Violence is a language that is direct and brutal. It speaks loudly with the pain it causes and the lives it takes.
Unlike harsh words or rudeness, which can sometimes be vague or questionable, violence is the greatest indicator that racism still exists.
The recent death of Rodney King, many years after he was badly beaten by police during the LA Riots in 1991, reminded us of the impact that this crime had on our community. King did not sign up to be the poster boy of the LA Riots or a symbol of police brutality.
Given a choice, he would’ve wanted to have a normal life without the pain that this crime had caused him, a pain that stayed with him as he struggled with substance abuse in his later life. King seemed to accept that his experience played a positive role in reshaping the LA Police force.
Though he may not have known it, the impact of his experience affected other parts of the world far and wide. In Seattle, King’s experience and the LA Riots left our community on high alert. The mayor at the time responded with a summit to develop more jobs for disenfranchised youths. The Asian and Black communities formed meetings to build bridges with other local groups.
Vincent Chin has also, since his death 30 years ago, become a symbol of hate crimes against Asians. In 1982, after Chin left a bar where he was celebrating his bachelor party, he was beaten to death by two laid-off autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. They mistook Chin for being Japanese, blaming him for their plight.
A greater injustice still was that after pleading guilty to manslaughter, they plea-bargained down to three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs. The Asian American community, angered by the sentence, pressed the U.S. Department of Justice to charge the two men with violating Chin’s civil rights. They were later cleared of those charges.
Years after the fact, the question becomes, what do these symbols do for us now? And what does it mean to remember?
While no amount of outrage or community effort can erase the pain and loss caused by racial violence, it is important for these names to remain in the public dialogue, so even years after the fact, we can associate violence with the loss of human lives, and not mere statistics. While similar acts of violence against people of color have continued since Rodney King and Vincent Chin, commemorating these symbols of unfortunate violence and acknowledging their loss also lends to casting light on the gains and progress made in the community as a response to tragedy. Part of that comes with accepting that while we will always be reminded harshly of the lives that were taken, we can go on believing that with persisted efforts, lives can be saved — though we may never know how many. (end)