Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rodney King: An American life

CALL IT Hollywood irony: Rodney Glen King, a man whose brief but turbulent transit underscored the distance between himself and the realization of a life in the national dream factory, was laid to rest on Saturday at Forest Lawn, cemetery of the stars.

They marked the course of that brief American life — “Sunrise April 2, 1965, Sunset June 17, 2012” — at his “Home Going Celebration” there in the Hollywood Hills. But the world knows this was not just another brother gone before his time. A lot can happen in twenty years.

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He was a black native Californian, which made him rare enough from the jump. He was born in Sacramento and raised in Altadena, 15 miles from downtown L.A. “Altadena Town Council chairwoman Sandra Thomas knew King because he attended Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church, where her late husband was a pastor,” the Pasadena Star-News reported.

But he had his demons. His father, an alcoholic, died before Rodney was 30, drinking himself to death in a bathtub at the family home, the L.A. Times said. Rodney King grappled in his own way with life. A robbery conviction got him a year in jail. It was that conviction, and his own fears of the police, cultivated at an early age, that made him keep driving, keep speeding on the night of March 3, 1991. The night it all began.

Stacey Koon. Laurence Powell. Theodore Briseno. Timothy Wind. Four officers. One traffic stop. 56 baton blows. One irrefutable video. Four trials. Thirteen months.

Four acquittals.

Rage. Six days. Fifty-three people dead, another 2,500 injured. One billion dollars in property damage.

And five words from the man at the center of it all. “Can’t we all get along?”

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Fast forward twenty years. Despite a new fiancée, despite a $3.8 million settlement, despite a certain cachet in the celebrity culture, the demons wouldn’t let him go.

According to TMZ, King's fiancée, Cynthia Kelley, said King was at his home in Rialto all day drinking, and he smoked marijuana at some point, before she went to bed at 2 a.m. on June 17 — Father’s Day.

Kelley said she next saw King at around 5 a.m. when she was awakened by him screaming in the backyard. TMZ reported that Kelley found King naked, banging on the glass of a window or door, and she called out to him, "What's wrong, Rodney?"

Kelley said she went to get her phone when she heard a splash. She went to the backyard and found him in the bottom of the pool in the backyard and called police.

Paramedics tried and failed to bring him back. Toxicology reports are due in another five weeks or so, but for now, foul play isn’t suspected.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host and longtime civil rights advocate, spoke at Forest Lawn on Saturday. “People should not be judged by the mistakes that they make, but by how they rise above them,” he said. “Rodney had risen above his mistakes, he never mocked anyone, not the police, not the justice system, not anyone. He became a symbol of forgiveness.”

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IT FOLLOWED on what Sharpton said on the Sunday that King died. “Rodney King's case was a symbol of police abuse,” he said at a march in New York City, in a protest against the stop-and-frisk policy of the New York Police Department, another police agency with a bad reputation among minorities. “I remember before the tape of Rodney King, [when] we talked about police abuse, people thought we were making it up.”

Like the unfortunate Homer Simpson in “Day of the Locust,” Rodney King was accidental spark to a burning of Los Angeles. Unlike that hapless character in a novel, unlike anyone else, Rodney King helped make police accountable. Police everywhere in America.

And he spoke in a wider sense of behalf of other, young black males. In April he released a statement to the media regarding the Trayvon Martin shooting, saying he was “grieving for Trayvon Martin” and recalling how the scream on the audio of George Zimmerman's 911 call reminded him of the sound of his beatdown, two decades ago.

He was born four months before the Watts riots began; he died twenty years after the riots that will be, right or wrong, his legacy. The public aspect of his life carries forward a tragic numerical iconography of intolerance — those numbers we remember in spite of ourselves. King’s 56 baton blows. The 41 shots of Amadou Bailo Diallou. The 50 shots fired at Sean Bell’s car in Queens.

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He had his Rashomon aspect, inherited the Rashomon fate common to all black men in America. He said so himself, talking to BBC News. “Some people feel like I'm some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it.”

Even in death, it seems, he’s all things to all people. The Los Angeles Times reported on June 18 that categorized his addiction-and-recovery memoir “The Riot Within” as “criminal biography.”

“Criminal biography.”

For Americans looking at him, he was either the symbol of everything that was wrong with America, or he was a symbol of how being a black man made him wrong with America, or he was a symbol of what’s possible within America.

Somewhere between those default perspective-dependent extremes Rodney King lived his life, seeking in his own way to effect that balance, that delicate, excruciating tightrope walk African Americans know only too well.

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FOR ALL his troubles, despite his chemical antics behind the wheel, Rodney King was in the tragically right place and time to make history by accident — by letting the Los Angeles Police Department reveal its own history, its own deeper crime, on purpose, on the night of March 3, 1991.

He’ll be remembered for the speeding incident; the haters among us won’t remember anything else. But they have to reckon with the fallout, what it said about America. What it still says about America. They have to address King's asking the Question, five words long, and almost innocent in its plaintive construction, its elegant simplicity: “Can’t we all get along?”

For all the tragic dimensions of the life of Rodney King, he at least had the courage to ask the Question. In the generation since he uttered those words, we as a nation haven’t come close enough to an answer. Guess what the bigger tragedy is.

Image credits: Rodney King: Matt Sayles/Associated Press. Pool at King's home: Gabriel Luis Acosta/Pasadena Star-News. Rodney King (lower): KABC Los Angeles.

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