ROAD TO REDEMPTION: Rodney King, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool on Sunday, June 17. In April, he was a featured author at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he discussed his autobiography, 'The Riot Within.' (Photo: Susan J. Rose/Newscom)
Rodney King’s untimely death over the weekend has led to a lot of conversations about his significance as a key civil rights figure. King, of course, gained fame for the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles cops that he endured and the subsequent race riot that followed in 1992 after the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. He then became an unlikely voice of reason when, in the midst of the deadly and destructive rioting, he famously asked, “Can we all just get along?” Sadly, that question still echoes today after each new racially charged issue or controversy that erupts in the media.
But what will be King’s lasting legacy? By his own admission, he was not a perfect man. In fact, drunk driving and alleged substance abuse were the reasons he was pulled over by the L.A. cops initially in 1991, and he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol apparently until the night of his death. In a Los Angeles Times post, reporter Ken Streeter recalls his series of interviews with King this year and confirms that King was still drinking and still smoking pot (he said for medical reasons).
So, King doesn’t exactly fit the classic image of the heroic civil rights icon. Yet, he stands as an important symbol in our nation’s uneasy saga of racial unrest and our stutter steps toward reconciliation.
Writing at The Root, Sylvester Monroe speaks of King as a “symbol” whose pain and missteps were not in vain. Last year at Poynter.org, Steve Myers observed how citizen journalism has changed since that infamous video of King being beaten by police. An Associated Press report at HuffPost’s Black Voices attempts to summarize King’s significance in shining a light on the injustices of racial profiling and police brutality in urban law enforcement. The article features an interview with Lou Cannon, author of Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.
“The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country,” Cannon explains. Indeed, under L.A. police Chief William Bratton in the 2000s, the department began focusing on community policing, hired more minority officers, and worked to heal tensions between the police and minority communities who continued to protest racial profiling and excessive use of force.
In the post-Rodney King world, adds Cannon, “It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black.”
To his credit, King was well aware of his shortcomings and shared his story in an autobiography released earlier this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. In The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, King came clean about his failures and his continued struggles with alcohol addiction, but also about how God had helped him begin to turn his life around.
In a poignant interview with the Canadian public radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, King talked about his book and expressed optimism about both his own future and the state of race relations in the United States.
What do you view as Rodney King’s legacy? What does his complicated journey say about race relations in America? Will he rightly be remembered a civil rights icon?
Remakes, remixes, and reruns seem very commonplace in today’s entertainment culture. Every other film today seems to be a remake of some classic movie or TV show from earlier days. Today’s music offerings are filled with remakes and “remixes” of older songs. Many television channels find it more profitable to rebroadcast syndicated reruns than to air brand-new shows that are unproven. As Solomon opined, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Recently, my wife and I went to see Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. It was surprisingly good. Both of us felt Travolta’s character stole the show. I am more of a movie connoisseur than my wife, but normally even I don’t expect much from remakes. Sometimes you’re just unable to shake the original from your head. Whenever I hear Mariah Carey’s remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” I can still hear Michael Jackson vividly in my mind, even though I think Mariah has an extraordinary voice.
You know, sometimes things never get old. I can watch a good movie over and over again. I can listen to an amazing song repeatedly without tiring of it. Yet some things, when they are repeated, can become quite irritating.
We recently witnessed another irritating repeat of an old storyline when Cambridge Police officers took Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. away from his home in handcuffs. It was a surreal moment. I usually see Professor Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E. B Du Bois Institute, on PBS documentaries and the covers of magazines and books. I also had the privilege of visiting the Du Bois Institute on Harvard’s campus to witness the scholarly environment of some of our great Black minds, people like Dr. Gates, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. William Julius Wilson. Seeing Gates escorted by the police from his home is something I never imagined could happen.
The surreal moment is the simple shock and disappointment that it has happened again. It doesn’t take much imagination for Black people in general to believe the incident really happened to another prominent Black figure. Just read Ellis Cose’s seminal Rage of a Privileged Class or countless other books and articles, it likes a bad script played over and over again.
I remember in the early 1990s when I saw the Rodney King incident on video of police beating him over and over again. The relief I felt then was that it was finally captured on film. Sadly, I think many of us in the Black community rejoiced. We were now vindicated by this incident, forever caught of film, confirming our claims of mistreatment. Certainly, we would have a public outcry for justice, and citizens from around the country would demand accountability from the police for their discriminatory actions. It didn’t happen as the police were found not guilty and the country not just L.A. was outraged to acts of violence in the spring of 1992 with riots spreading all over the country from Los Angeles to Ames, Iowa, to Atlanta.
Nowadays, when a prominent Black figure like Gates is arrested, Black people from around the nation say, “We have seen this movie before. It is a bad remake.” In less than 24 hours the police drop the charges, and the city of Cambridge describe the incident as “regrettable and unfortunate.” You betcha it’s regrettable and unfortunate.
Should we look at the calendar? It is 2009. We have a Black man as President of these United States of America. Yet, the image of a Black man as criminal is still the first image that so many have when they see us. Yep, I am one of them, too. I happen to be a Black man with three Black sons.
Months ago after Barack Obama was elected president and later sworn into the highest position in the land, the media ran with the notion that we are now living in a post-racial world. Race no longer has the firm grip it had for years in our country.
Who believed that? Oh, you can find some conservatives like Shelby Steele, or James Harris, the conservative radio host notorious for begging Senator McCain to aggressively go after Obama during the election. In general, most Black people don’t believe this. The statistics don’t support it. As bad as 10 percent unemployment is for our nation, the Black community would welcome 10 percent unemployment. Most of us, believe there is much work yet ahead of us before we arrive to a post racial era. A lot of the work lies within the Black community as much as externally.
Oh, I can hear the debate going back and forth about Prof. Gates’s interaction with the policeman allegedly escalating the incident to his own shame. Another critique will be that Gates wanted this outcome to draw attention to his books and documentaries on race in America. I wonder if anyone will ask why the police did not recognize who Prof. Gates is? Why do we have countless incidents of prominent Black men who have attained great success and position being perceived by the public as aberrant or exceptions to the rule, specifically by our police? This perception follows Black males from the fourth grade to the grave. I say fourth grade because that’s around the time when we are no longer cute and cuddly, we begin to display the resemblance of the adult version of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if they come from a two-parent home, teach at Harvard, or own a basketball team. This country, no matter what the ethnicity or race, continues to perceive Black men first as potential criminals. Unfortunately, many Black people hold this same perception.
I believe a more important critique about the incident is how Prof. Gates responded to the police. Evident at least to me is that his current status and notoriety has allowed him to begin to believe he is exceptional. The truth is, no Black man I know would risk engaging the police, in their home or anyplace else, to the level Prof. Gates did for fear of the possible outcome. I have taught my sons, and they have seen, how a Black man should relate to the police nonverbally and verbally, so as to avoid the results Prof. Gates got or an even worse consequence.
Isn’t it interesting that the incident of Oklahoma troopers going scuffling with a Black paramedic after stopping an ambulance en route to take a patient to the hospital did not get the national attention as Prof. Gates? This incident happened in late May. Wouldn’t it be interesting to document the number of times the police have stopped African American men who have attained middle-class status from those in graduate school to professionals? This data will be more enlightening than the current misdirected conversation about Prof. Gates and the Cambridge police versus the broader issue of how Black and Latino men are treated by the police.
If Henry Louis Gates does pursue a documentary on racial profiling, I hope he presents the historical data that displays this awful stereotype as an age-old dilemma that has evolved through the generations in our country, influencing the images Black people have themselves. It doesn’t seem to get old as fodder for our media. It’s just a new remix, with simple tweaks and nuances that make it current. But in the end, it’s an old song, old episode, and old movie. Many of us can write the script ourselves. But it continues to be produced. Sadly, we have to keep watching.