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Protesters gather outside the courthouse in Simi Valley, California, in May 1992, after the verdict in the trial of the four police officers who were acquitted in the Rodney King case.
Protesters gather outside the courthouse in Simi Valley, California, in May 1992, after the verdict in the trial of the four police officers who were acquitted in the Rodney King case.
Hal Garb/AFP/Getty Images

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Police killings get a lot of attention — so should police beatings

I had never watched the full recording of the Rodney King tape. I had previously seen only short clips embedded within larger news or documentary narratives. Earlier this year, I decided to change that.

On April 29, 1992, four Los Angeles Police Department officers — Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Timothy Wind — having been charged with assault and use of excessive force in the beating of King were acquitted on all charges.

They were acquitted despite having been caught on camera striking King more than 50 times. They were acquitted despite a video that aired around the world, long before the notion of going viral had become a normative part of our collective lexicon.

The Rodney King tape was the catalyst to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which more than 55 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured. It brought the conversation around policing in black communities to the center of our national discourse.

For all the attention fatal police shootings have gotten over the past few years, non-fatal police beatings are common and often ignored

But in April 1992 I was 3 years old, and my world was largely composed of eating applesauce while Bert and Ernie bickered on the television screen. I was too young to understand violence as anything other than that which you might experience from a playmate after not sharing your blocks. I was too young to understand police officers as anything other than wells of altruism, as that is how they were rendered on the television programs I watched each afternoon.

More than two decades later, many of us have become uncomfortably accustomed to watching videos of black people being murdered by the state before our eyes. We have watched the pixelated black bodies of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland being pulled, dragged, beaten, and shot, the bodies that stood over them — their uniforms, their badges, their holsters — bestowed with an impregnable sense of authority over the bodies they looked down upon.

But watching the King video was a revelation: a crucial reminder that for all the attention fatal police shootings have gotten over the past few years, non-fatal police beatings are common and often ignored.

We must advocate for the Rodney Kings along with the Tamir Rices. And the Dajerria Bectons along with the Rekia Boyds. When black people are killed by police, it deserves our utmost attention. And when black people are brutalized by police but do not die, that too deserves attention. We should not have to choose.

Before pressing play, I had to ask myself if I was prepared to watch the state-sanctioned demolition of another black body before leaving home to begin the day. These are decisions that black people have been forced to regularly make.

Do we watch someone who looks so much like us, assaulted by those whom we pay to protect us? Alternatively, do we make the decision to protect ourselves from the sight of something that might send us into an ungovernable sense of despair?

There is no settling back into the normalcy of one's day after watching such a video. Walking is no longer just walking but the dragging of limbs heavy under the weight of disillusionment. Eating is no longer just eating but the act of attempting to keep something in a stomach unsettled by indignation.

I remember the paralysis I felt after watching Eric Garner being choked by Daniel Pantaleo — the juxtaposition of my heart racing yet my legs being unable to lift me out of my chair. For many black people, these videos are a haunting, looping reflection of what so many of us already know to be true — that these things have been happening for a long time before cameras were there to prove it.

But I did press play. And I did watch. Because I wanted to more fully understand what I had once been too young to witness.

The helicopter is the soundtrack to the entire video, its disembodied hum smothering the night sky. The first 20 seconds are a barely interpretable blur, the camera zooming in, seeking to make sense of the opaque commotion between its frames.

When the camera lens becomes clear, Rodney King is sprawled out across the concrete surrounded by five officers, two of whom are indiscriminately swinging their 2-foot-long aluminum batons in the direction of his body.

When they swing, they sometimes miss King entirely, but mostly they do not. All the while, King's body is rising and collapsing to the ground, his ankles and knees rendered limp by the weight of unceasing violence.

Again and again and again and again the officers throw the full weight of themselves behind their weapons, as if their batons were hammers intent on nailing King's body to the concrete. At one point, an officer, who had previously gestured to stop another from continuing his assault, reversed his approach and stomped on King's neck before the others continued to pummel him.

I paused the video. In the freeze frame, one officer's baton is held over his head as he readies to strike the umpteenth blow. King is looking over his shoulder, bracing himself for the unrepentant strike of metal against his ever-swelling skin.

By the end of the incident, the police officers had struck King a total of 56 times. When I restart the video, King, writhing in pain, is placed in handcuffs and dragged along his stomach to the side of the road while many of the police officers begin to disperse the scene.

As I watch the officers, I think of the Drug Abuse and Resistance Education program I participated in as a child. I think of the officers who came into our elementary school classroom. The pledges we all signed not to use drugs or join gangs. The way they smiled at us as we nodded our heads at their presentation. It all seemed so far away now.

To be black in America is to live in a double helix of cognitive dissonance. It is to wake up each day and navigate the world knowing that your body is under the perpetual threat of being destroyed. It is to know that the destruction does not simply mean someone ending your life. It is to know that this destruction is not limited to those who are poor or those who grow up in certain neighborhoods, but that it could happen to any of us.

When I watch the video of King, I think of one of my best friends, Jordan Bridges. In high school Jordan was a skinny kid — 130 pounds, tops — with globe-shaped eyes and a radiating smile.

My memories of Jordan are of sitting in the passenger seat of his car driving around New Orleans, searching of the kind of food our parents would rather us not eat. We would devour burgers and fries atop the hood of his car after a night of watching Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle standup, spilling ketchup across our T-shirts and laughing from the deepest parts of our bellies.

He helped me pass biology when I couldn't tell the difference between a proton and an electron. He'd cover for me when I broke my parents' curfew. He is the type of friend I knew would be a part of my life for years to come.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 30, 2011, Jordan was leaving a bar with some of his friends in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was a student at Louisiana State University. As he was mingling outside, someone got Jordan's attention and pointed across the street where, he says, he saw his older brother getting pummeled by a police officer as he lay in the fetal position on the ground.

Jordan's brother had been attempting to break up a fight when a policeman came and began to strike him with blow after blow. Jordan, watching his brother getting punched mercilessly, yelled for the policeman to stop. The officer did not relent.

As Jordan pleaded with the policeman to cease the assault on his brother, another officer began running toward him at full speed. Before Jordan had time to react, the officer punched him on the right side of his face with the full force of his hardened knuckles, shattering his jaw and leaving him unconscious as he collapsed onto the concrete.

When he regained consciousness, he says, an officer was kicking him in the chest. Unable to control his bodily functions, he relieved himself in the middle of the street.

In the middle of handcuffing Jordan while he lay dazed on the ground, the officer got up and ran toward another commotion nearby. With a handcuff dangling from his right wrist, Jordan tried to lift himself up off the ground. He recounts a stranger coming to his side, propping him up, and saying, "You've got to run. He's going to kill you." Dazed and confused, Jordan tried to collect himself to figure out where his brother was, praying nothing more serious had happened to him.

Before he could make any decisions, another police car pulled up, and an officer stepped outside and pulled his gun on Jordan, screaming at him to get back on the ground. Three more officers arrived, and one of them put his foot on Jordan's face while he was lying on the concrete.

"We caught this fucker," he recalls the officer saying, as the dirt and street water from the underside of the officer's boot dripped down his neck.

Jordan has had to make dozens of trips to the doctor. "I couldn't hold food in my mouth for over a year," he says.

Afterward, Jordan was arrested and denied immediate medical treatment. He was taken to the police station with a shattered jaw and charged with several offenses, including assault of an officer and battery of an officer — both of which are felonies.

After several years of court visits and a lengthy appeal, the charges were ultimately dropped. But as a result of his injury and complications resulting from the physical and emotional trauma, Jordan has had to make dozens of trips to the doctor. "I couldn't hold food in my mouth for over a year," he says.

In search of information that would convey the extent of police violence over the past few years, I recently went to Google and searched "police brutality statistics." I paused. This is what I typed, but it is not what I meant.

When I wrote "police brutality," I was thinking of "police killings." That my initial inclination, when thinking about police violence, was an attempt to figure out how many people have been killed speaks to the way I have been socialized to conflate destruction with death.

We live in a culture where, after terror attacks, mass shootings, reports from war, our eyes are trained to look for the number of people who have been killed, so much that we often look over — or sometimes even fail to account for — those who have been injured.

The same can be true when we discuss police brutality. Sometimes we can become so consumed with the most extreme versions of police violence that we pay little attention to its less severe but still horrifying manifestations.

Over the past four decades, journalists and social scientists have begun to pay more attention to "use of force" by police. By and large, however, they have not paid significant attention to the non-lethal injuries that result from it.

Instead, they have focused primarily on police shootings and subsequent fatalities, which, to be sure, are important, but represent only the most extreme cases of police violence.

Activists have done a remarkable job of bringing the issue of police brutality back to the forefront of our nation's attention. Their work has also brought attention to the fact that there is no national database to document police brutality.

FBI Director James Comey spoke to this conspicuous absence during a speech in February of last year: "The FBI tracks and publishes the number of ‘justifiable homicides' reported by police departments," he said. "But reporting by police departments is voluntary and not all departments participate. That means we cannot fully track the number of incidents in which force is used by police, or against police, including non-fatal encounters, which are not reported at all."

In an effort to fill the void, both the Washington Post and the Guardian have begun databases that attempt to collect and centralize information on police killings. Still, there is no database for non-lethal police brutality.

Beyond the fact that many agencies do not collect use of force data at all, the problem with getting accurate information on police violence is that officers will rarely admit that they used excessive or unnecessary force, and departments tend not to question police reports. As a result, the current data we have on use of force is likely to be underreported and shaped by biases.

In one of the few, but perhaps most extensive, studies, researchers Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham used Prince George's County, Maryland, as a case study to explore police use of force policy. Having formerly taught English at a public high school in Prince George's County, I remember hearing my students, nearly all of whom were black and Latino, tell me about how ill-treated they felt by the local police.

According to this study, for each time force was used, 41 percent of suspects claimed to have experienced some sort of injury. To be sure, reports like these can also be plagued with biases from the suspect's perspective, but if anything it underscores how important it is to have research across different cities that triangulates data between officers, suspects, and witnesses.

When I look at Jordan, it's hard to understand how anyone could feel threatened by him. The entirety of his disposition runs counter to one that might elicit fear. To be black, however, means that reality is secondary to perception. To be black means that you need not do anything dangerous to be considered dangerous. Danger is understood as an a priori fixture of your skin.

Judith Butler outlines this idea poignantly in her 1993 essay "Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia":

The fear is that some physical distance will be crossed, and the virgin sanctity of whiteness will be endangered by that proximity. The police are thus structurally placed to protect whiteness against violence, where violence is the imminent action of the black male body. And because within this imaginary schema, the police protect whiteness, their own violence cannot be read as violence.

It is no surprise then, that to read the official police reports of Jordan's encounter with the officers is to read what sounds like a different account entirely. The report says the officer was "grabbed around my neck from behind" and that Jordan had him in a chokehold, which, per the report, "disrupted my ability to physically protect myself."

What this demonstrates is an attempt to legitimize the violence the officer would then impose upon Jordan — that his life was in imminent danger and that Jordan served as an existential threat.

It need not matter that Jordan is 130 pounds. It need not matter that Jordan was a college student. It need not matter that others in the crowd saw something very different. Jordan was a black body, and thus his threat was inextricable from his personhood.

As Butler says, the officer was then able to imagine a threat that did not exist as one that did. It is that same imagination that turns a wallet into a weapon. It is that same imagination that turns a toy into a gun. It is that same imagination that turns a hoodie into a brewing attack.

One might read Jordan's story and dismiss it as hyperbole or perhaps even outright fabrication. One might suggest that believing Jordan over the police reports doesn't make any sense, that it is irresponsible and offensive. But footage from Baton Rouge crime cameras, that Jordan's attorneys subpoenaed to get access to, completely contradicted the police report.

This is not unusual. The police report about Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, stated that Scott gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. It said that the officer resorted to his service weapon and was forced to shoot Scott to protect himself. The cellphone footage released a few days later, however, shows Scott running in the opposite direction of the officer before being shot in the back five times.

The police report of Laquan McDonald in Chicago stated that McDonald was "swinging the knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner" and that he "raised the knife across [his] chest," pointing it at officer Jason Van Dyke. Police footage released a year later, after a local journalist sued the city, showed McDonald walking away from the officers when he was shot, lying motionless on the ground as Van Dyke continued to shoot him 16 times.

But Van Dyke did not become a problem that evening. There had been more than 20 citizen complaints, half of which alleged that he used excessive force. And these are only the incidences that were reported.

What might it have looked like to get an officer like Van Dyke off the street as a result of his non-lethal abuse of power before it could become lethal? How might we understand the possibility of Laquan McDonald being alive today if Van Dyke's previous transgressions had been taken more seriously?

"We haven't died, but there's no way we can be the same people as before. We are living monuments to what we have to battle."

It should be said that not every case of excessive police brutality is as clear-cut as Jordan's. Sometimes suspects run, sometimes they resist, sometimes they are drunk or on illegal substances. Too often, however, these are used as a means of justifying violent police conduct, as if to suggest that an imperfect suspect deserves to be physically assaulted beyond what is necessary.

The question, however, is not one of moral desert but whether we are willing to accept excessive violence as an inevitable facet of contemporary policing.

In a 2011 interview with CNN, a year before he was found dead at the bottom of the pool in his backyard, Rodney King shared how, even 20 years later, he still had nightmares of the 1991 beating.

Jordan, too, has told me about his night terrors. How they come even when he thinks he's moved past the memory of that night. His once-shattered jaw has now settled back in place, but a part of him is still picking up the pieces.

"I feel like I've missed so much time because of this beating, and I feel like I'll never be able to catch up," he said. "And I wonder if I'll be able to be the type of person I was supposed to be."

When I was back home in New Orleans a few months ago, I had breakfast with Jordan. We talked about everything we had been seeing over the past few years. The young people who had lost their lives to police. The protests across the country from those who were no longer willing to accept this reality.

He told me about the work he's doing as program director for the New Orleans Council for Community and Justice, and how his experience that night is the reason he wants to dedicate his life to helping the young people of New Orleans.

When I asked him what he thinks about those who experience police violence but survive he said, "We haven't died, but there's no way we can be the same people as before. We are living monuments to what we have to battle."

Clint Smith is a writer and PhD candidate at Harvard University. His first collection of poems, Counting Descent, is forthcoming from Write Bloody Publishing in September 2016.


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