The beating of Rodney King by white police officers, and the officers’ subsequent acquittal marked a pivotal moment in the history of race relations and black activism in America. While the moment has always been cast in the guise of the unique problems concerning race relations in Los Angeles, it had a deep effect on black people, and others all across the nation. This included black students. Students at Cornell, an Ivy League institution, as well as those at Colgate, Wells and Syracuse held vigils to mark the incident. High school students in Syracuse staged a peaceful and orderly walkout, the largest of its kind by students since the Vietnam War. These instances of protest perhaps show that resistance didn’t have to be violent or loud, despite the focus on this form of resistance by the mainstream media at the time of this incident.
The long-term and historical implications of the Rodney King attack can be seen too, particularly concerning the effect it had on black people who were members of Generation X and their activism, a group which hasn’t been discussed as much as others. One such member of the generation, who has become a nationally prominent black leader, has spoken about how protests of the Rodney King verdict indelibly affected her life and beliefs when it came to decisions from those in leadership, even if that leader was her. Stacey Abrams remembers how she was witness to protesters being tear gassed while protesting the verdict right outside Spelman College. A student at nearby Atlanta University explained how police violently responded to a peaceful protest by students on campus, and Abrams notes how all these events have made her pledge to use force always proportionate to the amount necessary. These seem like quite modern concerns, and yet are not talked about enough as it relates to race relations in 1990’s America. The incident also pushed Abrams, as a student, to get involved by contacting local media about the reality of the situation and airing her concerns in a public forum with the city, which later became a launching pad for her political career. Her rocketing to stardom shows how a direct line can be seen between the Rodney King student activism and current black leaders.
There is much we can learn from the Rodney King incident. While we are treated to images of rioting and chaos as markers of the incident and period by mass media, we don’t stop to think about the coordinated political struggles and theories that came from black people marked by the incident. This is especially true of black young people who were students at the time. This can show us that we, as students now, are not the originators of the concerns and demands brought up by movements like the Black Lives Matter Movement, and our elders were every bit the young idealists demanding justice that we are today. And maybe they still are.
Syracuse High School Students protesting the verdict. A multiracial, peaceful and proud coalition is seen, despite how the mainstream media characterized the response to the verdict.