Less than two weeks before his death, I was scheduled to interview Rodney King on the public stage at the annual Leimert Park Book Fair in Los Angeles.
I had two conflicting thoughts about the interview. One was that if the well-worn term “accident of history” ever applied to anyone, it was King.
The second was what made King 21 years after that fateful night still an enduring figure, name and, most importantly, a symbol — his beating by four white Los Angeles Police officers that was captured in shocking detail on videotape.
It was not simply that King was the center of recent press attention with the commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. And it was certainly not because he had just published a modestly successful book, “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.” King was the near classic protean tragic figure of interest and curiosity precisely because there was so much tragedy, followed by triumph, and in the end, tragedy in the way his life ended.
The tragedy was the beating. Those few brutal, savage and violent moments catapulted King, a marginally employed, poorly educated ex-con, into virtually a global household name. It cast the spotlight on one of the nation’s deepest sore spots: police abuse, brutality and misconduct against African Americans, minorities and the poor. It turned the LAPD into the national symbol of a lawless, out of control, big city racist police force.
King was the most unlikely of unlikely figures to spotlight this deep national affliction, to launch a painful national soul search and become the trigger for the most destructive urban riot in modern U.S. history. King, of course, was only the centerpiece for the colossal tragedy that engulfed a city and nation.
The warning signs that L.A. was a powder keg were there long before the Simi Valley jury with no blacks acquitted the four LAPD cops that beat King. There was the crushingly high poverty rate in South L.A., a spiraling crime and drug epidemic, neighborhoods that were among the most racially balkanized in the nation, anger over the hand-slap sentence for a Korean grocer that killed a black teenage girl in an altercation and black-Korean tensions that had reached a boiling point.
The triumph was that King lived long enough to see the issue of police misconduct, especially that of the LAPD, become the focus of intense discussion, debate and ultimately reform measures that transformed some police agencies into better models of control and accountability, the reduction of use of force violence and more emphasis on community partnership.
The recent spate of police shootings of young, unarmed black and Hispanic males in some cities under dubious circumstances shows that the job of full police reform is still very much a work in progress, and there is wide room for backsliding. The irony here is that the very day that King died, thousands took to the streets in New York City in a silent march sponsored by the NAACP to protest the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department that allegedly targets mostly blacks and Latinos for unwarranted stops and searches.
But the fact remains that the King beating and the subsequent riots permanently raised awareness that police abuse is a cancer that must be excised. There was personal triumph for King as well. His magnanimous statement, “People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?” at a press conference the third day of the riots helped staunch the violence.
His utter lack of any expression of public bitterness toward the LAPD and, with the exception of a few minor scrapes with the law, his relatively low profile, softened some of the anger and vilification (some of it borderline racist) that King got from a wide swatch of the public. This was capped by the publication of his autobiography, and the relatively warm rush of favorable reviews it got.
The final tragedy was King’s surprising and untimely death. He was only 47. He had attained a partial rehabilitation in terms of his bad guy image. He was a recognized author. His name was eternally synonymous with a pantheon of transformative figures at the center of the many monumental events in the nation’s history. This indeed was the tragedy, triumph and final tragedy of Rodney King.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.