LOS ANGELES — Video images of Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols have drawn comparisons to shocking footage of a watershed episode more than three decades ago, in which a group of officers repeatedly struck a Black motorist as he lay on the street.
“It is going to remind many people of Rodney King,” Ben Crump, a lawyer for Nichols’ family, told ABC News on Thursday, referring to the 1991 beating of King by Los Angeles Police Department officers.
Videos released Friday showed a disturbing sequence in which Memphis officers on Jan. 7 repeatedly struck Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who police said ran away after he was pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving. As two officers held Nichols, a third officer appeared to kick him in the head. Shortly thereafter, an officer beat him with a baton. Later, an officer punched Nichols at least five times while another officer held Nichols’ hands behind his back.
In the 1991 encounter, King was pulled over by Los Angeles police officers after driving about 100 mph. He attempted to escape on foot, but officers caught him and violently struck him with batons, used Tasers on him and kicked him in an encounter that was captured by a neighbor who happened to have a new camcorder. The episode quickly made its way to a local TV station and was then broadcast around the world, jarring viewers in an era before police body camera footage and cellphone video became common.
Unlike Nichols, King survived his beating. Bearing scars and a limp, he became a reluctant cultural figure. He drowned in a backyard pool in 2012, at the age of 47.
Crump and Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis made comparisons this week between the beatings of King and Nichols, with videos of both showing graphic footage of multiple officers repeatedly striking Black men.
The comparisons are apt in some ways, experts on racial justice in Los Angeles said on Friday. But they said the differences in the cases reflect how the nation has changed over three decades.
“I don’t know if there’s a comparison as much as there’s a continuum,” said Todd Boyd, chair for the study of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
For many Americans in California and beyond, the footage of King’s beating exposed for the first time the kinds of routine abuses suffered by communities of color at the hands of law enforcement officers. “Rodney King is in many ways the first chapter,” Boyd said.
The officers who attacked King were acquitted the next year in state court by a mostly white jury, which touched off deadly riots that first devastated and ultimately reshaped Los Angeles.
Five officers in the Memphis case were fired 13 days after the confrontation with Nichols. They were arrested six days after that and charged with second-degree murder. All of the officers are Black.
In the years since King’s beating, the rise of cellphone video and body-worn cameras have made it possible for Americans to see a grim procession of police shootings, beatings and chokings. Black people have died at a disproportionately high rate in police killings, which have spurred protests in cities nationwide. It was a bystander video of an officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, who was pronounced dead at a hospital, that sparked a nationwide uprising in 2020.
“It’s unfortunate this has happened so many times that we have the option of picking what to compare it to,” Boyd said.
Boyd noted that in Nichols’ case, there are two significant differences from King’s beating: First, all of the officers charged with killing Nichols are Black, while none of the officers in the attack on King were. And, second, there is the speed with which the Memphis officers were fired and charged with murder.
Taken together, Boyd said it might suggest that officials are quicker to prosecute police officers who aren’t white. But, he said, it could suggest that “we’ve learned from these previous incidents.”
Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the city’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, said she believed it was the latter.
“We’ve done a good job amplifying what’s happening, giving light to what’s happening, and organizing a response,” Abdullah said. She said she saw the relatively swift charges for the Memphis officers as a sign that the names of Black people who have died following encounters with police have become “more than a hashtag.”
Still, Abdullah and other experts emphasized that the similarities between Nichols’ death and a beating caught on camera more than 30 years ago demonstrated fundamental realities about policing and racial inequity that have persisted.
After watching the video, she said: “It didn’t feel just like Rodney King to me. It felt like when you see photos of enslaved people being beaten by overseers.”
Brenda Stevenson, a history professor at Oxford University and the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied the 1992 riots, said that “the system itself” had not changed enough.
Stevenson recalled moving to Los Angeles from Virginia in January 1991, two months before King was beaten.
She thought she was heading to a city much more diverse and progressive than those she had experienced in the South. But as she watched the footage of King’s beating, she realized her new home wasn’t so different.
Everywhere in the country, both then and now, Stevenson said, Black lives are not valued as much as those of other Americans — and that devaluation is perpetuated across society, including by police officers who are themselves Black.
“It’s a racialized issue — it’s also an issue of violence,” she said. “The lack of respect for human life: That’s a broader problem.”