Rodney King— the iconic black motorist whose videotaped beating by LAPD officers in 1991 sparked outrage and changed America—was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool on Sunday.
In March 1991, King was stopped by the police following a high-speed chase, ordered out of his Hyundai, and repeatedly kicked, tasered and struck over 50 times with police batons, sustaining serious injuries.
It is ironic that he died on the day that Rev. Al Sharpton led a march to protest New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy— which has targeted hundreds of thousands of innocent black and Latino men for walking while black or Latino. That aggressive police tactics against communities of color are still a problem 20 years after Rodney King later tells us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And yet, King was responsible for making police brutality an important, cutting edge issue, and a topic of discussion on the national stage, particularly for white Americans who had never experienced it.
I spoke with Mr. King only several weeks ago, when both of us were guests on Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” radio show to discuss, of all things, the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. The 1992 riots, of course, were sparked by the “not guilty” verdict in the trial of four police officers charged with excessive force against him. The unrest claimed 53 lives and resulted in $1 billion in property damage.
I found Mr. King to be insightful, much deeper of a thinker than I had expected. He had just released his book, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, and reflected on the impact his experience had on L.A. and the country. It was clear Rodney King had grown from his experience, and had a message to share.
Surely, Rodney King was not a perfect victim, though imperfections do not warrant what he faced at the hands of the police. Rather, he was an ordinary guy who was caught up in rather extraordinary circumstances. He reportedly had been drinking with his friends the night of the incident, and struggled with alcoholism and brushes with the law after he became a household name. King’s father was an alcoholic who died at 42, and the son battled with his demons and died at 47 on Father’s Day— the father of three children, and engaged to a juror in his civil suit against the city of Los Angeles, in which he collected a $3.8 million settlement.
The brutal beating of Rodney King was significant because for the first time, thanks to George Holliday’s camcorder, black America was able to go to the videotape, so to speak. Certainly, this was not the first time that a black man was brutalized by police. Without question, in the 1950s and 1960s, America and the world saw the televised images of civil rights workers being sprayed by fire hoses, bitten by four-legged police dogs— and beaten nearly to death by “two-legged dogs,” as Malcolm X so aptly referred to brutal police officers.
Moreover, it was not the first time that an act of police abuse in the black community spurred deadly riots and also made mainstream America examine the poverty, unemployment and desperate economic conditions of the inner city. Consistently, the urban rebellions of the 1960s in Watts, Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere had been sparked by the senseless beating or coldblooded shooting death of an African American by police officers.
But with Rodney King, finally, we had the videotape. Collectively, the experiences of black America were validated. It was a “we told you so” moment. And that made all the difference, beyond all the anecdotal evidence black folks had collected over the years, about a cousin or a brother or a son whose bones were broken in the precinct house, or strangled by the cops, or shot to death for no reason.
For some in white America, it was one of those teachable moments one always hears about. But in the case of Rodney King, there was much to teach about the role of the police in communities of color. White Americans had been conditioned to believe that the police were there to “protect and serve,” and they had welcomed that presence in their neighborhoods. The police protected the innocent and arrested the criminals, and the criminal justice system punished those who committed crimes.
Meanwhile, black and brown communities viewed the police not as a force for good, but as an occupying force. The Five-0, in their view, were there not to protect and serve, but to control and contain. In their eyes, this was confirmed by the disrespect, the heavy-handed methods that police used in the ‘hood, singling out racial minorities for drug sweeps when there was no shortage of drug use in the suburbs or the board rooms.
Before Rodney King, police brutality was not on the radar screen of white Americans, who were all too ready to buy into the notion of black criminality, taking it at face value. Under that mindset, whatever happened to “those” people was exactly what they deserved, since they were up to no good to begin with. And if they were punished for a crime they did not commit, surely this was payback for a previous crime. White America was conditioned to believe “tough on crime” tactics were necessary to protect middle America from a threat of violence from dark faces.
Really, the fear of black criminality has provided a foundation for today’s criminal justice system: more arrests, convictions and prison cells for black bodies translate into career advancement for politicians and actors in the system, and profits for corporations who service, or exploit, that system.
A reality TV star of sorts before the term was ever used, Rodney King came along in the early days of the 24-hour news cycle. King helped lift the veil on race in the criminal justice system, and made the complex issues of racism and the law more accessible to a wider audience. For all of the pain he endured, we should be thankful.
David A. Love
Posted: Monday, 18 June 2012