Monday, April 23, 2012 / 5:00 am
I Was Ten Years Old
When I was ten, I saw a man beaten half to death by police I was supposed to trust. And I saw them get away with it.
by Tony Chavira
I was ten years old on April 29, 1992, when our Monterey Park middle school’s A/V staff wheeled carts with television sets into my classroom so that we could watch the outcome of the Rodney King trial. Though the vast majority of the students in my grade were ethnically Mexican or Asian and though we were only kids, what had happened was still very clear to us. We had all seen the footage of Rodney King’s beating on television and most of our elders, though trying to be impartial, were confident the officers were guilty of abuse, and legitimately shocked, in front of us, when they found out that the cops were let off the hook.
Thinking back, I remember the weird feeling of knowing that the riots were happening a few miles away but only seeing them on television. It was as though we were nowhere nearby, yet everyone had a strong reaction to them. Strange as it may seem, I grew up in a place with no white or black people, so I had almost no understanding of Los Angeles’s racial dynamics. Everything I knew was told to me by my parents. My mother was born in Oakland and raised in Huntington Park in one of the only Mexican families in a city already divided into white and black districts during the 1950s and ’60s. My father grew up a first-generation American in East L.A., and remembered the disdain of older Jewish East L.A.ers who felt like the riffraff were taking over. Or, I guess, coming back.
But I was just ten. My closest friends (whom I had known since I was a toddler) were Japanese, Mexican, and Chinese. I was (am) light-skinned Mexican, in the process of losing my ability to speak casual Spanish. I had no real sense of what race really was. I’m still not so sure I know.
I remember that every television show was cancelled and every newspaper was filled with articles updating us on the riot and its containment. One night, after watching a cop talk about confining the riots, my father scoffed something like, “These were also the guys who beat Rodney King,” without caring that I was in the room. I couldn’t formulate a clear thought about his statement, but only remember not feeling safe; as though the people meant to protect us would try to kill us the first chance they got. Still, other than “these guys are trying to hold down those guys,” the divisions didn’t seem clear to me. Only abuse of power made sense.
A year later, a grand jury found Sergeant Koon and Officer Powell guilty of violating Rodney King’s constitutional rights. I didn’t discover that until a few years ago, when I stumbled upon it on the Internet. Assault with a deadly weapon is punishable in California by up to four years in prison, but each of these cops got two and a half. And they were also charged with a violation of King’s constitutional rights! I wondered then as I wonder now: what are our cops supposed to protect, if not our constitutional rights? If the very foundation of our government is outlined by the Constitution, why weren’t these four officers jailed for treason? Clearly, they worked as enemies of U.S. citizen Rodney King’s freedom, and waged a kind of cultural war against his rights as a United States citizen. Looking back with 20/20 vision, the LAPD worked like a private army who deliberately withheld constitutional rights from a whole population of black Angelenos. And they did it with impunity (and standard-issue firearms).
I was thirteen when a television set was wheeled into my classroom for the conclusion of the O.J. Simpson trial. I remember fears that if O.J. was found guilty, the black community in L.A. would riot. How shallow it now seems that people related these incomparable situations to one another: beating an innocent man and violating his constitutional rights versus investigating a potential murderer.
But at the same time, I guess I’m not really surprised early ’90s Angelenos made this parallel. When white city officials don’t look out for the black community’s best interest, every instance of a white person exerting authority over a black person looks like racism. As long as you knew racism existed in the system, you’d have no way of telling real justice from pure racism. And since black Angelenos didn’t expect fairness and white ones couldn’t expect justice, the racism Angelenos all put up with for decades finally culminated in the complete bastardization of the rule of law with Rodney King.
And my generation didn’t need that baggage. For all the media’s talk about Generation Y, technological democratization and cultural and social advancements in the last 20 years, too many of the people I know still have to fight to gain equal footing. Baby Boomers, consider that you and your generation conducted the Rodney King Trial in my developmental years. We Millennials were supposed to be the generation that saw beyond the petty divisions of race and socioeconomic disadvantage. We were supposed to be the ones who, if we worked hard enough, could do anything.
Yet I was only ten years old, and already the criminal justice system in a major metropolitan area implicitly condoned a brutal beating and violation of a man’s constitutional rights because of the color of his skin. At ten, I already had a sense that the world did not punish those who so obviously did wrong and discriminated against those not in power. At ten, I was shown that my city hated a group of people that lived in it, and that the law made that totally okay.
At ten years old, still I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Instead, I came home from school and played with my younger brothers. I did my homework, watched cartoons in the afternoon and read X-Men comics at night. And I watched a group of racist police officers beat a man. Then beat down his whole community when they tried to fight back.
And I was just supposed to accept stuff like that as a fact of life.
Still wonder why so many young people protest these days?