Chauvin Trial: A Look Back At 1992 LA And America Since Rodney King

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Flames roar from a Thrifty Drug store in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, 29 April 1992. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, 29 April 1992, after a jury acquitted four police officers accused of beating a black youth, Rodney King, in 1991, hours after the verdict was announced. (Mike Nelson/AFP via Getty Images)
Flames roar from a Thrifty Drug store in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, 29 April 1992. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, 29 April 1992, after a jury acquitted four police officers accused of beating a black youth, Rodney King, in 1991, hours after the verdict was announced. (Mike Nelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Listener advisory: This hour contains explicit language. When quoting language used by police officers assaulting Rodney King in 1991, a guest uses a racial slur. The word is stated as a quote and occurs in context between 00:34:25 and 00:34:49. The word is uttered by John Burris who represented Rodney King in his civil lawsuit against LAPD in 1994. 

Almost 30 years ago, four Los Angeles police officers went on trial for brutally beating a man named Rodney King. Now in Minneapolis, a different trial, a similar defense. From LA in '92 to Minneapolis today, what has and hasn’t changed in America?


John Burris, civil rights attorney who represented Rodney King in his civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department in 1994.

Vaughn Dickerson, co-founder of 88 C.H.U.M.P., a nonprofit social activism organization. He grew up with George Floyd in Houston.

Also Featured

Lora King, Rodney King's daughter and CEO of the Rodney King Foundation. (@RodneyKingFDN)

Show Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

Closing arguments in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin are expected on Monday. Yesterday, as prosecution and defense teams rested their cases, Chauvin, the man accused of killing George Floyd, spoke for the first time.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MINNEAPOLIS TRIAL COURT — JUDGE: “Have you made a decision today whether you intend to testify or whether you intend to invoke your Fifth Amendment privilege?”]

[CHAUVIN: “I will invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege today.”]

CHAKRABARTI: Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck last May. Cell phone video of Floyd's death sparked protests across the nation.

Well, almost 30 years ago, another violent arrest, another video, and another trial ignited protests and felt like a possible turning point in American history.

On March 3rd, 1991, after a high speed chase, Los Angeles police pulled over a man named Rodney King. They brutally beat him. The moment was filmed by a nearby resident, and that video shocked the world. Four officers were eventually put on trial in Simi Valley, California.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1992 LAPD CRIMINAL TRIAL — KING LAWYER: “This evidence will show that whatever Rodney King was or whatever he did, it did not justify what you saw, what you saw on that videotape.”]

CHAKRABARTI: Well, today we're going to talk about the similarities and differences between these two moments; across decades, distance, technology and social reckonings. What do the trials reveal about what has and has not changed in America?

We'll begin with the story of a woman whose life was transformed that night in 1991, the night LAPD assaulted Rodney King.

LORA KING: It's part of my life. It's something that I will never, ever be able to escape from. It's something that was in my 12th grade history book. And it's something that will be part of history to my children, as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Lora was seven years old in 1991. And to this day, she remembers exactly where she was when she first saw images of police beating her father in the video that shocked the world.

KING: I was watching the news in Montclair, California.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 KTLA TV CLIP: “Dramatic videotape obtained by Channel five News.”]

KING: Me and my sister were playing.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 KTLA TV CLIP: “Shows what appears to be a group of LAPD officers beating a suspect.”]

KING: And all of a sudden I look on the screen and they mentioned the name.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 TV CLIP: “Prior to his release from jail last night. 25-year-old Rodney King showed his injury to reporters.”]

KING: And I'm like, he has the same name as my dad. What a coincidence, you know? And then as I looked around and looked at my family's reaction, I put two and two together, like, wait, what's going on? And then my mom yelled, ‘That's Rodney!’”

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, LAPD CHIEF DARYL GATES: “In our review, we find that the officers struck him with batons between 53 and 56 times.”]

KING: And my heart shattered because right before she said that, I thought to myself, whoever this human is, there’s no way they can live through that.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 ABC NEWS REPORT: “The bruises, broken legs and the scars from the stun guns which jolted him with 50,000 volt shocks.”]

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, RODNEY KING, 1991 POST-ARREST INTERVIEW: “After the first three good licks with, you know, one with that shocker and the next with the billy club across the face, I was scared. I was scared. I was scared for my life.”]

KING: And I just think about, often, like and we've all been in T-shirts and we've worked out so we know how this is. When you work out and your shirt is, like, sweaty. Now, imagine that. But being that your own blood. And you're constantly being tased and you're getting yelled at to be still.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 TV REPORT: “King claims, and several witnesses support him, that he never resisted.”]

KING: I've never been tased, but I got ‘whoopings’ as a kid. And it's like my mom would be like, ‘Be still!’ Well, you're ‘whooping’ me. How am I going to be still? Because my nerves are going to have a reaction.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, RODNEY KING, 1991 INTERVIEW: “I kneeled to my knees and spread my hands out and hit the ground as slow as I could because I didn't want to make any stupid moves because I'm already wondering, like, why are these guys, why are they drawing down on me?”]

KING: And I can't run from that videotape. That's something that can't escape from because that comes out in regular conversation. I could be anywhere. And so that's the part that bothers me, to actually watch a human being cry for his life, let alone it just so happened to be my father.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, ABC NEWS REPORT: “Against the growing national furor over last weekend's police shooting of an unarmed Black motorist, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said today that all 14 officers involved will be disciplined and that three will face criminal charges.”]

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, LAPD CHIEF DARYL GATES: “The officers, we believe, used excessive force in taking him into custody.”]

KING: Some of the egos that the officers, not all of them, because some of them, I feel like they were remorseful, but I felt like a few of them were a little ego-based. And it was like, Come on, you know, we didn't do anything wrong, kind of thing. And for a child to watch that, it's kind of heartbreaking because we live in a world that says, you know, all men are created equal. But in fact, we have to ask ourselves, are they? Are they created equal, or are we just saying that just to make people feel better? Because in my eyes, they were conducting themselves like nothing was wrong.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 NIGHTLINE REPORT: “The evidence is new. It's dramatic, and it's devastating to those Los Angeles police officers involved in the March 3rd beating of that Black motorist. The incident, as you've no doubt seen, was videotaped.”]

KING: My grandfather that I lived with was a Los Angeles sheriff and he was a right is right, wrong is wrong type of person. He didn't say, well, he's Black, give them a break. Or, he's white. He didn't think like that. So for me, it was a little hard to watch because it wasn't making sense to me.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 NETWORK REPORT: “The police communications released today included regular radio transmissions as well as computer messages between police cars. One of the two officers who wielded batons that evening relayed a message after the arrest to another car saying, quote, ‘Sounds almost as exciting as our last call. It was right out of Gorillas of the Mist.’ Response: ‘Ha, ha.’]

KING: And I have to question myself ... how many Rodney Kings have they done this to? How many that didn't get a videotape?

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 NETWORK REPORT: Car one again: ‘Oops, I haven't beaten anyone this bad in a long time.’ Car two responds: ‘Oh, no, not again. I thought you agreed to chill out for a while.’]

KING: You know, even though my dad lived through the incident, 90% of him died that night. You know, people are like, Well at least he lived. No, he didn't actually. He was never the same. He lived with excruciating pain for the rest of his life, as well as a fractured skull. So then you're forced to live with this name Rodney King and of course, get a job. Well, who could get a job? Because everybody knows that name. Everybody knows that name.

I always try to be like a spark of light around my dad because I knew he was dealing with a lot all the time. So I never personally talked about the incident. I think the first time I talked about the incident with him was when he was on Celebrity Rehab. And Dr. Drew asked, are you guys embarrassed of your dad? And I'm like, no way. Like what? And my dad looked like he was in shock. Like he was surprised that we weren't. And I'm like, absolutely not.

I feel like we failed my dad. We failed my father as a human being for the simple fact that he should have been given mental health for the rest of his life as well as any other African American or white, or Black, or Asian, or fat, skinny, blue, green person that's been beaten by the police. They should be given mental health for the rest of their life. This is not a temporary Band-Aid. They will never be the same.

Of course, my father's beating is everywhere on social media, but at the time it was just a videotape that they would show over and over. In this case, George Floyd's case. It's everywhere. It's on Instagram. It's on Facebook. It's on Google. It's on YouTube.

My first thoughts were, I wonder, does he have children? I wonder how old they are. And I thought to myself, like, his kids, they have to live the rest of their lives watching their dad being murdered over and over and over again. And I was watching the video thinking, I wonder if my dad's still living. Well, there was a little life moving because he was still scrambling for his life. So there was still movement.

But in their case, they see him. He knew that it was over. That's why he called for his mother who was deceased. Most people that are getting ready to take their last breath, they call for a person that's dead already. And to me, it saddens me that that man knew he was dying because he said it over and over, I'm out of here, I'm out of here, which means I'm dying. He still didn't get up.

And for me, it's like, it's really sad because he never got up. He never got up, and he died. And they just rolled them over, they rolled them over and said that, you know, he took opium. But the truth is, it doesn't matter what he took.

A Black man's life is not a state of emergency around here, it's just another birth certificate and death certificate. That's it.

I feel like America has learned hashtags. That's basically it, but no, honestly, I'm going to tell you this, I am hopeful because I've seen something last year that I've never seen before, and that's different nationalities being fed up. That's different nationalities speaking up like, Hey, no, no, no, this is wrong. These people don't deserve this. And that gives me hope.

CHAKRABARTI: Lora King is the daughter of the late Rodney King. She's also CEO of the Rodney King Foundation. King died in June 2012. Earlier that same year, he spoke with Oprah, the last interview before his death.

[RODNEY KING, 2012 OPRAH INTERVIEW: “It's not a day that goes by that I don't forget the beating. But it's not in a negative way like it used to be. It has turned into a positive way. It's part of history now. I wouldn't change a beat there because if it didn't happen to me, then it would be a slower process of people being able to get along.”]

CHAKRABARTI: In 1992, a jury did acquit all four Los Angeles police officers charged with assaulting King. In 1994, King filed a civil suit against the city and won. King's lawyer, civil rights attorney John Burris, said in a press conference at the time that he hoped the victory could bring change.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1994 PRESS CONFERENCE, JOHN BURRIS: “Once, if there’s finding of liability on punitive, punitive liability component that we would achieve a significant result and would have a strong impact nationwide on how police officers treat each other, treat citizens and on how and responsibility the citizens that districts have and cities have to monitor the conduct of their police department.”]

CHAKRABARTI: That's John Burris in 1994. He joins us to talk about America in 2021, when we come back. This is On Point.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Today, we're talking about what has and has not changed in America between 1991 - and the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles - and 2021, and the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.

I'm joined now by John Burris. He's a civil rights attorney, and he represented Rodney King in his civil lawsuit against the LAPD in 1994. And he joins us from Oakland, California. John Burris, welcome to On Point.

JOHN BURRIS: Good morning. Good to be with you. So, I've been involved in these cases steadily since 1994 to the present time. And I must admit, there have been significant changes in public awareness of the issues of police brutality and police misconduct and how the police treat the African American community that's been brought about largely as a consequence of various litigations that have taken place. More public awareness on the part of political leaders.

But more importantly, the advent of the cell phone and video camera and Rodney King was a sea change for the world when that video camera was set forth. There had not been any kind of public display about police misconduct ever before on a real level. Even though the African-American community certainly was aware of it, and certainly I was involved in litigation around that. But I tell you that video had a tremendous impact.

But since then, the numerous cases that exist around the country, what makes a big difference is there's been a cell phone or body cam video that allows people to really see firsthand what takes place in some of the urban communities.

Although I do believe there's been a lot of progress made at various points in time in the last 30 years when the Obama administration and somewhat part of the Bush administration, they really put forth a lot of pattern and practice litigation.

And in that way, they affected a lot of different departments in and how to make adjustments and reforms, and that was working pretty well during those governmental periods. Except then when the Trump administration came along, they did essentially did away with them. And that made it extraordinarily difficult.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so, Mr. Burris, if I may, I'd like to actually discuss in detail with you as much as we can about that exact sweep of history that you just described to us. So, I'd like to slow down a little bit and take it piece by piece and really learn from, you know, from your expertise.

So, first of all, let's, let's spend another minute on video evidence of police brutality. So first of all, this is a moment from the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. And this is prosecutor Jerry Blackwell speaking to jurors about the video, that cell phone video, of George Floyd's death. And this is from the first day of the Chauvin trial.

[CHAUVIN TRIAL TAPE, Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell: “And if I had to give this part of the evidence, you going to see your name? I would tell you that you can believe your eyes, that it's a homicide, it's murder. You can believe your eyes.”]

CHAKRABARTI: So, John Burris, you talked about the fact that the one of the biggest differences is the ubiquity now of body cam body worn camera videos or cell phone videos in incidents of police violence. I'd like you to help us remember what a shock it was in 1991, when that video was taken of the officers beating Mr. King. Because obviously that kind of police violence had been going on. It just wasn't so instantly available to eyes around the world. Can you remind us? Like how profound that video really was?

BURRIS: It was quite profound. It was shocking, literally shocking because people had not seen that level of brutality. And I will tell you, there was a significant aspect of the population that rejected it, basically by saying it only happened as a consequence of a Rodney King insult - the first form of victim shaming, if you will - he brought it upon himself, it was his failure to comply.

And I recall when I'm doing this case, it was very difficult for people to appreciate that any movement Rodney King was making at the time was a function of his reaction to having been hit 56 times. And for the population it was, it was hard to accept it because it was so brutal and you couldn't imagine people would beat someone that way, simply a police officer. So it was an eye opener around the world, if you will.

I visited some African countries later on, and Europe, and they all talk about how Rodney King and how it was a major blow against the United States in terms of geopolitical politics. Turning to local communities, we were shocked.

And I'll tell you that, that after the verdict came in and the officers were found not guilty, that was even worse because people couldn't imagine how an officer that beat someone the way they beat Rodney King and not be held accountable. And so that's where we were at that time. And it was, it was, it was way beyond normal comprehension.

Now for me, I had been involved in police misconduct cases like that. I knew about that level of brutality, so I wasn't totally surprised at it. I was just shocked to see it on video camera. And I also knew it was a sea change that was going to occur because if you had families like this to show police brutality, there's going to be another public awareness and a public awakening, which ultimately did happen over a period of time.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, so the video was there, it existed. And then, as you heard in the previous segment, in the days after the video was first released, LAPD did release police communications from that night as well. There seemed to be quite a bit of evidence mounting up well before the case went to trial the next year in 1992. And just to remind folks, though, what happened was four officers were charged. They were all, they all ended up being acquitted.

And I want to understand from you, Mr. Burris, a couple of the reasons why that happened. First of all, the trial wasn't held in Los Angeles specifically, right? It was moved to Simi Valley. Can you talk about that?

BURRIS: That was important. The most important decision that was made and that was good work on the part of the defense counsel to get the case out of L.A. County. If it had stayed in L.A. County, I'm sure the officers probably would have been convicted, but essentially it was moved to a bedroom community where police officers live in Simi Valley.

And that's the other part of this is, so much of this is about cultural lifestyles. What's your commitment? What’s your appreciation. And so in a place like Simi Valley, it was a police culture. And so therefore it would be in a place where the community there was supportive of the police. It didn't matter what they did, they were supportive of the police. Where other communities would be just the opposite. They have certain parts of Central L.A., if they were tried there, they would have easily been found guilty because those jurors would have had experience and dealing with LAPD in different sorts of ways. And they understood that the cops did not treat people in the most honorable way. So the location, location, location was one of the significant points.

CHAKRABARTI: So then that, that is a difference then between 1992 and 2021, because the trial of Derek Chauvin is going on in Minneapolis.

BURRIS: And the important part to me is what I like about the trial here today is, it is, it is racially, culturally, a mixed jury, which did not happen in Simi Valley. So here you have, even though it's a city that has a very small minority population, it does have a cross-section of minorities on that jury. That gives some more credibility and logic to the jury itself.

And it, you know, breaks away from the sense that it was an all-white jury that is supportive of the police or vice versa. So the jury composition, I think each side worked very hard to do that because they each left on some people that I think that under the circumstances, in other cases they would have, they would have exercised them and got rid of them.

But I think there is a real effort to make sure that there was a cross-section of the community there and for purposes, many went for the jurors’ decision to be accepted by having this cross-section of ethnic jurors on that panel.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, well, I want to talk for a minute or two about how Mr. King was characterized in the trial in 1992. Now again, it wasn't his trial, right? It was four LAPD officers who were on trial. And yet Rodney King's own character was essentially in, in a sense, put on the stand. So here's a moment from, from again, the 1992 trial where Michael Stone, defense attorney for one of the LAPD officers, Laurence Powell, he talks about Rodney King.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1992 LAPD TRIAL, Defense Attorney Michael Stone: Duty did not require Officer Powell to end up toes up on a slab in a morgue. They don't get paid to roll around in the dirt with the likes of Rodney Glen King.]

CHAKRABARTI: John Burris, talk about that. How much was him? Was Mr. King himself on trial?

BURRIS: Well, clearly he was profiled first as an ex-convict. Secondly, as a big Black man, a brute, if you will. And that essentially it was he himself that caused this entire escapade to occur because he was this big African American man and that, that people were afraid of. That almost reminded me of a statement they had made the night before shortly thereafter about Gorillas in the Mist.

That, that certainly was the undertone of how that case was tried, and it was appealed to to put the respective jurors out there in Simi Valley, which was all white. So it was pure, unadulterated racial bias presentation and appeal to baseless racism of the community that depicted him.

And it wasn't just for the trial itself, but it was for the public perception nationwide, worldwide that there was this big Black guy, and you know, that was, he was noncompliant and he had to be beaten into submission in order to get compliance. So that's what was depicted. He was not human. He was somehow in a different plane and the humanness was taken away from him.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, this is one way in which the video was actually used by the defense to defend the officer's actions, right? I mean, they even, like, did sort of a moment by moment analysis of every one of Rodney King's movements and said, ‘Well, this is the justification for why the officers beat him with clubs more than 50 times.’

I mean, here's a moment that describes that. This is LAPD veteran Charles Duke Jr. He testified for the defense again in 1992, and he dissected the tape to identify King's movements. And here's here's that moment.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1992 LAPD TRIAL, Officer Charles Duke Jr.: “He's in a rising position. He has this leg is cocked. He's up on his knees, are up on his elbows in a rising position.’]

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, Defense attorney Michael Stone: “All right. So you're saying based upon all that has happened up to date with regard to this scenario, you think it would be appropriate to hit him?”

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, Officer Charles Duke Jr.: “Yes, I do. Because once an officer is attacked, to allow the suspect to rise to his feet, you allow the potential for escalating the situation into a deadly force mode.”]

CHAKRABARTI: That's LAPD veteran Charles Duke testifying for the defense in 1992. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point. John Burns, can you talk more about that?

BURRIS: Yeah, I think it was horrible. To me it was he had been beaten into submission and that the video was used in ways to to slow it down so that every little move he made even though the reaction was to being hit. But when he was reacting to being hit by one of the batons, any movement that he made was then interpreted as an aggressive act toward the police. And it was a horrible thing that was being done, and ultimately when we had to deal with a civil trial, there clearly was that same effort was being made.

And so the video I want you to understand, is not a panacea. It's a two, it can be a two edged sword, depending how it's used. And in that particular case, even though you had all of this brutality that was taking place, it was used in such a way to show that actually Rodney King was the aggressor because he failed to to submit and reacted every time he was being hit.

That's unfortunate aspect of how that videotape was used. And I would say that, you know, its used that way in a lot of different cases as well. Videotape in and of itself, it can be very positive, but can also be misused and misdirected and misinterpreted by counsels.

CHAKRABARTI: Do I have this right? That was it in the civil trial where you got a special, an acoustics expert to come in to really try to listen to what the, what the officers were saying as they were beating Mr. King. Yeah. So tell me about that.

BURRIS: You know, so during the course of the trial, during the course of the preparation, I could hear [in the police video] faintly words like, “N***er, stay down. N***er, stay down.” But you couldn't hear it. So what I did, I found an audio technician expert who was in Los Alamos down in New Mexico. And he came to court and he was able to amplify those words that were being said. And so everyone could then hear that what was being said was, “N***er, stay down. N***er, stay down!”

And it made a huge difference in the case because then all of a sudden it wasn't just a beating case. It had racial overtones. And I think that was important that this was not done in the criminal case. It was something we came up with in the civil case, and I think made a big difference in people's perception that it wasn't just a beating per se, it really was a racially overtone beating that these officers were involved in.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, Mr. Burris, I have to say we are broadcasting this live right now, and under other circumstances, we would definitely be bleeping out the N-word because because of, you know, it's, it's destructive power. But in this case, again, we're live and I completely understand that, you know, in fact, hearing the destructiveness of that word in this context actually matters to deepen our understanding of what we're talking about here. So, I just wanted to let listeners know that.

But so there's, there's so much more to talk about. There's one one more specific thing about maybe some parallels between what happened in the first trial in 1992 and the trial of Derek Chauvin right now in 2021. And I want to talk again about about how drugs were introduced as as a factor in the case. So here is defense attorney for former LAPD officer, Daryl Mounger. And the defense attorney who represented Stacey Coon. And he argued that the officers thought that Rodney King was high on PCP.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1991 LAPD TRIAL, Former LAPD officer: “Rodney King displayed the objective symptoms of being under the influence of something the sergeant soon will tell you. I knew he was under the influence of something. I saw a blank stare in his face. I saw watery eyes. I saw perspiration. I saw that he swayed. I saw that he was slow to follow the commands of the officers. I saw him looking through me.”]

CHAKRABARTI: And Barry Brodd, a use of force expert in the current trial of Derek Chauvin, was called in as a defense witness, and here's what he said.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 2021 CHAUVIN TRIAL, Barry Brodd: “People on the influence of drugs may not be hearing what you're trying to ask them to do. They may not understand. They may have erratic behavior. They don't feel pain. So techniques you would normally use to make somebody comply, they're not feeling they may have superhuman strength, or they may have an ability to go from compliant to extreme noncompliance in a heartbeat.”]

CHAKRABARTI: John Burris. We have 30 seconds before we have to take our next break here, but this seems to be a constant in many police violence cases. The use of this in the defense hasn't changed much.

BURRIS: Absolutely. And the Rodney King case, it really was that he was on PCP and therefore, he had this superhuman strength and which was on balance, he was being beaten so badly. Everything you were doing was reaction to it. None of what they believe to be true or the justification for the beating that they gave him. And we see in this case the same thing that they want to use drugs as a defense to justify the use of force, which in my view, is fundamentally wrong.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Mr. Burris, forgive me for interrupting, but we've just got to take that quick break here. We'll be right back. This is On Point.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. And today we're talking about the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and the trial of four LAPD officers that happened the next year in 1992, and looking to see what has and has not changed in America across the almost three decades since then, as the nation watches the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin now.

I'm joined today by John Burris. He represented Rodney King in King's civil lawsuit against the LAPD in 1994, and he joins us from Oakland, California. And in a moment, we'll hear from a friend of George Floyd as well.

But, but John Burris, I earlier in the show, I played a moment from a press conference that you gave in 1994, and I want to play it again because to me, there's, there's the sound of hope and maybe even guarded optimism in your voice in ‘94. And I want to see if you still feel the same way. But here's what you said back in ‘94.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1994 press conference, John Burris: “Once, if there’s a finding of liability on punitive, punitive liability component then we would achieve a significant result and would have a strong impact nationwide on how police officers treat each other, treat citizens and on how and responsibility the citizens that districts have and cities have to monitor the conduct of their police department.”]

CHAKRABARTI: So, Mr. Burris, Rodney King and you won that civil case. But how do you, how does the 1994 John Burris statement fall on the 2021 John Burris hearing it now? Did you get the change that you had hoped for?

BURRIS: Well, I will say that it is true that I expressed optimism in that period of time, I cautiously saw, and I still feel that way. I would say I do believe the arc of history is long, but it ultimately bends toward justice, as Dr. King said. And I also believe that for I and others, it is important for all of us to continue to move to social justice in a positive way.

But there are setbacks along the way in a huge country and a deep, deep history here. You know, the history of the police, the African American community goes way back to slavery. And I don't, I think the remnants of the attitude of the police toward the African-American community is somewhat similar to that. But not all, not all.

There are a lot of African American officers, I think, and leaders in departments, and I've been involved in a case called the Riders up in Oakland, where we got involved in a review of the entire department on pattern and practice. And I've seen that in other departments. So I think it's a function of the political leadership of a particular town, holding officers accountable and having visibleness that they can see. I see a lot of that happening.

Now unfortunately, we do have individual acts that take place that create a setback on this issue. That happened with an African American soldier and the police the other day. I've had three or four cases recently where bad things have happened to people. But I also think that just the public response of those is a lot different now than it was 30 years ago. The general population in many ways are positive in their response, and the rallies that happened for George Floyd was amazing to me.

I really thought there was an opportunity for a momentum to take hold, for a movement to occur. And in many ways, it has happened in some communities. Not perfect. And I don't expect it to be perfect, but I'm optimistic still that you have to keep plugging away at these issues, and people of goodwill over time can make a difference in individual communities. Of course, there will always be setbacks, but at the same time you have to be positive, which I am and try to be despite all the time.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, John Burris, if you can just stand by for a moment, I want to now bring into the conversation, Vaughn Dickerson. He joins us from Houston, Texas. He grew up with George Floyd in Houston, and he's co-founder of 88 C.H.U.M.P., a nonprofit social activism organization. Vaughn Dickerson, welcome to On Point.

VAUGHN DICKERSON: Good morning, everyone.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, I understand that you were in high school with George Floyd the same year that Rodney King was beaten by LAPD and that video went, that 1991 video went around the world. Did you guys, did you, do you remember seeing that in high school?

DICKERSON: Of course. It was, it was world breaking news, especially for everyone, quote-unquote, who grew up in the ghetto of what they call the hood.

CHAKRABARTI: And what do you remember thinking, you and your friends, would you talk about, how did you talk about what you saw in the video?

DICKERSON: First of all, it was unbelievable to see those officers literally quote unquote beat a man to death while he was still alive. And it was. And we were kids at the time, so it was hard for us to just digest the severity of what was going on. But we knew what was going on because it was happening right, right in the inner city of Houston, Texas, also. And like I always say, pretty much in all the ghettos all over the world. So it was just heartbreaking to see it happen to him. And he's not resisting, obviously, anything. He's trying to protect himself from getting beat worse than he is getting beaten.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-Hmm. And when the verdict came down in that criminal trial of the four LAPD officers and they were all acquitted, how did that land with you and George Floyd and your classmates?

DICKERSON: It was no surprise. I mean, everybody knew that they were guilty because, as we were always told, we play sports and the video doesn't lie. And we knew that they were guilty, but we knew that in the court of law that back then and even to this day, there hasn't been no accountability for a police officer's actions against individuals inside the inner city. So we knew that it was a strong possibility and 99% that they weren't going to get found guilty because of their skin color.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-Hmm. I mean, you were you were friends with George Floyd. You want to, can you, can I ask you, to tell us a little bit about him about what your friendship was like growing up?

DICKERSON: I was best friends, one of George Floyd’s best friends. We grew up as kids, middle school, high school until after. We both played ball together, football and basketball, we both were blue choppers in football and basketball, for three years. We both got moved up to varsity football and varsity basketball our freshman years. It was days, I go to his mom’s.

... They'll come to my mom's house, eat, sleep, everything. We did almost everything together, but share each other’s clothes because he was so big. But we played Little League together after school. Me and some more guys, we probably spend more time with George than his own family did because we were that close knit.

CHAKRABARTI: Have you been? He was – no, go ahead, go ahead.

DICKERSON: I'm sorry. He was, he was, he was a large individual. When we were in high school he was 6”6’ dunking a basketball. But he was the most friendly individual you would ever meet. He was a peacemaker. And I tell guys all the time I said man in all my time he never had a fight. We were almost always fighting. He'd never fought. So that explains a lot about his character of who he was. He was a jokester. Everywhere you go, he just cracked jokes. He was a friendly person. Everybody loved him. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Have you been watching the trial?

DICKERSON: Sporadically, I've been watching it because I understand the system and how it works and as was just stated, they're using pretty much some of the same tactics trying to say drugs in his system and things of this nature, things they used 30 years ago. And again, the video doesn't lie, and it's sad to see that we, the citizens of America and the system that's supposed to protect and serve doesn't really want to hold no officer accountable for any killing of any Black man or woman here in America. And it's just sad right now.

CHAKRABARTI: And we have been talking with Mr. Burris, as you've been hearing about some of the really striking similarities between the 1992 Los Angeles case and what we're hearing in the trial in Minneapolis now. There are also some really, really big differences. And John Burris, I want to turn to you on this because one of the biggest differences is that the current police chief of the Minneapolis Police Department testified against Derek Chauvin in this current trial. So here's a moment from that. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, on day six of the trial:

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 2021 CHAUVIN TRIAL, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo: “When Mr. Floyd was no longer responsive and even motionless, to continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out and handcuffed behind their back, that, that in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy, is not part of our training, and it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”]

CHAKRABARTI: John Burris, it is exceedingly rare, if not unheard of, of a sitting police chief to testify against their own officers. But it, it seems like the opposite end of the universe from how Daryl Gates, who was then LAPD's chief, handled the case around his four officers in 1992. Do you want to talk about that?

BURRIS: Absolutely. Daryl Gates, although he authorized the officers to be fired, he never really came to court or took a position that the officers had violated policy. One of the things that was very notable about that is LAPD officers testified that the beating was within policy, which is contrary to what we have in George Floyd's case here, a case where officers came from the department and said it was outside of policy.

And that's a huge difference. It matters, in terms of credibility for the department that they are willing to acknowledge when officers get out of line and they violate law. As opposed to staying behind the code, and the code of silence that existed. So this was remarkable, truly remarkable, for that to occur.

And we'll see whether or not it matters, matters still to, to the jury itself, because you do have other officers like this police practice person who says that it was within policies. And this is the kind of thing that we find in every case is that there are officers who will stick by a police officer no matter what, no matter what they did, or even in the face of common sense and violation of the law. So there's a long way to go in that area, but certainly it relates to the Chauvin case and Rodney King's case, there was a huge difference in terms of law enforcement's participation.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, in the moments and days right after, the 1992 trial of those Los Angeles police officers, there was this sense that perhaps this could be a turning point in American history, but many people look back and say, “Well, it could have been, but perhaps that turning point was delayed because of the response that happened after the not guilty verdicts came down.”

There were riots in Los Angeles, and even Rodney King himself tried to appeal to protesters. And here's what he said.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1992, Rodney King: “I just want to say, you know, can we can we all get along? Can we can we get along? Can we stop making it? Make it horrible for the older people and the kids?”]

CHAKRABARTI: That was Rodney King in 1992. Vaughn Dickerson, what are you thinking about what might happen in the moments after a verdict, whatever it might be, is handed down in the Chauvin trial?

DICKERSON: Well, we know for sure that if anything happens, quote unquote, if it doesn't go in a favorable way, for Mr. Chauvin getting found guilty and convicted and you know, a harsh sentencing for what he did, that there will be protests in the streets. But it will be a peaceful protest.

But we know he Minnesota National Guard will be there and everything. They will have more police involvement there than they did at the Capitol. So we know because it's colored people there. So we know they tend to think that when there is a lot of colored people, quote unquote, we don't know how to act. So again, it will be peaceful protest no matter what because as you just saw, another unarmed Black man was just killed about 10 miles away from where they are actually having the trial.

And my thing is that when you see people marching and protesting and we'll put Black Lives Matter and murals all over the United States of America and all over the world, those are the voices of the unheard. And because if we weren’t being hurt, we wouldn't have to do that. And as Mr. King's daughter stated, it’s sad because no one knew George Floyd’s mother had passed away. We knew then. Nobody else knew the world found out later.

So it was really, really heartbreaking for me to see him howling for his mother Miss Sissy and knowing that he can’t help himself. And he knew what was going on. He knew not to resist the offer. He wasn't resisting. He complied in every way possible. And it's sad to see them taint him again and put him on trial and trying to say it was drugs and trying to say it was a fake $20 bill. And now is the emissions from the car and it just sat there. There, there's no accountability.

And I like to thank the Minnesota police chief for coming here because he's standing up for what's right and he took an oath and he's taken accountability. So that's a beautiful thing compared to the Rodney King case, where they gave them a slap on the wrist, suspended them or whatever they did and, you know, et cetera. But right here, now, back then, they had a policy where it was a code of silence. Now you have a policy that's accountability because it's not just people of color.

You have Caucasians, you have Asians, you have Chinese, Vietnamese, you have Mexican Americans, you have everybody. And it's a younger generation and they want change, right? You know, racism is something that's taught in a home, it’s not something you wake up and say, I hate a Black man or Black woman. This is something that your parents and grandparents have been taught. You got in slavery days and told you that that you were better than others, and that's why it's being passed down from generation to generation.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, we just got a minute left, and I've actually, I've a heard a note of hope from both of you here. So John Burris, I have one last question for you. We literally just got about 30 seconds. You've been doing this for decades, though. You want to get to a time that you don't have to try cases like this anymore, don't you? We all do.

BURRIS: Well, you know, when I think through it, you question, I think through that, I'm hopeful, hopeful that that the case itself, if it's presented, will look like a fair evidence was presented and decisions made that the general public will accept it. I am worried, though, that if not, we could have another firestorm like we've had, at other times. Rodney King was much more of an eruption first time out of the box, but since then we've had other cases that people understand and the system doesn't always work perfectly. So I'm, I'm hopeful that what comes out and, you know, some consideration, real consideration for the facts of what happened.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, John Burris represented Rodney King in his civil lawsuit in 1994. Mr. Burris, thank you so very much for joining us today.

BURRIS: Well, thank you. Good to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: And Vaughn Dickerson, friend of George Floyd and co-founder of 88 C.H.U.M.P., Thank you so much as well. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.

This program aired on April 16, 2021.


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Anna Bauman Producer/Director, On Point
Anna Bauman is a producer and director at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Tim Skoog Sound Designer and Producer, On Point
Tim Skoog is a sound designer and producer for On Point.



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