Rodney King’s 1991 beating by Los Angeles police and the subsequent acquittal of his attackers sparked the biggest civil insurrection of our generation. King will forever be remembered for his tearful utterance during the height of those riots, “Can we all get along?”
The words were treated with derision by many who sympathized with the rioters, and umbrage by those who faced and fought against police violence and brutality on a daily basis. Trotted out for the media by his lawyers and flacks, most likely at the urging of city and state officials hoping a few words from him would calm the human storm, King seemed like a naive pawn being put into play by the same forces that, in the recent trial, had tried to paint him as the villain.
And the answer from men and women in the streets came loud and clear: “[Expletive] Rodney King.” Not long after the riots, in fact, rapper Willie D of the popular Houston rap crew Geto Boys wrote a song named exactly that:
Rodney King, goddamn sell-out
On TV crying for a cop
The same m*******s who beat the hell outcha
Now I wish they would’ve shot ya
The years after the 1992 riots were not kind to King. Despite his assailants’ Federal conviction — and a civil suit that made him a millionaire — rehab, more arrests, and eventually the humiliation of the celebrity reality TV circuit would follow. His life ended in a way that surprised few: found dead at the bottom of his backyard pool, allegedly after spending the day drunk and high.
Rodney King cut a pathetic path through life, for sure. But let us not forget the root of the word pathetic: “pathos,” which also has a less pejorative connotation of poignancy and tragedy.
Consider Rodney King, the victim of another, lesser-noted but no less vicious beatdown, by the forces of history. He was initially thrust into the spotlight not as hero, but as a flawed and helpless victim, his own weaknesses and mistakes and addiction bared to the world along with the horrible crimes against him. And King was then forced to live that tortured life publicly, which ended up amplifying his personal problems.
And then came the day of the acquittal. A white trucker was hauled out of his rig and beaten to a pulp in the streets. Black neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles basin began to combust. Rioters clashed with police downtown and marched up LaBrea Boulevard toward Hollywood. The next days saw dozens of deaths and injuries.
King already felt unworthy in many ways. But how many of us know what it feels like to see a city burn and people injured in your name? And then the folks who run that city, the powers that be, depend on you to stop those riots with a few words?
Seen in this light, King’s famous line — “Can we all get along?” — is more an example of personal humility than personal weakness.
Of course, King had to be aware on some level that the riots weren’t about what happened to him, but about the police attacks on black and brown Angelenos that had been happening day after day for decades. He had to have known that the violence and chaos needed a more complex solution than simply “getting along.”
But King never asked to be a symbol. He never asked to be beaten. He had no role in the videotaping of that beating, though it made the crimes against him (and crimes against himself) public. And he never asked to be the spark for the Los Angeles riots. But all those things happened, and though he might have wanted nothing more than to live his life as he did before, history thrust him onto the world stage regardless.
Some humans, when called by history, act in ways that inspire us. Rodney King didn’t live up to many folks expectations for him. His plea for peace is often taken as evidence that he was less than worthy of this role.
Rodney King was not an inspirational figure. He was not a revolutionary. He was a flawed man who, when faced with a choice few humans have ever faced, said he didn’t want more blood to run in the streets.
We may not have been able to respect him in life for that, but let us respect him, at last, in death.
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