Four years ago, I invited Rodney G. King to speak to my political science class at Cal Poly Pomona. I also invited his cousin and one of the jurors who sat on his civil trial to participate in a panel discussion on King’s experience.
Before the panel began its discussion, I showed a documentary of the civil unrest that included the video of King’s beating. The 80 students in the lecture hall fought back tears as they watched, with King, the infamous act of police brutality. This was King’s first time speaking to a group of students. His responses to their questions were thoughtful, candid and engaging. At some point in the discussion, two inevitable questions were asked: “What was the beating like?” and “Why can’t you stay out of trouble?”
King was candid and emotionless in the response to the first question. He had no response to the second.
Today is the 10th anniversary of the Rodney King beating. Since the 1997 panel discussion, King and I have had several opportunities to discuss what the beating did to him physically and psychologically; it was devastating.
The question about staying out of trouble was posed by an older African American woman. She, like many blacks, wanted King to be a morally righteous leader who would carry the banner for a new civil rights movement.
But King never chose to be an icon or an agent of change. He was brutally beaten one night 10 years ago and suddenly became a symbol for racial reconciliation and police reform. He was never trained to be an agent of change. He never developed the tools to lead a movement. It was unfair for us, especially African Americans, to thrust him into this role. Ultimately, he was overwhelmed by it all.
King did not have a good support network around him. His lawyers exploited him, family members exploited him and civil rights organizations sat on the sidelines. Where were Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton?
I am still in contact with King, and he is still trying to get his life together. He started a record label in 1996; it was dissolved this year. During the past few months, he has been in Sacramento taking a series of “life skills” courses that will teach him about things such as anger management.
What has changed for the rest of us since the infamous beating? I am not convinced there has been much positive change since the King beating. We still have the same race-based problems that we have been plagued with for decades. I certainly think that the King incident was an impetus for dialogue on race relations and police reform. It forced Americans to confront the multiple realities of American society. Whites who believed the system to be fair and just were forced to reevaluate. For many blacks, however, the King case gave them an opportunity to say, “I told you so.” Many blacks have family members, relatives and friends who have been antagonized by the police. The King beating confirmed what they already knew.
Some constructive things have happened. There have been reforms in terms of police oversight. People have come to realize that policing is too important to be solely the domain of police. With each high-profile case of police brutality, there is a small, incremental step toward police reform. It took Rodney King, Malice Green, Demetrius Dubose, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Tyisha Miller, Irvin Landrum and Thomas Jones to create today’s police reforms.
In terms of race relations, over the past decade we have experienced polarizing symbols that suggest that there are at least two American perspectives, whether it is the O.J. Simpson case or the recent presidential election. We are more segregated in the way we think about issues than we are geographically. It might be easier to get us to live together than to think alike.
The King beating should have taught us that we must find ways to “all just get along.” Resolving the problems caused by race in this country has been and remains the American dilemma.