30 years after Rodney King, friends of George Floyd see parallels in upcoming Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis

George Floyd and his childhood friends spoke of the video with astonishment.

The year was 1991, and images of Los Angeles cops beating Rodney King, a Black motorist, were sparking a national firestorm over police brutality. Floyd was a 16-year-old student in an impoverished Black neighborhood in Houston, a city with its own accusations of authorities using excessive force against people of color.

“There was a level of excitement, like finally it’s caught on camera,” said Floyd’s friend Jonathan Veal, recalling their group discussions. “But then later, the verdict came back, the police were acquitted and there was just a level of disgust, shame and, really, disappointment in the justice system.”

As the 30-year anniversary of King’s beating approaches Wednesday, America is at another racial justice flash point: the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the white officer who pressed his knee on the neck of Floyd, a Black man, for close to 9 minutes outside a south Minneapolis convenience store.

King survived his assault. Floyd was pronounced dead soon after his encounter with Chauvin. Both incidents gripped the nation through the power of bystander videos that captured them — amplified with the advent of 24-hour news outlets in King’s case, and across social media in Floyd’s.

Jody Armour, University of Southern California law professor, said the King video was the most shocking recording of police violence that people of his late baby boomer generation had seen. For his students today, most of whom were not alive in the early 1990s, the video of “George Floyd is the most shocking thing they’ve seen,” he said.

King video hits airwaves

After midnight on March 3, 1991, King led police officers on a high-speed chase for 8 miles as they tried to pull him over for speeding. After King finally exited the car and got on the ground, onlooker George Holliday recorded a grainy video from his balcony of white police officers tasering, kicking and beating King dozens of times with batons.

The recording that Holliday shared with a local new station days later became the first widely seen video of a violent police encounter in modern times, playing over and over as national news channels picked up the story.

Herbert Mouton, a childhood friend of Floyd’s, said teachers at Jack Yates High School showed them televised news reports about King and encouraged student discussion. Until then, he noted, the clips they watched at school featured police spraying Black civil rights protesters with hoses during the 1960s.

“We hadn’t — I hadn’t — seen police brutality to that extent until Rodney King,” Mouton said. “It was very shocking.”

The King video resonated more than 1,500 miles to the east in a Black community targeted by the War on Drugs and a police force that, like the L.A. Police Department, had a controversial history of its own. In 1977, the year that Floyd’s family moved from North Carolina to Houston, the Washington Post published a story about how critics described the Houston Police Department “as the most violent and unchecked such force in the United States” with a “shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later” approach.

In 1981, amid tensions between police and Black residents, Lee Brown became Houston’s first Black police chief and drew national recognition for instituting community policing.

Even so, a few of Floyd’s friends recalled how Houston erupted in outrage over separate police killings of Black citizens Ida Delaney and Byron Gillum in 1989. The latter incident happened about a mile from Floyd’s public housing project, Cuney Homes, when a white police officer shot Gillum in the back after pulling him over for not wearing a seatbelt.

There was no video to counter the narrative that the officer told — that Gillum had reached for a gun, which he kept for his job as a security guard. A jury declined to indict him.

Such incidents fueled skepticism of police in Floyd’s community well before the King video surfaced. Floyd’s friend Vaughn Dickerson remembered that people in the neighborhood would drive around playing Compton rap group NWA’s 1988 anti-police anthem. Another popular group at their high school was the Houston-based Geto Boys, which came out with the song “City Under Siege” in 1990 that evoked Delaney’s killing by off-duty cops who had been out drinking and lamented police violence with the lyrics, “Police brutality is now a formality” and “They’re kickin’ our ass and we’re payin’ their salary.”

‘We still had trust’

In high school, Floyd and his friends were busy playing sports and shied away from trouble. But Dickerson noted that they were growing up during the crack epidemic, when police assumed every young Black man was selling drugs and harassment and roughing up was routine. “Rodney King made history with us because what he endured is what we saw every day in the ghetto … officers beating, kicking minorities, that was a common thing,” said Dickerson. Like many people, Dickerson recalled that he and Floyd thought the four officers who went on trial would be convicted.

“We still had trust and faith in the system,” he said. “You’re talking [about] teenagers, 17- and 18-year-olds. We’re not understanding the biases and prejudices against Black people. We understood it — we knew about slavery and Black history — but we didn’t truly understand the depth of it.”

A mostly white jury acquitted the officers in April 1992; two of the officers were convicted of violating King’s civil rights in a federal trial the following year. Jurors saw the beginning of the video — edited out of TV footage — showing that after being tased, King charged at an officer before the group began attacking him with batons. Officers said King had been resisting arrest and testified that they thought he was high on PCP, though he later tested negative for the drug and was instead legally drunk. He claimed to have initially evaded police out of fear of getting a drunk-driving charge while on parole for robbery.

The video in that case remained an aberration for decades until the introduction of smartphones and body cameras in recent years helped propel the Black Lives Matter movement.

‘Part of history’

Like King’s assault, Floyd’s encounter with Chauvin might have flown under the radar without a bystander’s filming. Darnella Frazier recorded Floyd’s anguished cries under Chauvin’s knee in a smartphone video that challenged the police narrative that he had merely had a medical incident.

The recording shocked the nation in a different way. It was lengthy. It did not end with bruises and fractures, but the last words of a dying man.

In the King case, one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history broke out in L.A. once the officers were acquitted more than a year after the beating. By 2020, the public was no longer ready to wait: People stormed the streets, rioted and seized the Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis soon after the video of Floyd emerged.

Armour noted that there had not been the same infrastructure of activism after the King controversy compared to the one established in the years leading up to Floyd’s death: “Rodney King was more of a moment. George Floyd was part of a movement.”

Stanford University law professor David Sklansky said that not only is the video of George Floyd better quality, “but we also have a better sense of the scale and nature of the overall problem of police violence.”

Jurors in the first trial regarding King’s beating have said they based their acquittal on testimony and evidence in the courtroom, and those in the Chauvin trial will face similar limits amid a public movement to deliver a statement against systemic racism.

When Veal watched the video of Floyd, he noticed that his friend called the cops “sir” and “Mr. Officer.” It brought back memories of the conversations they had as teenagers about talking respectfully to police. As he, Dickerson, Mouton and other friends of Floyd prepare to travel north for the trial, they hope this time will be different. That a jury will convict.

“Just as people talked about the Rodney King experience and trial,” said Veal, “I think this is going to be the same … it’s going to be a part of history.”