I’m saddened at the news of the death of Rodney King. I don’t know Mr. King but like many watched him over the years after his beating and the L.A. riots. He always seemed a gentle man, though he may have had problems. He seemed focused on trying to be happy in this violent and chaotic world.
Consider his message after all these years, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Have we done this? In some areas…Yes. Consider the tensions in L.A. and how this event brought out lots of the subsurface problems that plagued not only L.A. but other cities. These problems included police behavior, tensions between immigrant shop owners and other members of the poor community who felt offended by treatment in their stores. A reflection on these conflicts helped many communities across the country.
I remember some of the meetings I went to in NYC after the events in L.A. Several community organizers were holding discussions to find out where we were in the rest of the country. Stories related to treatment by police officers, profiling by shop owners, and unresolved economic progress was all the topic. Many were asking, “what did we suffer for all those years ago?”
Those in L.A, I’d love to hear what you think about the change in the atmosphere between the days of the trial, verdict and riots and today. My sense from the couple of times I’ve been back to L.A. is that it is different. But as an outsider, I’d miss it anyway.
In other cities, I can tell you there were noticeable differences. Many people across divides were more willing to come out and speak on these topics. Groups like CopWatch became more common and acceptable. There is a whole generation who doesn’t know the intense feeling of watching Rodney King being beaten like we saw. They weren’t born in the same innocence experienced in America before the days of personal video cameras could capture the unsightly.
I grew up with few fears. I think I was more afraid of being knocked out by a baseball line drive than being kidnapped. I wasn’t afraid of killer bees or any bees. I wasn’t afraid to drink the water from streams near my house in the Ozarks. I didn’t have the glare of eyes on me when I walked in to stores as a youth and was unaware of many problems that faced the world outside huge headlines. My naivety was reinforced by parents who always projected an optimism about the world despite being rather informed about its problems. They didn’t discuss politics with me or much with each other.
So life about the world abroad didn’t happen until I started travelling with friends as a teen in the 70s and even then we weren’t exactly headed to the next protest when we would. A trip to Kansas City wasn’t exactly going to produce an eye-opening experience that would bring Stokley Charmichael in my world or open me up to the poetry of Gil Scott Heron. No, I wouldn’t find that until I went to NYC and started trying to get some college done. I had a friend in the first year who was hyper aware of the world at a level that inspired me to look into whatever she could talk about. She had been active in several groups on campus and was always using language about “empowerment” and “consciousness”. It didn’t take long for her to turn me on to the words of Ginsberg, the teaching of John Henrik Clarke, and the music of Gil Scott Heron, Stuff, and Sun Ra.
But you cannot learn what a community feels from these various exchanges. You can’t encapsulate the suffering, aggravation, and sense of futility with authority by discussing books, listening to records, and sipping coffee over politics. It was not clear from even studying the Watts riots or other examples how serious the tensions could get until a verdict came down that simply told a wide range of people, it may be the 90s, but you aren’t any better off than you have been. You haven’t succeeded at defeating the power structure that is bent on holding you in an appointed place not of your choosing.
This was to be different. Years later I was with family as the television started its nightly news ramble. But we didn’t expect to see this beating. This was a thing of the 50s, said one person in the room. I think he meant 60s but whatever he meant, it didn’t feel like we were in the 90s. Twenty plus years ago we thought we were above all of this. Twenty years ago we thought we had a perfect moment to reflect upon race relations but did we learn anything? Did we take those lessons and create something out of them?
I think the answer is a combination of yes and no. In many ways, police forces have engaged in changes that are meant to bring a better relationship with the community. In others, those same efforts are done more for “more cooperation” from the community instead of a better relationship. In some cases, we have less tension regarding race because the demographics are changing. But in many important areas like economics, profiling, and education, we aren’t see much progress from 20 years of lessons.
We have the death of Kelly Thomas at the hands of the Slidebar’s ignorance and the out of control rage of police officers from Fullerton PD showing us nothing changed here. We have the death of Trayvon Martin to remind us that profiling never stops in America. But we have to remember to keep the whole picture in view. If we are to make progress, we should applaud it and set it aside for distinction from the abuses.
We are humans. We aren’t perfect. But if we take a look at the simple act of Rodney King at the point in the riots when he veered of script and said, “can’t we all just get along?” perhaps we can drop the bullshit like he did and just ask for some kindness and civility. He was supposed to read the comments prepared for him but obviously felt they weren’t his words and just spoke from his spirit.
Thank you Rodney for taking a beating for us all. Thank you for showing that even as people raged at the treatment you and they had been receiving, you showed a care for the whole that spoke up so clearly.
Can’t we all just get along? I don’t know. But we can try. It wouldn’t hurt.
And to Rodney and his family. You didn’t suffer in vain. In some areas of the world, we saw you as a gentle person who just had some problems; much like the rest of the world. Rest, good sir.