Twenty years ago on April 29, 1992, four white LAPD officers were acquitted of assaulting motorist Rodney King despite the presence of videotaped footage of the horrific beating. The nation was fixated on the case, much like we are now with the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. But what people often forget in Rodney King's story is that it was not about race — it was about justice.
In fact, it was a man by the name of George Holliday (of Argentinian descent), who shot the infamous footage of King's beating. Holliday knew instinctively that what he captured was troubling, and when police failed to do something about the incident he videotaped, Holliday went to the press and soon everyone saw the atrocity for him or herself. So when the not-guilty verdicts against the four accused officers were read some 20 years ago, all of us should have been united in our response. Race should not have been a factor; we needed to rally around the issue of police brutality and injustice. It was a missed opportunity. We cannot allow that to happen again.
The notion of race in America is complex, troubling and hopeful at the same time. Blacks still struggle with the remnants of slavery and unequal access to educational, housing and job opportunities. Whites still grapple with changing demographics, and immigrants work to both assimilate and hold on to their cultural heritage simultaneously. America is without a doubt a unique experiment in the history of civilization. But while racial dynamics continue to create challenges and unfortunate miscarriages of justice, there has been undeniable progress. We've elected the first Black president, over 40 Black members to Congress, and watched people of color break down barriers in virtually every industry and every part of society.
In 2012, we must ensure that we continue to progress, and not get caught in the divisive tactics that some would like us to fall into. In the case of Trayvon Martin, we have to unite and remember that it isn't about race, but rather justice for a dead teenage boy whose only crime was walking home with a bag of skittles and an iced tea.
For years, I have been discussing the issue of racial profiling, and police brutality/misconduct. Fighting for reforms of the NJ State Police, and championing for fairness in cases like those involving the tragic deaths of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and more, I'm not naïve to the realities of society and race. But I also understand that the diligent work of activists even before my time paved the way for change to occur and for us as a nation to progress forward. And that is the key.
As we watch the case develop against George Zimmerman, the confessed killer of Trayvon Martin, we cannot get caught in the trap of racial division. Although race may have very well led to young Trayvon being profiled by Zimmerman in the first place, we cannot allow our reaction to be based on race. Trayvon was an unarmed teenager who was walking home when he was killed. No matter what our own background, we cannot in good conscience accept the unnecessary death of a young child, and we should demand that his killer at least go before the court and be held accountable.
This weekend will be 20 years since L.A. erupted in riots following the acquittal of the officers accused of beating Rodney King. It was by far a missed opportunity. We allowed what was a grave travesty to be hijacked by those who wish to push racial divides, and we all paid the price. It was a case that should have united America; not pushed forward the worst within us. In the generation since, I hope that we can prove that we have grown.
As those with an agenda work to divide us in the Trayvon Martin case, let's remember that it's about the death of an unarmed young man who could have been any one of our kids. I've fought for justice for Trayvon because I believe in America and I don't believe we should burn it down. Let's prove that we are in fact the United States of America, and let's not miss another opportunity to show just how great we can be.
Twenty years ago, our anger led us to burn and loot, and when the dust settled, we had changed nothing. Today, whatever the outcome of the Zimmerman case, let us channel our anger to build. Let's change "stand your ground" laws, "stop and frisk" policies, racial profiling and sentencing disparities. We are 20 years older, let's show that we are mature and focused. Change is the goal.
Follow Rev. Al Sharpton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheRevAl
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(Photo: Jerod Harris/WireImage)