What does an average person think about the Rodney King beating video and the Simi Valley LAPD trial? Does he really think Simi Valley LAPD were right in their ruling? Once the final decision has been made public, some people could not believe that the behavior of officers was reasonable. On the contrary, officers failed to execute their duty the way they should have. Community believed there was something more that protection in the recoded scenes. Police officers had no right to beat a person who was left alone to protect himself against the group of law enforcement representatives. However, there were some people who did not think that trial was legally and morally right because it was clear that officers’ behavior was wrong, as recoded on the tape. What was the juror’s motivation to think of beating as lawful? In order to find the answer to this question, it is important to introduce the concept of ‘looking’ supporting with the writing of Sturken and Cartwright, Hall, Goodwin, and Gooding-Williams.
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It is possible to define ‘looking’ as totally different to ‘seeing’. Sometimes, people can look without seeing the essence of things, events, and people. Daily life is accompanied with looking at everything that it happening around. A person wakes up and looks at his family at home, co-workers on the job, etc. Seeing is about viewing something without any filter. ‘Looking’, on the other side, includes some analysis. In other words, ‘looking’ is defined as social practice of perceiving objects, people, and events based on personal experience, opinion, or judgment. According to Sturken and Cartwright, “looking is an action that involves a greater sense of purpose and direction. It is an act of choice. Through looking we negotiate social relationships and meanings. It involves learning to interpret and like other practices, and relationship of power” (p. 10). Thus, ‘looking’ involves personal beliefs and prejudices. Even though people watch the same video on the beating of Rodney King, their ‘look’ (perception) can be opposing to each other.
‘Looking’ is a social practice and it can be totally different depending on the personal experience of the person who is looking. From my personal point of view, the guilt of officers in the beating of King was obvious. As the research revealed, the opinion of society was similar to mine. However, the jurors decided that police officers were innocent. Notably, the case remains controversial today even though it happened more than ten years ago. Did the jurors make mistake? Was their decision based on law or personal opinion? The answer to this question is hidden in the social concept of ‘looking’. The prosecutors, the defense, and the jurors had different opinions because of different ‘looking’ at the video record of beating.
The essence of social ‘looking’ can be traced to the discussion on denotative meaning and connotative meaning. Defense was looking at their recording scene as an image without paying attention to circumstances (denotative meaning). Prosecutor, on the other side, focused on connotative meaning. Prosecutor included cultural and historical aspects of belong to white vs. black race. In other words, white jurors ‘looked’ at the beating through the lenses of their cultural belonging to white race. They saw white officers protecting the white community from aggressive and dangerous black criminal. From this perspective, officers were national heroes who maintained order in community while beating Rodney King.
The strategy applied by defense what similar to the one discussed in above paragraph. Defense was just ‘looking’ from their perspective. Nevertheless, there was no prejudice. On the other hand, the strategy of prosecutors was based on the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In other words, the concept of racial classification was applied directly. According to the writings of Gooding-Williams, “there are no occasions in American society in which racial classification is not present as a dimension of social interaction, it is possible and even reasonable to read all representations of individuals or groups in American society as interpretations of the racial identities” (Gooding-Williams, p. 159). Thus, prosecutors did not look at the beating as violation of fundamental human rights because the black, not white, person was beaten by white, not black, police officers.
The video tape was more than beating of a black man by white police officers. It was not a usual situation defined by standard actions of police officers. The camera depicted an evident incident of racism and discrimination. Andrew Goodwin pointed out that “images are never innocent. Yes something did really actually happen at that night. And I do not doubt that it involved brutality and racism. But the camera did not teach me that” (p. 2). Video tape did not show the viewers the brutality and racism because video tape presents an image that is not able to speak and to explain the setting, the circumstances, and all other details that are required to make a reasonable judgment. However, if jurors could see Rodney King’s video without prejudice, they could see the racism and brutality of officers involved in the incident.
Jurors failed to avoid their racism and they were confident in officers’ innocence. The decision of jurors is a perfect example of stereotyping against the racial minority group. As Sander Gilman argued, everyone has stereotypes and even infants can tell the difference. Children learn about good and bad since the early childhood. When children become adults, their learned opinions are transformed into prejudices. Furthermore, prejudices result in discriminatory attitude. Thus, prejudices can occur on sub-consciousness level. “Stereotype buffers us against our most urgent fears by extending others, making it possible for us to act as through their source were beyond our control” (Gilman, p. 284). Every person has his/her own stereotypes grouped by racial, cultural, religious or other factors. Stereotypes have two sides; they are either good or bad. Stereotype cannot be neutral in its essence.
It is a part of human nature to relate good with ‘us’ and bad with ‘them’. Ten white jurors related themselves to white officers. In other words, Rodney’s case was about the historical conflict between black and white people. Jurors failed to avoid their stereotypes because there was a need to protect ‘us’, ‘good whites’ against ‘them’, ‘bad blacks’. Stuart Hall made an interesting point on the concept of cultural practices. He wrote that “things in themselves rarely if ever have any one, single, and unchanging meaning. Even something as obvious as a stone can be a stone, a boundary marker or piece of a sculpture, depending on what it means” (Hall, p. 3). In other words, neither the jurors nor the defense and prosecutors tried to investigate the meaning of incident. Jurors, defense, and prosecutors saw they wanted to see without paying any attention to the true meaning.
The Simi Valley LAPD trial was an exchange of meanings. As Hall noted, “meaning is constantly being produced and exchanged in every personal and social interaction in which we take part” (p.3). The meaning of the video for jurors differed to the meaning produced by defense. The root of this difference in attached meaning is ‘looking’ as social practice. It is illogical to claim that jurors were right or wrong because every person has his own definition of right and wrong. In my personal opinion, jurors were wrong because they did not see the self-evident meaning in the video tape: the beating of Rodney King by police officers. ‘Looking’ is a social rule that guides actions and opinions of every person living in any community setting.
‘Looking’ is not limited to negative meaning, though. On the contrary, ‘looking’ can be negative as well as positive. For example, both the defense and the jurors applied positive as well as negative ‘looking’ with the difference in the targeted group. In other words, jurors saw police officers are positive and King as negative, while defense saw King as positive and police officers as negative. Jurors referred to police officers as protectors of the community while society saw the actions of officers as contradictory to human values, morality, and law.
In conclusion, the decision of jurors in the Simi Valley LAPD trial reveals that looking can be found in everyday life. People do not pay attention to their own prejudices because they do not realize that their opinions, sayings, and actions can be discriminatory in essence. Rodney King was seen by jurors as violent criminal who had to be controlled by police officers. Society saw the beating as unlawful and immoral action against black citizen. ‘Looking’ as a social practice depends on cultural values of every person, group, or community. Taking into account that everybody has his/her own set of values, prejudice and discrimination cannot be avoided. The perception of ‘them’ as bad and ‘us’ as good will always be present in all communities.