Police Brutality and Race in

Assignment: Police brutality and race in the 1990s

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This assignment focuses in on Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Los Angeles was a relatively new city, even by American standards. Big migrations in the 1920s and 1940s had turned the old Mexican settlement into THE American city of the century, especially by the 1950s. If Hollywood didn’t attract enough people during the 1920s and 1930s, the defense industry jobs along the coast during WWII certainly did. By the 1990s, LA was a huge, diverse center, more so than almost any other city in the US (excepting New York City and Washington DC). LA presents as a great case study of the 1990s in general, but it gives us an especially relevant lesson in problems of racial inequality, segregation, and police violence. The 1990s in many ways are comparable to the 1920s– similar ‘culture wars’, including the huge trend of the white, middle-class consuming black culture while simultaneously continuing institutions and policies of violence against black people.

The sources we’ll see in this assignment are not comfortable. This lesson was not comfortable to put together nor will it be comfortable to consume. Alas, this history should not shock us, because we’ve been reading such similar stories, and we can perceive the world as it is today around us. Please be aware that the video we watch this week does include footage of the murder of a child. I apologize for any discomfort this causes and I do not mean to center violence against black people and people of color, but academia is one of the best and most appropriate places for us to study, question, and reflect on these historical realities.


Assignment Instructions

Step 1: Assess the sources.

Music and lyrics for the 1988 protest song “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A, from their album, Straight Outta Compton [warning: explicit language]:

Recall the lyrics to Claude McKay’s poem, “If We Must Die” from our 1920s Harlem Renaissance Reading Check. Compare the subject matter in this 1920s poem and this 1988 song.

Watch this 50-minute Smithsonian documentary on the LA riots of 1992. There is graphic violence shown. The video includes scenes from the beating of Rodney King in 1991, the murder of Latasha Harlins, and the infamous LA riots that started after the 1992 jury acquittal of four white LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King.

Step 2: Reply to Prompt.

Compose a 100- to 200-word discussion post that addresses the following prompt. No formal citations, but do reference the sources to show that you have read and watched this assignment’s materials. You likely won’t be able to touch on all the questions, but focus in on the ones that get you writing. Your main post is worth up to eight points.

Prompt: Describe the state of race relations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What was the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and Angelenos (LA residents) of color, particularly black people? What factors contributed to the LA riots (it is not enough to say “the beating of Rodney King caused the riots”– get more historical)? Could this violence have been avoided, as the documentary heavily suggests? Compare the lyrics and implied imagery of McKay’s 1919 poem (“If We Must Die”, linked above) and NWA’s 1988 song (also above). What emotions do you sense in the poem, song, and in the video clips of the riots and interviews? What is the Smithsonian documentary arguing, and do you agree? Having watched the video, how is American society more complex and layered than the “black and white” dynamic we typically focus on in American history?

Step 3: Reply to Three (3) Peers.

  • In a short paragraph between 50 and 100 words, respond to a peer’s post; you can agree with something that has been said and add further supporting details, answer a question that has been posed, or otherwise give your academic reaction to your peer’s post.
  • Respond to as many peers as you like, but you must respond to at least three peers.
  • Each response post is worth up to four points, so make sure that they are thoughtful and substantive.
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