This weekend, Rodney King was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool. His death, at the age of 47, was both sudden and tragic. While the circumstances of his passing are unclear, his impact on our nation is unquestionable.
For an entire generation of Americans, Rodney King offered an introduction to the realities of police terrorism. On March 3, 1991, King was pulled over by the LAPD for speeding on a darkened street. A videotape caught four police officers brutally beating King more than 50 times with batons, kicking him, shooting him with taser guns, and taunting him with racial epithets. The tape was played around the world for more than a year, making a permanent imprint in our collective consciousness.
As a result of the Rodney King beating, America was forced to abandon its claims of racial innocence. No longer could Whites and middle class Blacks hide in their cocoons of privilege claiming that “we didn’t know.” No longer could race deniers dismiss the abuse of Black bodies as a relic of the tragic but distant past. Suddenly, America’s racial demons were exposed to the entire world.
Those demons would be fully raised a year later on April 29, 1992, when an all-White jury acquitted the four officers who stood trial for the King beating. Within minutes, pockets of violence bubbled from Florence and Normandie Avenues, quickly spreading throughout the entire city. Before long, stores were being looted, property was being destroyed, and people were being hurt. The city was in flames.
Without question, the Los Angeles riots were animated by the King trial and verdict. For months, defense attorneys, police sympathizers, and obstinate Whites attempted to convince the country to ignore its lying eyes and accept their fantastic version of events. Despite toxicology reports that proved no drug use, we were told to believe that King was a raving savage—so high on PCP that the police behavior was justified. Although police were uninjured and King needed 5 hours of surgery to fix his multiple skull fractures, broken eye sockets, and nerve damage, we were told to accept that he was actually the purveyor rather than the victim of barbaric violence. Implicit in all of these claims was a belief that Black men, even unarmed Black men laying prone on the ground, were civic terrors whose bodies demanded lethal or near-lethal force in order to maintain order.
The defense of the police served as a racial dog whistle, a clarion call for white Americans and potential jurors –which turned out to be the same thing– to close ranks around White power, anti-Black racism, and fear. That the strategy worked was a reminder that we lived in a world where Black bodies remained hated and disposable.
But the riots weren’t merely about the Rodney King trial. They were also the result of decades of frustration about urban violence, economic exploitation, and the infiltration of crack cocaine. They were the outgrowth of frustration of a media industry committed to framing Black people in ways that denied their humanity and rendered them more vulnerable. They were also the product of a new generation of people who had been unprepared by the civil rights generation to handle defeat despite having moral and (ostensibly) legal authority. The riots had everything to do with Rodney King and nothing to do with Rodney King.
In that regard, Rodney King was what Sydney Hook referred to as an “eventful man,” someone swept into the throes of history by accident and contingency rather than deliberate effort or talent. Although he became an international figure, King was merely a proxy for countless Black and Brown people who found themselves victimized by police terrorism. He wasn’t a revolutionary. He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t a leader. He was an accidental hero.
No one understood this better than Rodney King himself, who made no efforts to exploit his fame and notoriety for personal gain. King willingly took a backseat as civil rights leaders, pundits, and politicians scored points and earned checks on the back of his misery. He never wanted the spotlight. He never needed the attention. He never overestimated or underestimated his place in the big picture. He simply wanted healing –for the nation and himself– from the pain, trauma, and humiliation of his ordeal.
I spoke to Rodney King about this about a month ago, as he was getting ready for church. He was on the road discussing his new book, “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption,” which chronicles his personal and political journey over the two decades since the riots. As we were talking, the subject of Trayvon Martin inevitably came up. I asked Rodney how he thought America would react if Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, were acquitted of murder. Would we be just as polarized? Would there be more riots?
King said he believed America would respond differently this time. He said he believed that we’d grown as a nation. I privately thought he was offbase and politely challenged him for his optimism. How could he be so sure? Given everything that we’d seen and done as a country, how he could he be so invested in the goodness of America? He said that like all people, he had doubts. But his faith in God and America were stronger than those doubts.
That, in a nutshell, is who Rodney King was.
Not the lawless monster portrayed by the LAPD. Not the walking punch line depicted in both Black and mainstream culture. And not the unrepentant addict who never conquered his demons. Rather, Rodney King was someone who desperately aimed to love his way through the absurdity of America’s racial condition.
Rodney King was a metaphor for Blacks in America. Despite being the victim of injustice, hatred, and random violence, he remained deeply invested in the belief (however flawed) that America could be different and better. His now legendary question, “Can we all get along?” was not an expression of political and racial naïveté. Rather, it was a courageous civic challenge. It was a passionate articulation of a democratic vision. It was a faith driven commitment to acknowledging the past but never being prisoner to it. It was a mature attempt to usher the body politic into a new sense of courage, moral clarity, forgiveness, and love.
Rodney King was not perfect. But he was a perfect symbol for our generation. For that, we give thanks.
May he rest in peace, power, and justice.