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On the Death of Rodney King

The most sobering moment in Paul Beatty’s satirical novel, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) occurs just before the L.A. Riots are about to begin. The book’s protagonist, Gunnar Kaufman and his best friend Nicholas Scoby are on their way home from a strangely long basketball practice. During their walk, Gunnar immediately senses something different happening in his Los Angeles neighborhood. His neighbors are behaving oddly ,and he has no idea why. Then, the two young men walk into a neighbor’s home and learn the news: the four police officers charged with beating Rodney King have just been found innocent, despite video evidence of his beating. Gunnar sums up his–and probably others’–feelings succinctly, “I never felt so worthless in my life.”

In the most symbolic. gesture. ever., the young men begin their participation in the L.A. Riots by pulling a truck driver from his vehicle and pummeling him with the loaves of Wonderbread he had been transporting. Of course, this scene is a nod to the Reginald Denny beating, but also gestures to the powerlessness of Gunnar, Scoby, and the other rioters. Despite Gunnar and Scoby’s violent movements, the loaves can generate no wounds. Furthermore, the Wonderbread works as a kind of racialized tool: the men are using a symbol, an instrument of whiteness (see: the criminal justice system) to combat/respond to racism. A pointless effort indeed. 

Rodney King drowned yesterday. He was 47 years old. King would spend 21 of those years–almost half his life–as a symbol and a punchline, a cultural touchstone and the personification of a moment. Like Watts redux, the Rodney King beating was part of a cohort of occurences, people and events (NWA, Freestyle Fellowship, Boyz ‘n’ the Hood, and a few years later, O.J. Simpson, etc.) that re-introduced southern California as crucial to late 20th century matters of race.  The King beating was pre-YouTube, pre-Socialcam, pre-(common)Internet. And it was shocking. It shocked me because I was incredibly young and had not yet learned such facts of black life. I learned quickly, though. And promptly went in on my teacher when he suggested that seeing other parts of the encounter between King and the police might have justified their force. Others were possibly shocked not because they didn’t know police brutality occurred, but perhaps because they just weren’t used to such video evidence being aired on the evening news. In the post-civil rights moment when some wondered why black folks were (still) mad, one could roll the videotape and say, “Because of stuff like this here.”

Of course, the recording of King’s beating did nothing but make some of us aware. Although police watch groups emerged, no justice was served when three officers were acquitted. And as news of black folks, particularly black youth being harassed, harmed, and beaten by police continues to populate the BYP’s news feed, not a whole lot has changed in the two decades since that March night. King isn’t even a sacrificial lamb. Sadly, not much, if any common good has emerged since Rodney King became a household name. No peace. Not for him; not for us.

Perhaps it’s the swimming pool and his years struggling with addiction, but King’s death seem so tragically California to me. I imagine that’s why his death also works as symbol. If life in the American promised land generates violence, addiction, and death, then how can we not feel like Gunnar? How can we not see everything else that drowned with another man named King, whose life is supposed to explain certain aspects of some alleged collective black experience? What should we learn–and quickly? Perhaps, like Wonderbread and southern California pools, the instruments of and journey to our solace cannot be found in common places. The death of Rodney King seems like the confirmation that we should look in other spaces. In lands where our blood has not been unjustifiably splattered to water an unkind and unforgiving soil. Perhaps we can get along. But we’ll have to get along elsewhere.

May Rodney King find the peace that eluded him in this realm. And may we find ours before another must serve as another, similar symbol.


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