My students are too young to remember the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Just four years before their birth, they refer to them as something from “back in the day.”
But the themes of police brutality, poverty and racism are all too familiar. And most drew an immediate connection between the Rodney King verdict that sparked those riots and the 2009 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant. Grant was shot in the back by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle less than one mile from our school in Oakland.
In July, a jury convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter. But last Friday, Superior Court Judge Robert Perry sentenced him to just two years in jail minus the time he’s already served—in effect a sentence of just a few months.
The parallels between the two cases beg the question: Can we learn from the past?
For the last three weeks, my students have been working on an answer by exploring the text of Anna Deveare Smith's one-woman play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Smith heavily researched the topic, basing her play on more than 200 interviews.
Smith’s work gives a more nuanced perspective on the events of 1992 than any news article. Students read about the three days of rioting from multiple perspectives—a gang member, a police officer, a Korean shopkeeper, Rodney King’s aunt, an innocent bystander, one of the assailants of Reginald Denny, and even former District Attorney Gil Garcetti.
By doing so, I hope that they will see that this was not a simple situation. I want them to feel outraged at the acquittal of the officers that sparked the riot. But I also want them to feel some compassion—not only for the Korean shop-keepers whose businesses were destroyed, but also for the members of the jury who received threats upon their lives once the verdict was released.
But I’ve had varied success. They don’t always get it. Sometimes they take the words of the interviewee as truth rather than as that person’s point of view. They had a whole class discussion this week in which the question was, “Rodney King’s beating was the spark that lit the fire, but what do you think was the underlying cause of the riots?”
One student cited an interview from Smith’s work in which the interviewee said, “I think that the Korean stores/ that got burned in the Black neighborhood that were/ Korean-owned,/ it was due to lack of/ gettin’ to know/ the people that come to your store…just respect people comin’ in there—/ give ‘em their money/ ‘stead of just give me your money and get out of my face.”
Other students jumped in and supported this notion, pointing their fingers at the Koreans as the cause of the riots. They said, “The Koreans were rude,” and “they didn’t care about anything but their money.” They stopped short of echoing Paul Parker’s statement that “The Koreans was like the Jews in the day/ and we put them in check.”
I was surprised that a roomful of students of color, many of them from immigrant families, several of them from shop-keeping families, did not see themselves in the Koreans. They did not see the lack of native English skills that would allow an immigrant shopkeeper to converse easily with his customer. They did not see the injustice.
Empathy takes practice. And finding empathy for the “enemy” or “the other” is not easy. My students, colleagues and I are all struggling to empathize with Judge Perry. At the very least, I hope my students won’t see history in simple black and white, an old reel tape that keeps turning on itself, but rather a complex story that slowly grows out of its old ways.
Thomas is a Teaching Tolerance blogger and English teacher at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland, Calif.