I was just eleven years old in 1991, when LAPD officers beat Rodney King within inches of his life on camera. Here’s how omnipresent that beating, not-guilty verdict and subsequent riots have been to the cultural and political imaginary of my generation: I can’t remember whether or not the question, “Can we all just along?” was a cliché before or after King uttered it in his bewildered response to the violence in Los Angeles. I started paying attention to politics and the news for the first time that year, and I remember only two things that figured prominently: the Clinton election and Rodney King.
King would later speak of the pressure he felt to be the next Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks. And it’s no wonder. Neither King nor Parks became what they’re best known for under the kind of media scrutiny that Rodney King would endure, thrust onto the national stage against his will at the age of 27 and asked by the media to become a major figurehead in Civil Rights struggle.
I was shaken for hours when I heard of his death Sunday at age 47, and I still can’t quite explain why. What a heavy burden it must have been to heal in light of such intense public scrutiny. Indeed, how could anyone ever come back from that kind of assault? Just over 20 years later, the Rodney King story seems like it happened in a bygone era. It was remarkable not because the police brutality was unprecedented or unusual, but because it was captured on film. In 1991 and 1992, we hadn’t quite started to capture the whole world on film yet. The brutality captured in that video was new, at least to those of us who are white.
But for all the significance of that grainy video, I think I felt sad because (1) the story of King’s life – before and after that beating – is unbearably heartbreaking and because (2) I’m not convinced that we’ve learned anything from that moment even as we sacrificed King on its altar. Years after the beating, King would tell the nation that his drinking problem began at the age of eight, when his grandmother began providing him with alcohol. Throughout his youth, he said, he saw another family member die almost annually.
Anyone with such a strong family history of alcoholism enters the world with a target on his head, at higher risk for struggles with addiction from the start. Combined with the traumas he suffered in life – including the one that made him famous – it’s hard to imagine how anyone could beat odds like that. He described PTSD-related flashbacks and nightmares that never really went away, not even 20 years removed from the beating. And for many years, terrified by frequent death threats, he wore a bulletproof vest in public crowds. Ultimately, he never really shook the chronic pain – or limp – those four officers gave him.
Clearly a victim in this saga, King nevertheless worried that others saw him as responsible for the LA riots. Just a few months ago, he told the Los Angeles Times, ““Even now, I walk into a place wondering what people are thinking. Do they know who I am? What do they think about what happened? Do they blame me for the all those people who died?”
We wanted King to be a hero, and when he couldn’t conform to what we demanded, we subjected him to endless tabloid cruelties. We pointed out that he originally ran from police because he thought he may get a DUI, implying that Black men who do such things deserve to be beaten to near-death once the cops catch up. The most reprehensible vultures in American media – from TMZ to Dr. Drew Pinsky – profited gleefully from King’s trauma. Without irony, Pinsky told us he was “devastated” by the news, never pausing to reflect on the possible ways in which his own exploitation of King’s past may have colluded to hasten King’s early death.
When the news broke, twitter lit up with sarcastic and accusatory comments about his struggles with addiction. Tabloid cruelty, in other words, followed him even in death. When white male entertainers like Heath Ledger die after long struggles with addiction, American culture respectfully mourns their passing. King, a national symbol of police racism and brutality throughout the United States, was afforded no such courtesy. People greeted Amy Winehouse’s young demise by calling her a “whore.” King, we called a “criminal.”
The biggest tragedy of the beating and ensuing riots is probably the fact that they were not enough to make Americans deal once and for all with the problem of racial profiling. Sure, the LAPD made some changes and diversified its police force. But racial profiling combined with police brutality continues throughout the country. In May 2011, an Iraq war veteran named José Guerina was shot and killed by Arizona police. In November of that year, a Chicago man named Darrin Hanna died at the hands of police. Every year since the Rodney King beating, racially motivated police violence has made national headlines.
Ultimately, it isn’t really clear that the King beating had a lasting impact on American culture or its tolerance for state-sanctioned brutality against Black men and men of color. Notwithstanding the beatings and violence, we know that more Black men are incarcerated now than were enslaved before the Civil War. Perhaps even more startlingly, over half of Black men who do not earn a high school degree in the United States will be imprisoned at some point. Frequently, men of color charged with non-violent crimes can be found wearing bright orange vests that say “inmate,” performing road construction for pennies. A country that stands for this despite its history of slavery has learned little from the legacies of its past atrocities.
King was just one victim of a criminal justice system already stacked against him. Sure, the crimes against him sparked a national conversation about the dangers of racial profiling. And though the LAPD probably improved in some ways, the system as a whole has not confronted its systemic crimes against men of color. Maybe the biggest cruelty of all is that, in spite of King’s very public suffering, the things that happened to him continue every day in the United States. We never did manage to do right by Rodney King. Let us at least have the decency to stop speaking ill of the dead.