as if I did.
Black kids around to country were inundated with images of South Central, Compton, and Watts as a haven for gangs, violence, and police brutality. John Singleton’s Boys N The Hood was a blueprint on survival in the hood. The Hughes Brothers gave us their own depiction of project life via Menace II Society. And years above that, the film South Central depicted life for young Black boys and girls in an apathetic, drug-laden community.
While there were many songs coming from West Coast Hip Hop, particularly N.W.A. and the Death Row camp, social unrest still bubbled under the radar.
Rodney King changed that.
I still remember seeing the footage across our old push-button TV screen. Black and white images of batons flying up and down, a helpless victim lying in agony repeatedly pounded by LAPD, that’s what we saw. Each of those hits were felt around America, and we had all become fed up with increasing violence against Black men, perpetrated by police officers.
King was only 25 when he led the Hip Hop Generation into a continuance of the Civil Rights Movement. We understood that while he was guilty of DUI and other possible crimes, his life was still valuable. We realized that any of us could have been pulverized on that dimly lit street in the San Fernando Valley. And we acknowledged that this occurrence was less of an anomaly and more of a trend around the nation.
We were tired of our rights being evaded by the justice system, a system which historically valued the lives of young Black boys and girls as worthless.
While the beating hurt our souls, the words confirmed the resurrection of racial backlash in America. According to King, the officers shouted “We are going to kill you n-gger”. The overtones of racism were evident, and continued throughout the three month 1992 trial, which ended in the acquittal of all three officers.
And the rest is history. Los Angeles went up in flames—literally.
Thousands of Black and Brown Californians took to the streets for six days following the verdict. The news reported footage of arson, assault, looting and murders by frustrated citizens and urban youth. The stats read like a war: 53 deaths, thousands injured, and over $1 billion worth of wreckage in Los Angeles.
We went to war.
The 1992 LA Riots fell in line with the tradition of public revolts against injustice. Los Angeles, the home of the 1965 Watts Revolt, once again forced out the silencing of the Black community—particularly Hip Hop. Artists, writers, journalists, DJs, and the like committed themselves to covering police brutality. Medallions and dashikis surfaced again around the community. Our singers and rappers used their music and press appearances to call order to a wild country.
Rodney King’s beating caused us to wake up.
The Hip Hop generation was able to claim stake to its very own protest, one which still hangs around America like smoke. Recently, California native Elwood White was gunned down by police in a San Diego suburb while holding a broomstick. Last year, an unarmed Reginald “Reggie” Doucet was inexcusably fatally shot by LAPD. Our young Black victims to unjustified violence continue to roll credits: Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell. Our fight still moves forward.
Rodney King’s death today signals the loss of the Civil Rights icon for our most important Hip Hop social movement.
He was our Rosa Parks.
Social unrest still persists in our communities. Young Black/Brown boys and girls are still fighting for total freedom in America. The Rodney King case taught us the importance of speaking up, something that Hip Hop has always done, but it propelled us to take action beyond our words. We learned to fight.
While I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles, I did, and so did Hip Hop.