[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to a special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On two striking details that can help us push beyond a frequently stereotyped figure.
The frustrating process through which African American victims of police brutality or white supremacist violence are demonized in the media in order to minimize their mistreatment (up to and including murder) has become far too common, if not indeed inevitable, in response to such incidents in the 21st century. And of course such trends had been a central element of the lynching epidemic throughout its century of historic horrors as well. But in some ways Rodney King occupied a pivotal place in that unfolding history—one of the first such demonized victims of the media age, extending those historic trends into the late 20th century period of cable news and constant coverage and so on. And from the first moments after the video of King’s 1991 beating by four LAPD officers emerged, he was linked to and demonized through a series of exaggerated, stereotypical images: his criminal record, his history of drinking, his resistance to the police, his seemingly simplistic statements, even the fact that he was driving a Hyundai. Each of those images had some initial grounding in elements of King’s background or identity, but each was again exaggerated into a caricature that made it easier to minimize or dismiss the unnecessary violence King endured.
Challenging that trend requires multiple forms of response, but in the case of a victim like King who fortunately was not killed in the course of his incident, one important such response is to highlight other nuanced details from across the course of his life. One inspiring such detail for King is that not long before his untimely 2012 death (on which more in a moment), he published an autobiography that also extended his famous comments during the 1992 riots. Co-authored by Lawrence Spagnola, King’s The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption (2012) links his personal experiences and story (before, during, and after the famous early 1990s histories) to broader arguments for unity and peace, ideas and themes that echo his easily mocked but also thoughtful question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” At the very least, anyone who makes fun of King’s perspective or voice based on those snippets of video should be required to read this extended articulation of them, to engage with the layers to the man and his identity rather than such soundbytes and the stereotypical narratives into which they far too often play.
Unfortunately, King passed away just two months after his book was published, and the circumstances of his death add another compelling detail to our understanding of his life and identity. On Father’s Day King’s fiancé found him drowned at the bottom of his swimming pool, in a striking echo of his father’s death: King’s father Ronald King had drowned in his bathtub on Father’s Day, 1984, 28 years to the day before King’s death. Like Ronald, Rodney had struggled with alcoholism throughout his adult life, and a combination of alcohol and drugs in his system had likely precipitated heart problems that led to his death. But it also strikes me as unlikely that the precise date was a coincidence, particularly given that Rodney’s death emulated his father’s on Father’s Day; that is, whether Rodney’s death was in any overt way a suicide, it seems clearly related to the personal and psychological legacies of his father’s death as well as his own struggles. And in any case, this tragic final stage in King’s life clearly reveals a far more complex story and man than any of the stereotypical images and narratives allow for, making plain the need to push far beyond those caricatures in search of the real Rodney King.
Next King context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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