What Is Rodney King’s Legacy?

What Is Rodney King’s Legacy?

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?

L.A. Riots 20 Years Later

L.A. Riots 20 Years Later

STREETS OF FIRE: An LAPD officer watches as fires spread across Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. The L.A. Riots were sparked when a jury acquitted four police officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. (Photo: Jon Freeman, Paul Harris/Newscom)

Gathering for Unity

People of faith gathered with other city leaders and community members at Glory Church of Christ in Los Angeles Sunday “to bring a message of remembrance, faith and hope” on the twentieth anniversary of the L.A. Riots, Annenberg Digital News reported. The 1992 riots were set off in the Los Angeles area by the acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, an unarmed black man. Sixty-three people died in six days of rioting and more than $1 billion of damage was done.

“I’m sure many of us have different colors and maybe even different looking eyes. It shows that we are living in a community of diversity,” said the mother of 18-year-old Edward Song Lee, who was mistaken for a looter by a Korean store owner and shot to death. “Twenty years ago if we had this type of gathering, this kind of diversity in relations and in connections, I think my son would be still living today.”

An Influential Minister Remembers

The Rev. Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray was in attendance, ADN reported. USC’s Center for Religon and Civic Culture says Murray, a fellow at the center, played a vital role in quelling strife before, during, and after the riots. It published a round-up of links to his commentary on the anniversary. Murray told Reuters, for example, that “he has seen enough improvement in the police mentality to give him hope for the future.”

Trying to Understand the ‘Other’

At Patheos, Jerry Park took a sociological look at why African Americans and Latinos targeted Korean-owned businesses for looting. He writes: “As a Korean American Christian this incident in history helped raise my own awareness that social problems felt by one racial minority are problems that affect me and the minority group that I belong to as well. And it reminds me that social inequality in America is far from color-blind.” Park promises to follow this post with one that highlights the perspective of the business owners.

From Church to Looting and Back Again

The Daily Beast looked back at the riots through the lens of two former gang members who discuss the truce it inspired among rival gangs. One of them, Skipp Townsend, was in church when violence broke out, but got caught up in the looting nonetheless. Now he is executive director of a youth gang intervention group. Townsend was “less upset by Rodney King than he was by the shooting of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was killed with a single bullet by a Korean convenience-store owner who suspected her of shoplifting” one day after the police officers who beat King pleaded not guilty. “The liquor-store owner said she had stolen a bottle of orange juice,” Townsend told The Daily Beast. “That penetrated my heart.”

Economic Realities No Better for L.A. Blacks

Erin Aubry Kaplan, an L.A. Times columnist, was also on her way to church when violence broke out, but she never made it because her route was blocked by rioters. She writes that she was struck that day by the number of black men in the street and links it to the high rate of black unemployment. “Everybody agreed back then that the root of the unrest was economic, yet 20 years later, blacks are still the ethnic group in Los Angeles County most likely to be unemployed or underemployed.”

The Role of Rap in Rioting

At The Grio, Ice Cube reflects on the role of rap music in the riots. He and others brought “the context of economic turmoil and youth indignation into the limelight with their expressive beats and rhymes,” the article said.

Where Are They Now?

The Root has a “Then and Now” slideshow of the major players in the story, if you’d like to know where they are now, but the 63 people who died in the riots can no long speak for themselves, so the Los Angeles Times has published a searchable database of their names with links to their individual stories and Fox News highlighted 22 victims for whom justice has yet to be served.

Among them was Anthony Lamarr Netherly, a 21-year-old African-American who was shot and left to die in the street. “The driver who found him loaded Netherly into his car and took him to Martin Luther King Hospital, where he died in the emergency room.” There was also Thanh Lam, 25, who “continued to make deliveries to customers of his family’s small grocery store in Compton” until he was shot by an African-American man who yelled a racial slur as he drove by and killed him.

“Our detectives combed through every piece of footage to try and identify suspects or vehicles and witnesses, but we never got any leads from that work and we still haven’t 20 years later,” LAPD Detective Olivia Spendola told Fox. “But you never give up hope.”

Too Much News to Highlight

For more coverage L.A. Magazine has a nice story collection, as do The Huffington Post and NPR, and people who were children in 1992 share their memories at Colorlines.

What do you think?

Could we see urban rioting again if socio-economic conditions don’t improve?