Sunday, June 17, 2012

Farewell, Rodney King (Peace Go With You, Brother)

So it ends like this. Rodney King, a modern day symbol for civil rights, post traumatic stress from 1980's/90's Los Angeles and trouble with the law, was found dead in his swimming pool this morning.

I got the news from my aunt right before I walked into church. It stunned me because at a journalists meeting yesterday, we threw out his name as a potential speaker for an event. He was going to be at Leimert Park this summer doing another interview for his recently released biography.

I wrote quite a bit on King this past April, part of my LA Riot 20 series. Those words seem to summarize the mixed feelings I have on today's news. A mix of sadness and pity. Sadness because of the obvious loss of life and what he came to symbolize for so many people around the world.

To them, King became a symbol of injustice. An ordinary man with a rap sheet who was beaten with excessive force and became famous around the world. A reminder of how minorities too often face the brutal side of the justice system.

Those famous five words "Can We All Get Along?" became a weird rallying cry for peace in the aftermath of the L.A. riots. As he explained, he saw the footage and was disturbed because that's not the kind of man he was.

To us in Los Angeles, King was a symbol of how the LAPD's heavy hand in the 1980's was displayed.  The final straw of Operation Hammer that was designed to stop drugs and gangs but instead racially profiled Black and Brown young men and gave license to terrorize their communities. For some, the surprise wasn't that King was beaten, it was that somebody had it on tape.

I'm sad because as my friend Kurt Streeter found, King was trying to come to grips with his life and appeared to finally have some peace. Not just from the demons that followed him afterwards, but from March 3, 1991. He seemed comfortable with his life and while he wasn't perfect - still jittery around police, still had dreams about that night - it looked like he wasn't as reckless as I remember him from middle school to college.

Yet that's exactly why I feel pity. I pity him because there was almost no way for anybody to be completely normal after being beaten within an inch of their life. I pity him because he continued to find himself in trouble over and over again. Folks lost support for him because he became known as a troubled man instead of being a symbol for injustice.

The book that King co-wrote about his life that was released this past April to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots

I pity him because as I did my research for his portion of my series, I realized that he was scarred in a way that few could understand. Do I wish he kept his life together and made better choices? Absolutely. He deserves his share of blame. But I also feel sorry that he wasn't able to find inner peace early and had a troubled soul.

Modern symbols of justice aren't always perfect. They aren't always eloquent. But they are no less powerful if you never forget why they became a symbol. No matter if they are a criminal, their place in time still speaks volumes in that vacuum and for time.

It also speaks well that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck credited King for his impact in changing the department. 20 years later, King helped bring an end to the old militaristic style of the LAPD and started a slow change of progress. Along with a few others, his beating made people look and listen to a city's dark side and forced one of the nation's largest departments to face intense scrutiny.

It's not a total surprise that he met his end so tragically. The tragedy is also that he'll not only be remembered for his beating, but his struggles. He was a flawed man living with visible and invisible scars. But what he represents to me and so many others will never be forgotten and I'm forever grateful George Holliday had his video camera that night in Lakeview Terrace.

I pray that finally King is at peace. No more dreams about 3/3/1991. No more worrying about wearing the burdens of the aftermath. No more struggles with alcohol or drugs. As Gil Scott Heron once said, peace go with you, brother.

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