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How the police beating of Rodney King and what followed connects to Black Lives Matter movement

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A new BET docuseries "Boiling Point" examines moments of injustice throughout Black American history and their commonalities, starting with the Rodney King beating and its fallout. One of the experts interviewed for the series is Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University. He joins "CBS This Morning."

Video Transcript

- Over the past decade, we have seen many instances of Black Americans being subjected to police violence with video capturing what unfolded. But before that, the 1991 Rodney King beating was the first time most Americans saw this type of violence from officers. To remind you of what happened, we're gonna show you the video. We do want to warn you it's violent.

You can see in this video Los Angeles Police officers kicking and beating King after a car chase. That beating and what followed is the focus of the first episode of "Boiling Point." It's a new docuseries from BET, a division of Viacom CBS. And it looks at issues confronting Black Americans through critical social justice moments in our history. Here's the reaction after the officers were acquitted nearly 29 years ago.

- I don't believe this racist-ass country. People are sick.

- This was just modern-day lynching.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: I see what I see. How are you gonna justify this?

- That's when I saw what America was about. That's when I saw who we were. You know, they told us loud and clear.

- My little boy, he wanted to be a cop just like his father. But after seeing that tape, he doesn't want to be that anymore.

- He's two years old. How do I raise him not to be prejudiced? How do I do that when there's no justice for him because he's born Black?

- Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who is featured in the series, joins us now. He is an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University. Professor, good morning to you. So in 1991, a neighbor hears a commotion outside, happens to have just bought a camcorder, and he captures on film the Rodney King beating. How does the conversation about race in this country change because of that footage?

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: Well, the footage is critical. It's shocking, and it shocks many Americans. But it's important to point out, too, that it didn't necess-- it was even shocking to African-Americans, but it wasn't necessarily surprising. African-Americans had knew and understood and have been dealing with police violence and police brutality as long as there have been police.

But to see it captured in video in such stark terms, as video and handheld cameras and the personal cameras were becoming more common, really shook the nation. But what was equally important as that moment was what happens a year later with the trial and acquittal of the officers, which then raised questions about what could actually happen even in the face of such stark evidence.

- So when we think about the progress from then to now, the cameras are more ubiquitous. The technology's gotten better. There's a lot more of this kind of video. But have you seen progress on the policing side and also the accountability side?

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: Well, certainly, there has been change. But the degree of progress is really relative, particularly as it relates to accountability. One thing that we know is that over the last-- since over the last 29 years, just as you pointed out, more and more cameras have been available. More and more of these incidents have been captured on film. But at the same time, the number of cases has not declined.

So it really raises the question, just capturing these moments on film, is that enough-- certainly to raise the consciousness of people-- but is that enough to bring justice? And sadly, the answer to that, unfortunately, is no.

GAYLE KING: And that's what I wanted to know, Professor Jeffries. Just earlier in this very broadcast, we had a story from San Clemente, California, a Black man crossing the street, jaywalking, has an encounter with the police. It ends up deadly. And you can just see as it escalates.

And I think we go back to the George Floyd case just last year. What do you think it's going to take to bring to-- what do you think it'll take to bring real change? And what does the involvement, the participation of white people in this conversation, how much of a difference does that make?

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: Well, Gayle, I think what really is going to lead to change is actually holding officers who violate the constitutional rights of anybody accountable, those who use deadly force when clearly it is unnecessary. Until we get to the moment where we hold them-- not just police departments civilly responsible, but actually hold officers who commit these crimes criminally responsible, then we won't see a change in behavior. We've poured millions of dollars into anti-bias training for police officers, into adding cameras. And we see over the last seven or eight years, that has not significantly changed the behavior.

So we need to have criminal justice accountability. And it is critically important that everyone-- all Americans, all concerned people-- get behind this movement, which is why one of the great things from last summer, the summer of 2020, was to see the Black Lives Matter protest protesting for justice, criminal justice reform, justice for the individuals of police violence, brought out so many people, not just Black folk but Black people, white people, Latinos, Asians. It was a multiracial, multiethnic movement of millions demanding justice. That's what we need.

- Professor Jeffries, this series, the docuseries "Boiling Points," there are several moments that come to mind. There's Katrina. There's Bloody Sunday. There's the Rodney King beating. When you think of themes or lessons that emerge, what are they?

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: Well, there are these boiling points. There are these moments of crisis, moments where things come to a head. And we don't know how they're gonna turn out. Things could become better in these moments of crisis, or things can become worse.

It all depends on how people react. African-Americans have always been pushing the envelope and demanding justice in these moments of crisis. How does the state react? How does government react? How do white citizens react? And what's the basis for that reaction?

Sometimes, such as in the case of the Rodney King beating, when it came to holding those officers accountable, white citizens, white jurors, did not hold them accountable. They failed their civic obligation. And that led to the uprising that was a response, responding to the moment but also a much longer history.

So all of these moments, we, I think as ordinary people have the power to decide what comes next.

GAYLE KING: Professor Jeffries, has anybody told you you look like Congressman Jeffries?

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: They said that I look like his better brother.

- OK.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: So I'll leave it at that, Gayle

GAYLE KING: He may dispute that. Thank you.

- All right. Professor Jeffries, thank you very much. We appreciate it. "Boiling Point," a six-part docuseries, premieres this Sunday on BET. You're watching "CBS This Morning."