History is full of unlikely heroes. These historic individuals never set out to be heroic but their inadvertent actions serve as the spark that drives what poet Amiri Baraka calls “the motion of history” to change our world for better or worse. Such a man was the late Rodney King, who died Sunday.
King is known for being the victim of a brutal beating at the hands of several Los Angeles police officers whose subsequent acquittal resulted in sparking the L.A. riots of 1992. To many, this was Rodney King’s main contribution to American history, but the truth is his contribution is way more complex than that. It wasn’t just the brutal beating that King suffered that sent Blacks, Latinos and whites into the streets.
The acquittal of accused officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon, who were caught on tape beating a helpless Rodney King, was the real spark that lit the racial tinderbox that had been brewing in L.A. and other urban areas across America for years.
LAPD brutalizing Blacks and Latinos in the line of duty wasn't new to L.A. residents. In fact, it happened quite often. But this was the first time that it was captured on tape and broadcast for the whole world to see. The videotape of King getting beat at the hands of cops may have shocked many white middle-class suburbanites, but to the Black and Latino community, many of whom had either been victimized by police brutality and misconduct or knew someone who had, the tape didn’t shock them as much. Instead it served as a graphic vindication of their own experiences with racist, rogue cops.
To the outside world, Rodney King became a symbol of racial tension, but to the thousands of victims of police brutality, he became a symbol of justice long overdue. When the officers were acquitted by a predominantly white jury in Simi Valley, Califonia, all hell broke loose in L.A.
That uprising led to the death of more than 50 people and more than 2,000 injuries, more than 9,500 arrests and more than $1 billion in property damage. It also forced the resignation of Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who over the years had become a symbol of the LAPD’s institutional racism. He was succeeded by Willie Williams, who quickly implemented many of the changes recommended by an independent committee looking into the riots.
Most important, for a brief moment in history America was forced to look in the mirror and admit to itself that the myth of justice and equality for all only applied to a privileged few. Sadly, we’re still looking in that mirror seeing the reflection of images like that of Trayvon Martin, whose innocent eyes echo the immortal words of Rodney King: “Can we all get along?”
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)