Rodney King died a few weeks back. He was found at the bottom of his swimming pool on a Sunday morning in June. You probably know who Rodney was and if you are older than about 30 or so, you also remember where you were the night he got beaten by the police on the side of a highway back in 1991. Besides his recent death, he was one of those people who would pop up on the news every couple of years or so. In more recent times it was usually for doing something illegal or just unwise; say for frittering away large sums of money or a DUI. He was an unremarkable man caught up in some big historical shit. His name neatly summarized a period in history, one of those events that affect a lot of people. Like Pearl Harbor, the final episode of Friends or Black Monday.
He was also on a few reality shows like “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sober House” but that kind of shit depresses me so I don’t watch them. Same with “Hoarders.”
Mostly, Rodney seemed like a nice guy with a drug and alcohol problem. His problems, the public ones anyway, seemed to stem from that condition. On March 3, 1991 he was driving drunk and stoned on weed, not PCP as was reported at the time, and fled from the LA police when they tried to pull him over. He was on parole for robbery at the time and didn’t want to go back to jail, so he fled. His dilemma that evening doesn’t seem terribly special or uncommon. I can relate to it.
I too got pinched driving drunk one night a long time ago, in Boston, in the early 1990’s. I didn’t try to get away. I was much too drunk to do that, so I pulled over. I failed multiple field sobriety tests and should have been taken to jail, but it was time for a shift change for the police and I was let go. The cops didn’t want to hang at the station all night booking me. I didn’t feel the need to leave well enough alone as I drove while intoxicated for years following that incident.
I was let go and Rodney got the beating of a lifetime. Granted he didn’t follow the instructions being screamed at him by the police, but me and most of the rest of America wondered what could possibly justify a beating like that. Most people didn’t think failure to comply with the police’s instructions did.
He was shocked with a tazer. Have you ever been shocked by a tazer? If you had, you wouldn’t forget. I know because I shocked myself to see what it felt like. I’m an idiot. I still remember the feeling because it’s so unlike anything else. The electricity takes you over. It is god.
Rodney was beaten too, obviously. He was struck with a police baton almost 60 times. The mind boggles as to how he withstood it. The police doing the beating were directed to hit Rodney in the joints: the knees, his wrists, shins and elbows. That kind of thing really hurts.
That same evening of March 3, I was walking home in NYC. I turned the corner onto 4th street from Avenue B where 3 black men were just standing around a stoop. I was holding a grocery bag thinking about who-knows-what. After I had passed, one of the men came from behind and punched me in the head. I stumbled a little and dropped my bag. I wasn’t knocked down or seriously hurt. I quickly recovered and put my fists up to fight. The man, or boy, called me a “white motherfucker” and turned away, not the least bit afraid of retaliation or consequence. I picked up my bag and walked the rest of the way home. When I got there my roommates were watching Rodney getting his ass beaten on TV. I immediately understood why that kid had punched me. I probably would have punched me too, if I were him.
The rioting in South Central LA began more than a year later, when a jury in Simi Valley acquitted four of the police officers involved in the beating. On the third day of the riots, May 1, 1992 Rodney and his lawyer called an impromptu news conference where Rodney managed his famous quote, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” It was an inadequate plea. Or that’s how it struck me at the time. Watching it on Youtube just now, his statement is rambling and almost doesn’t make sense, but it comes together in the end. You fill in the words he misses, the meaning between his stuttering and incomplete sentences.
As he babbles about having “too much smog in LA already,” I think I understand what he meant to get at but wasn’t able to say. He didn’t want people getting hurt on his behalf. He didn’t want to get back at anyone. Sure he wanted justice, but that’s not what those riots were about. The riots were hurting those with the least to lose, but also the least capacity to withstand losing. Those words, “can we all just get along” have settled over time into something simple and eloquent. The sentiment, “Why can’t we all just get along?” summarizes his hope for his fellow citizens. It’s incredibly empathetic, sensitive, exposed, put-upon and good.
Rodney was a flawed man with a very common problem that got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong people. A videotape of a guy taking a beating on the side of a highway stopped up, just for a moment, the gargantuan gears of time that rule all of our lives. They paused just long enough for people to look around and say, “that’s wrong.” Then they started moving again and spit him out, bruised and bloodied.
In that same speech on the third day of the riot he also says “We’re going to be stuck here together for a while you know, so let’s try and work it out.” He’s right. We are. And we should.
R.I.P. Rodney King.