Election Year Riots: 1968, 1992 and 2020 | Sarah Stook


On the 4th April 1968, Martin Luther King stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. A single shot rang from across the street. This bullet entered Dr. King’s face and stopped at his shoulder, travelling through several arteries and veins before it did. One hour and 4 minutes later, he died at a nearby hospital.

On the 3rd May 1991, Rodney King was driving with two friends in Los Angeles. As he was speeding and under the influence of alcohol, King evaded police in order not to breach bail conditions. King was eventually stopped and told to exit the vehicle along with his passengers. After being searched and found unarmed, King was very badly beaten by four officers and watched by several others. King was later taken to the hospital, still in police custody, with injuries that included permanent brain damage and several skull fractures.

On the 25th May 2020, George Floyd was stopped by police, who were called by shop workers who believed he’d used a fake bill. Despite brief resistance, Floyd was compliant after he was handcuffed and told the reason for his arrest. He fell to the floor after failed attempts to enter the police car, at which point an officer knelt on his neck for what became nine minutes. An ambulance was called after pressure from bystanders, as Floyd begged and insisted that he couldn’t breathe. Eventually, Floyd stopped breathing and exactly an hour later, was declared dead in a nearby hospital emergency room.

These three acts of violence preceded riots that perhaps nobody could have seen coming.

Martin Luther King Jr represented the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, the face of every man and woman who faced racial prejudice in America. He was the most known face in the USA at this point, even going so far as to be a globally recognised tour de force. When someone thought of the US Civil Rights movement, they thought of King.

Rodney King and George Floyd represented the average African-American, the one who is more likely to have issues with police. They were not known people, but part of a homogenous unit that many put them into.

What also binds these events together, apart from race, is that they occurred in election years. It’s a coincidence, to be sure, and the events were not ones that radically changed the outcome of the vote, but it is easy to look at these things.

They say history repeats itself, which is also true. These events show how the civil rights movement did not end with The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that America’s struggle with race relations didn’t stop when slaves were finally freed.

The first occurred in the radio and early television age. The second occurred when television was at its peak. The third occurred during the boom of social media. One act, an act that was not the first of its kind, lit the powder keg and let the spark fly three. The announcement of MLK’s death was not through video, whereas it was the filming of the beating of Rodney King and the death of George Floyd that allowed the world to open its eyes to what has happened.

Let’s lay bare these events, alone and together, in order to understand not just the political commentary, but the history behind them.

Context:
Martin Luther King Jr was the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. He wasn’t the only leader or hero, but he was the man who found himself representing those millions who fought in the struggle. Some, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers thought he was not radical enough. Many whites hated him, some going to the level of burning his home, threatening his family and attempting to kill him.

Before the day of 24 hour news and social media, word moved slowly. One of the first men to learn about the death was Robert F. Kennedy, who himself would tragically be assassinated a few months later. Kennedy was campaigning in Indianapolis, Indiana and against campaign advice, mounted the back of a truck and announced to the assembled crowd that Rev. King had been killed. Following this, his famous speech was believed to have saved the city from the rioting.

Across the country, riots erupted as word got out. Whilst some cities, such as New York City, were spared bad damage (the mayor helped to calm tensions), over one hundred others were set ablaze, both logically and metaphorically. The worst hit were Washington DC, Chicago and Baltimore. Looting, arson and building damage were widespread, causing people to flee the city, insurance rates to rise and for many jobs to be lost.

The Rodney King riots were limited to Los Angeles and surrounding areas. Similarly to the Rev. King riots, there was already a build up of tension due to low job rates for African-American men, police brutality and ethnic tensions. The initial shocking video of Rodney King’s savage beating did not cause riots on its own, as most expected the perpetrators to be properly punished. The breaking point was when all four taken to court were acquitted on both charges, though one did receive a hung jury. As soon as the verdict was received, the unrest began.

Out of the three listed, the riots over the death of George Floyd have lasted the longest and been the most widespread, spreading from coast to coast. Whilst it started in Minneapolis, where Floyd had been killed, it has gone to even smaller cities and towns. This followed several notable deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement, from the shooting of Freddie Gray and questionable death of Sandra Bland in custody.

Role of the Media:
When Rev. King was killed, radio and colour TV were the primary forms of communication. At the time, many did not have a TV set in their house and as there wasn’t 24 hours news, the tragedy was slow to get out. Robert Kennedy was the first to publically announce the news, as he had been kept informed. The information came through word of mouth, which then spread to the rioting. As this was an age before mobile phones and social media, it would not have been easy to spread information to others. It seemed that these riots were more spontaneous and unplanned than the others listed, not necessarily a collective.

The riots in the Rodney King case immediately came after the not guilty verdict. It was not necessarily planned, but the moment in which the riots sprung from was almost decided before- everyone knew how they were going to react. It was only by chance that a local was filming the encounter; otherwise we may never have known the truth- media itself was the key to bringing the case to the forefront of public knowledge. Television covered the riots, as by this point most households would have at least one TV. It was more accessible than it would have been for those in 1968, as information would come quicker- 24 hour news had come around 12 years previously.

Television and the internet have allowed the George Floyd protests to become more global than the others. From Los Angeles to Tokyo, many across the world are protesting racism. What makes it even more global is the use of social media. Petitions are found on every Twitter thread, individual stories of racism are posted on Instagram stories and Facebook hosts news items from every source, however small. It is not just protests and rioting that have got bigger, but activism itself. Celebrities and normal folks put black squares on their social media, add banners to their profiles and speak their minds on the issue. Today, it’s easier to know where the action is, simply because your phone can tell you.

Political Implications:
Martin Luther King is probably one of the most famous African-Americans of all time, living or dead. He is an inspiration to millions and his speeches are the most recognisable. His death seems to have marked the end of the Civil Rights movement in history, as many would finish discussing it as a technical topic around this age. That is not to say, however, that the movement is done- it’s far from over, but many will think of the 50s and 60s in terms of the actual movement.

Like many assassinated folk, such as Gandhi and Malcolm X, he has created a legacy no one can touch. His premature death, and its brutality, have created a golden image of Rev. King that will never be tarnished. With Rev. King, we see how the death of a high ranking figure can spark such emotion from the unlikeliest of people. Before his death, being an African-American in politics was an anomaly, but it became the norm after it. Forty years after his death, Barack Obama became President of the United States.

Rodney King’s death had less political implications, though it did widen the discussion around police brutality.

It is too early to see the political impact of George Floyd’s death, seeing as it is still occurring. In the short term, we are seeing discussions of race come from the highest echelons of politics. Formerly silent people are raising their voice as they realise that racism is still alive.

As previously mentioned, each of these riots have happened in election years. In terms of impact, the death of MLK had the biggest factor in a vote. Richard Nixon was not only running on ending Vietnam, but being the law and order candidate for the ‘Silent Majority.’ The actions of the Governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, in crushing the riots in Baltimore, brought him to Nixon’s attention. Nixon was so impressed that he brought Agnew on as his Vice President.

Los Angeles was only quelled by the California National Guard and federal troops entering the city, as LAPD were simply outnumbered and did not have the resources to deal with it. Politically, it was probably a very minor factor in the November election. George H. W Bush was already unpopular in his own party due to raising taxes and publically due to the bad economic situation and being perceived as out of touch. Even if this had not happened, the ’92 result would have basically been the same.

It’s still a few months before Trump faces re-election. ’68 and ’92 saw the change of the party in power, however inevitable. Coronavirus is a much bigger issue for Trump, especially as the excellent economy he oversaw has now gone down the drain. Those involved in protests and riots are likely not to be Trump or Republican supporters anyway, simply by political persuasion and demographic. Trump could potentially run on a law and order platform in the way Nixon did, especially those in swing states who fear violence spreading to the suburbs.  As the states generally run their own show, it may also be harder for people to blame Trump for this- though coronavirus might be a different kettle of fish.

Racism will probably never end. It’s existed for as long as humankind has and will sadly outlive us all. Even if legislation is put into place, it will take much longer for society to catch up. The deaths of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and George Floyd, as well as the savage beating of Rodney King, were just a trigger.

Elections are a tricky subject. We are yet to see if race will have more of a factor than before and it if will be higher on the voters’ list of important issues. The media have cast light on what has gone on, either making us more aware or fanning of the flames. Let us see if history will be an indicator, a prophecy or even a warning.


Photo by bswise on Flickr.

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