Rodney King

In analyzing the video tape of the Rodney King beating, we see that looking is a social practice. How do we determine this? By noting that while most of the country saw the beating as a clear case of police brutality caught on tape, while twelve presumptively sane and intelligent jurors were convinced that what they saw was an aggressive suspect being reasonably detained by law enforcement officers. How did this happen? What did the jury see that the rest of the country did not? And how were they led to see it, when everyone watched the same tape?

The way we feel about something we see is entirely dependent upon our point of view, or on how we “look” at it. Watching the videotape on the ten o’clock news, we saw one man being brutally beaten by a group of other men. They had batons; he seemed to be unarmed. They were all white; he was the lone black man. They stood above him in badges and uniforms; he was rolling on the ground. The way we react to the tape was guided by the introduction given by the newscaster, our own perceptions and anyone else who was in the room with us.

The social activity of looking is reflected in what we now believe we saw. Didn’t the twelve people in the jury box see the same tape? Yes. Shouldn’t they have the same reaction that we do? In reality the answer is “no. ” While they did watch the same footage, they were guided through it by a well trained defense attorney, whose job it was to make them see what the defendants needed them to see. They did not have the same newscaster’s introduction.

They did not read “Police Brutality Caught on Tape” under the video as it rolled; and the people sitting in the box were all chosen because they had sworn that they could look at the evidence objectively and listen to both prosecution and defense before making a decision as to what happened. They did not look at the tape from the same point of view as we did. It did not matter that we all “saw” the same tape. In his piece “Truth, Justice and Videotape,” Andrew Goodwin says, “Savvy media critics should not have been surprised at all” (Goodwin 1992) by the outcome.

The videotape showed the jurors something completely different than what it showed us—with the careful guidance of the defense attorney. “What the juror sees on the tape is something that dovetails with her experience, with her attributes, with her own already available frameworks of interpretation” (Goodwin 1992). Cementing his argument that the jurors looked at the tape with a completely different point of view, he writes in response to one juror’s astonished reaction to the violent aftermath of the verdict,

If you were already so out of touch with urban reality that cathartic anger and violence strikes you as an unusual way to react to the injustice of the verdict, then clearly your frameworks of interpretation are quite well attuned to what we might call the LAPD P. O. V. As the defending counsel pointed out, the trick was to get the jury to view the events from the point of view of the police officers, and not Rodney King (Goodwin 1992)

Indeed, the jury looking at the incident from the LAPD point of view was absolutely essential to the verdict. The defense showed King as the aggressor instead of as the victim by turning “to a received stock of already interpreted images of black bodies, and used some of these to assault the black body appearing in the video . . . By the end of the trial, these images had become for the jury indistinguishable from King’s body” (Gooding-Williams 165).

Proving the idea that looking is a social practice, we note that in a criminal trial, all twelve jurors must agree on the verdict. So, after time together in the jury room, these twelve were able to see beyond the “fact” that “Rodney King had been unjustly beaten and unforgivably abused” and arrive at the decision that what they had watched (or looked at) on the tape was something else—something not obvious to the rest of the world, but sadly acceptable to those twelve (Gooding-Williams 165).