In the early hours of March 3, 1991, Rodney King was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a high speed chase through a maze of residential neighborhoods and freeways. A video of the incident was filmed from a bystander's balcony, making it perhaps the first viral piece of documentation of police brutality in America.
The clip of the four officers aggressively swinging batons and feet at King -- while at least four officers stood by and watched -- spread quickly from one news network to the next, igniting outrage that would erupt into a week-long riot the following year, when the officers were acquitted of using excessive force against King. The rioting fanned out across Los Angeles in a wild and dangerous wave, causing 56 deaths, over 2,300 injuries, nearly 7,000 fires and, some argue, a further racial divide across the nation.
Peering back over the last two and a half decades, VIRAL: 25 Years From Rodney King, a multi-media art exhibit at Betti Ono Gallery in Oakland, asks the question everyone wants an answer to: So, America, how have we changed?
Curator Daryl Elaine Stenvoll-Wells, founder of Art Responders (a social media community that allows artists to share creative responses to police brutality, born at the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement), helps guide the conversation. The traveling show first debuted in Los Angeles last fall. The current exhibition closes, appropriately, on Oct. 22, the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality.
At Betti Ono, a timeline of incidents stretches along the gallery walls, highlighting significant laws and socio-technical developments related to police violence against people of color. VIRAL’s timeline points to major turning points within the criminal justice system and corresponding rises in violent incidents by police. Among these are the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which called for tougher punishment of crimes and increased numbers of law enforcement (in lieu of education and other crime preventing measures).
Commentary and fact sheets through the gallery discuss topics such as racial disparities in non-violent crimes, settlement amounts in wrongful death suits, and the inherent flaws in stop and search laws. Notes on violence against people with physical and mental disabilities are also included among the exhibition's visual art.
And the names we all know by now, for all of the wrong reasons, are there too. Sandra Bland. Oscar Grant. Amadou Diallo. Michael Brown. Alex Nieto. Eric Garner. And too many more to include in this space. The loss and grief felt by their families is too immense to be held in a gallery, but it can be felt lingering between its walls.
Since Rodney King, similar incidents have been captured on dash cams, body cams and the cell phones of passersby. Evidence of police misconduct is everywhere, yet few in law enforcement are held accountable for the deaths of unarmed men, women and children. So, America, what has changed?
With or without the VIRAL fact sheets (and the three audio boxes with headphones playing songs by Bay Area favorites like The Coup, Dead Prez, KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill and Yasiin Bey), the visual work is stark and at times gut-wrenching.
Featured artists include Alice Patrick, Sanae Robinson, Susan Mah, Tina Ybarra, Molly Segal, Overstreet Ducasse, Emory Douglas, Paul Barron, Not My Government, Ravi Zupa and many others. The work ranges from depictions of police brutality to portraits of those whose lives were lost, and everything in between. The show is ambitious and vast and touches on the complex and overwhelming emotions the subject matter evokes.
Despite the heaviness, a small spark of hope appears on the walls of Betti Ono, however overshadowed it may seem by the current political climate in America. More people are speaking up and taking to the streets. More groups are developing to push back against racism and police brutality, demanding accountability and an end to senseless killings.
VIRAL is a critical piece of the historic moment we are all navigating, and calls, without subtlety, for action. It is an experience for anyone who cares about where we can go from here. To stand in the gallery -- engulfed in a timeline of the last 25 years of documented police brutality against people of color -- is to stand in equal parts rage and despair, asking again and again and again: So, America, when will this end?
VIRAL: 25 Years From Rodney King is on view at Betti Ono Gallery in Oakland through Oct. 22. For more information visit viral-rk25.squarespace.com.