Yesterday, Rodney King died. I caught the news as I scanned my Twitter feed and sat, mouth agape, for a long drawn out moments. I thought perhaps that it was a mistake. At least, I hoped so, but as the reports began pouring in from so many sources I could only accept the sad and wrenching truth.
Rodney King, whose name will forever be synonymous with the L.A. Riots of 1991. Rodney King, who I saw on The Ed Show a few, short months ago discussing his forthcoming book, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption. I had not seen him for at least 15 years and the sight of him was like a mental punch. He had aged wonderfully, becoming a handsome and striking man. Yet, you could see the scars on his hands and deduce from his speech, both in pattern and cadence, that he’d suffered brain damage and unseen scars from his beating at the hands of the LAPD. Seeing his hurt and how his life had been impacted undid me.
I thought that was bad but yesterday was much worse. Shock gave way to unexpected grief and anger as if someone had torn a band aid off a wound that had never quite healed. The fact that he was 47 years old and way too young is lamentable. What happened to him is so very tragic and unjust that it is hard to articulate my sadness and rage. He could have been my brother. His story brings to mind a long list of African American males, some faceless and some famous, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. As negative as it seems, I could only think that the LAPD and the forces which empower them murdered a part of him that day and that they are inextricably linked to his early demise.
I missed a teachable moment today when one of my best friend’s asked me why I was so upset about his death.
“I mean it’s sad and all… but that happened like 20 years ago.” That was her well meaning response.
And indeed, I am sure that will be a lot of people’s response. People, notably, who are unaware of his story or who are not Black, is my guess. I gave her a cursory reply because I was tired and didn’t have the heart to have a deep discussion but I realize that was the wrong response.
The honest response would’ve been something like this…
“The reason his death disturbs me so much is because it is emblematic of the racism that is an embedded part of America. African American men are so routinely abused and killed by law enforcement that it’s almost a given. Certainly, in the African American community, we consider it a given. You think of a few famous cases and I think of all the nameless faces of people I know who have suffered at the hands of the police and the historical trajectory. I think of the way my people have been criminalized and how such beliefs are such an entrenched part of the American belief system that it continues to guide and shape policy, think NY Stop and Frisk, George Zimmerman and Stand Your Ground. I think of all the Black men who have died at the hands of this country, from slavery to the criminal system, and I am devastated anew at what their loss means to the African American community, their families and the loss of human potential.”
I hear Malcolm X in my head when he said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us..”
I see Alice Walker discussing Trayvon Martin, and the grief and rage in her beautiful face as she says “It’s a symptom of our illness. We are a very sick country.” All her life, this fight for justice has raged and it is still not done.
I see Rep. John Lewis and Rev. Al Sharpton discuss their lifelong struggles for equality and justice and I wonder, “Will we ever have justice?”
I feel their pain and am inspired by their strength and I work harder to master unacknowledged fears.
How many more lifetimes before justice is done, racism is the anomaly and my people are truly free? At a very minimum, free of the yoke of institutionalized racism masking itself under the guise of the law.
What she sees as a singular event, I see as causality, as contributory to a long line of injustice. I don’t blame her for her lack of understanding, empathetic though she is. After all, it is not her reality and she has not heard similar stories from the last three generations of her family. She does not walk in my skin.
I cry my tears out, some in ink, and then I brace myself to continue the struggle because someday, I pray, justice will be done.
Peace and blessings to the King family. Pray that Rodney’s spirit is finally at rest.
You can catch up on some great articles about Rodney King and his story in the Daily Beast. “What Rodney King’s Death Symbolized for the Black Community” by James Peterson resonated with me.