*Rodney King took one for every man and woman of every race, creed and color in America who’s ever been stopped by a law enforcement officer bent on abusing the power of the badge.
Now, before you run with those words, consider King’s admission that on the fateful night of March 3, 1991, he didn’t stop when a California Highway Patrol unit directed him to pull over on the freeway for speeding. He’d been drinking, he said, which not only guaranteed him a night in jail, but jeopardized his parole on a robbery conviction.
With two male friends in the car, a fact not well known, King led law enforcement on the ground and helicopter on a high-speed chase along a San Fernando freeway and surface streets. When he finally pulled over, officers on the scene reported that while his two passengers complied and were taken into custody, King initially taunted police and resisted arrest. Still, an unarmed man acting a fool does not equate a brutal assault.
We may not have known about King’s beating if a man named George Holiday hadn’t grabbed his video camera and covertly taped the event. Remarkably, Holiday first called LAPD and offered them the tape, but they declined to view it. He then contacted Los Angeles TV station KTLA, which aired the tape the next morning. By that evening, King’s story and the video had gone worldwide.
While it has been argued that King brought his troubles on himself, the magnitude of the incident underscored a more pervasive practice that many of America’s poor, homeless, mentally ill, women and people of color, particularly black men, have long insisted: sometimes people are detained by police for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with public safety, the maintenance of civility or fighting crime.
Even if there is an infraction–jaywalking, rolling through a stop sign, having a signal light out on our vehicle or speeding over the limit, etc.–quite often, the treatment certain citizens receive from police in the street is not always proportionate to the violation.
This dark fact of American society has long been understood between some members of law enforcement and those systematically harassed. Indeed, for Black men of a certain age and era, the regimen we instinctively follow when we see flashing lights in our rear view mirror–keeping our hands on the steering wheel at all times, making no sudden moves, speaking in a way that cannot be construed as “uncooperative”–is a sad and vital component of black culture, shared among us the way generations of a family passes down cooking recipes or heirlooms.
Nevertheless, a great many Americans believe that if you’re in trouble with the law, you must somehow be breaking the law. Thanks to the King video, there was now visual proof that, in dealing with suspects, police could sometimes go too far.
Amazingly, but not surprising, the King footage, in its macabre detail, wasn’t irrefutable to all. Lawyers defending the officers arrested after the video surfaced, characterized a semiconscious King’s physical movements while repeatedly tasered and beaten with metal batons as “resistance.”
But the tape didn’t lie. And with its emergence, King’s case officially ushered in the age of hidden camera justice. Though not impossible, it is difficult to deny what people can see with their own eyes.
I appreciate law enforcement. I certainly couldn’t do the gig; I am grateful to those who do. Over the years, I’ve asked police officers why anyone would undertake such a job. Only one said it was because he had the physical size and needed work. The rest offered variations of the same answer–of being driven by a strong sense of public service; of a personal calling that began beckoning at childhood.
I’d say the officers who relentlessly beat King–those who directed it and who stood by and watched it happen–either lost the kind of honor expressed by the policemen I’ve talked to, or they never possessed it. All I know for sure is that I wouldn’t wish the savage treatment King got even on the men who were eventually convicted of inflicting it.
The beating was only half of it. In 1991, King was 26 when destiny coerced him into writing his own chapter of American civil rights; when he died, accidentally drowning in the pool of his Rialto, California home early Sunday, June 16, 2012, he was 47.
That means King spent a turbulent 20 years in between, negotiating his disquieted circumstance as the man ultimately responsible for the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It was an inequitable levy for a simple everyman living under the concentrated glare of a light he didn’t seek. Though he’d received a 3.8 million dollar settlement from the city of Los Angeles, in the end, it was Rodney King who paid the price.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]