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Rodney King 2.0

John Donvan
Monday, January 9, 2017

Almost 26 years ago the world witnessed video of cops pounding a downed black man named Rodney King. This exceedingly rare recording -- rare because it got made in the first place, and then it got out to the public -- only existed because of a million to one accident. Because a man in an apartment overlooking the scene happened to have just bought what used to be called a "camcorder." And because someone at a Los Angeles TV station was willing to broadcast the pictures.

Now everyone has a camera all the time, and no one needs a TV station to "broadcast" video. And what do we get? A shockingly large number of videos reminiscent of the Rodney King scene. Just in the past three years: Eric Garner, dying in a police choke hold in New York, even as he called out "I can't breathe." Laquan McDonald, hit by police bullets while walking away in Chicago. Tamir Rice, 12 years old, shot by police while waving what turned out to be not a real pistol. Google, and you can easily find more.

The question is what story these videos tell, given that the people who die in them are African American.

Are they isolated examples, that only give the appearance of a meaningful pattern? Do they show just a few cops, due to pressure, or incompetence, making some unfortunate errors (unfortunate for the cops too)? Or do they reveal what many critics of the police have been saying for a long time -- that much policing is defined by racism, and that the proliferation of videos suggesting bias and abuse is just technology catching up with reality?

The argument over race and policing is enormously complex, and what constitutes evidence in answering these questions goes well beyond the stories told in the videos (which are sometimes also complex).

They merit a strong and smart debate -- with data, persuasive narrative, and a respectful discourse between opponents. That is what we plan to deliver this Wednesday, January 11th, when Intelligence Squared U.S. kicks off its Spring 2017 season with this proposition:

Policing Is Racially Biased

Remember, we have one side working to prove the proposition, while the other must show why it's false. Interesting thing: we'll have former police officers on both sides.

It's a great lineup, for an important topic. I hope to see you there.

--John Donvan

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