The uniquely American threads that tie Rodney King to George Floyd

Racism is not an American phenomenon, but its existence in America is unlike anywhere else

It was a scene which shocked America, and led to riots and declarations that racism was unacceptable. An African American man, brutalised by racist white police; a city in flames; Americans of all races coming together to promise change, and then... nothing really changed. If it sounds familiar, it is not about George Floyd, but the beating of Rodney King, aged 25, on March 3, 1991.

Mr King was the black motorist brutally set upon by the Los Angeles Police Department who yelled racist epithets as they hammered his body on the ground – and significantly, as with George Floyd, they were filmed doing it. Despite all the evidence the whole world could see on television, a white California jury found the white police officers not guilty.

FILE - In this May 1, 1992 file photo, a Los Angeles police officer holds a shotgun on two looting suspects as another officer puts handcuffs on them near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in South Central Los Angeles during rioting after the Rodney King beating verdicts. When violent protests over the death of George Floyd reached Los Angeles, people of color expressed heartbreak but not necessarily surprise. They had seen it nearly 30 years ago when riots rocked the city after four white police officers were acquitted of charges in the beating of black driver King. (AP Photo/John Gaps III, File)

After the astounding verdict, in LA’s black neighbourhoods, African Americans who had calmly waited for justice protested and then began the worst rioting in America since the 1960s. The film crew I worked with in California were two African American men, and seeing the riots and their aftermath with them and through their eyes was for me, a white British male, an education in racism and white privilege.

I have been learning this lesson all over again, because the list of black people – and not just in America – treated differently only because of the colour of their skin, seems endless.

A friend of mine in London, a black woman, mentioned that she had been stopped leaving a clothing store to have her bags checked in case she had stolen something. She said, with a sad weariness, that this was routine. Another black British friend recalled when he and two male relatives visited a quiet British seaside resort and were repeatedly looked at with suspicion – three black men! What are they doing here?

Maybe, as you read this, you are thinking: what is the big deal about being “looked at"? And maybe a few years ago I would have thought the same. But not any more. 

Months after the riots, when LA was calm, I filmed again with my LA film crew. At the end of the filming day, the cameraman asked if I would like to see some new movie star mansion somewhere near Beverly Hills. He drove, the sound recordist was in front beside the cameraman and I was in the back of the van. We came to a road junction in a quiet residential street. Thoughtfully, the photographer stopped the van to let a white woman cross the road. As she looked at the two black males in the front seats, her face twisted in a mixture of shock and fear. 

“What was the about?” I said as we drove on.

“You’ve just seen The Look,” the photographer said, explaining that it was “The Look” on the face of a white American in a wealthy neighbourhood who was suddenly surprised and frightened by seeing two black men in a place where they were not expected and not really welcome.

Now, I saw that expression just once in my life. Black friends have told me of seeing that expression of suspicion tinged with fear, for no reason except their race, over and over again. 

Racism may not be a purely American phenomenon, but it is the central fault line in American society. Always present, every few years it explodes into a major political issue, and in America one thing makes it different: guns. Racial tension is stoked by fear. Fear is made worse, not better, by the presence of so many firearms in American life. When coronavirus struck, in Britain and across the world people rushed out to buy toilet rolls and tinned food. Americans rushed out to buy guns and ammunition.

epa08468029 A National Guard soldier stands guard as protesters gather and react from behind the fence in front of the Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters as LAPD Chief of Police Michel Moore delivers a speech on the protests and condemning violence and racism together with community and religious leaders during a ceremony while hundreds continue demonstrating over the arrest in Minnesota of George Floyd, who later died in police custody, in Los Angeles, California, USA, 05 June 2020. A bystander's video posted online on 25 May, appeared to show George Floyd, 46, pleading with arresting officers that he couldn't breathe as an officer knelt on his neck. The unarmed black man later died in police custody.  EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

The cops are frightened, too. On any day in any city, someone they stop for a minor traffic violation may pull a gun and shoot them dead. The need for civilians to carry guns is normal only in a society which is abnormal, believing law and order is so fragile that anarchy is just one racial incident away.

I have also filmed with American police officers who speak of being attacked by gangsters with TEC-9 and MAC-10 blowback-operated machine pistols, and of criminals wearing kevlar bulletproof vests.

<span>Racial tension is stoked by fear, which is made worse by the presence of so many firearms in American life</span>

US president Donald Trump could become the political beneficiary of these events. He plays the race card with skill in order to energise supporters. Last week he talked of “dominating” the streets and tweeted a phrase coined by a 1960s white police chief in Miami that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

After violence from so-called “white nationalists” in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mr Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides". There weren’t. They were racist thugs. In 2019, he tweeted about sending four Congresswomen of colour “back home” because they “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe". Three of the Congresswomen were born in the US.

Perhaps Mr Trump was making a more profound point than he realised by admitting that he himself leads a country whose government is, as he put it, “a complete and total catastrophe".

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National