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The Lessons We Learned From Rodney King


Two decades after his videotaped beating by four Los Angeles police officers, Rodney King died yesterday at the age of 47. His beating sparked outrage over police brutality. And after a jury acquitted the four police officers, that outrage erupted into riots that left some 55 dead; more than 1,000 injured; and more than $800 million in damage in the City of Los Angeles. King then posed the unanswerable question, can we all get along? which started new and sometimes painful conversations across the country.

We want you tell us about a conversation you had because of Rodney King, one you may never have had before - 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're also going to be reading from some op-eds and pieces of opinion, here on The Opinion Page. And this is from James Braxton Peterson, in The Daily Beast. (Reading) What I will always remember most is King's sense of panic once he realized the LAPD was in pursuit mode on that fateful night. That's why he sped up and fled. That panic he felt - being on parole, just days away from a job interview, an opportunity to keep his life on track and out of the annals of history - that panic is an unforgettable component of our lives.

(Reading) Black and brown men experience that dreaded sense of panic every day. We wonder if this stop, or this cop, is the one that will alter our life path irrevocably. Although Rodney King escaped death that night, his life was irrevocably altered; his history became inextricably linked with the violent history of police brutality, racial profiling and racialized injustice.

Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. This is Matt. Matt on the line with us from Appleton, Wisconsin.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

MATT: Oh. Well, I remember seeing the Rodney King footage after the fact - I was born in 1988, so I guess in the mid-'90s. And I remember talking to my parents about it. And, you know, in school we had learned about the civil rights movement and kind of seeing, you know, pictures of dogs biting people, and fire hoses and stuff. But to see - I guess, modern police officers behaving that way really shocked me, and it kind of prompted a conversation I had with my parents about, you know, us, racism and kind of the fallibility of police officers who are, I guess, ordinary people that, you know, aren't always behaving in the right way, or whatever.

CONAN: In what context did you see the footage?

MATT: I think, to be honest with you, it was something like "Entertainment Tonight," maybe, or the - you know, a popular culture, you know, program on FOX. I think, you know, it was like, the anniversary of it, or something like that, when I saw the footage. You know, it wasn't really a hard-news program, or anything like that.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Matt.

MATT: Yeah.

CONAN: And this is from an AP story written by Jesse Washington, AP national writer, published in the Los Angeles Daily News.

(Reading) One of King's legacies is that he raised the curtain on the video age: If a man had not stepped outside of his home and videotaped the beating, King would have been lost to history. The biggest impact was that it was actually on tape, said Dom Giordano, a talk radio host in Philadelphia. It was so rare, except for something like Bull Connor, to have this type of footage. King became an enduring symbol of police brutality - proof positive, to many people, that the dogs and fire hoses loosed by Connor, the Birmingham police chief, on civil rights marchers in 1960s Alabama had merely been updated and not eliminated.

Let's go next to - this is Oki(ph). Oki with us from Springfield, Massachusetts.

OKI: Yes. Hi. I was just calling regarding the conversation that is going on right now. I think that Rodney King situation really reminds me of everything that is going on in the United States. I mean, I love this country. I'm a taxpayer; I work. But my concern is that we have to change most of our institutions, you know, the workplace. We are pointing fingers most of the time to the police department, but let's take a look at our workplace, let's take a look at the many institutions and tell me how many, you know, minorities that are there. I think that's, you know, where the conversation should start right now. I mean, in the country, there's a lot of people looking for jobs. There are so many minorities that are educated, and they still cannot find, you know, work. So we have to look at our institutions and change from within, not from outside.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Okee.

OKI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email from Becky in Syracuse: Apparently, not enough conversation was had as the result of what happened to Rodney King. My 18-year-old son was appalled this weekend when mentioning that Mr. King had past away to his friend. None of his friends knew who Rodney King. This included his friends of color. More conversation is definitely in order for any change to be effected regarding race relations.

This is from Reverend Al Sharpton: Though all that he gone through with his beating and his personal demons, he was never one to not call for reconciliation and for people to overcome and forgive. History will recall it was Rodney King's beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement. Let's go next to - this is Ken. Ken with us from Pittsburgh.

KEN: Hi. How are you doing? Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good.

KEN: My father and I had a conversation yesterday afternoon when this news broke, and I said, you know, dad, Rodney King is clearly a bigger, better man than I am because I would have got on TV and said, burn this city to the ground.


KEN: That's truly how I - but and we got into a spirited discussion revolving around the fact that I think, you know, I view America as incredibly racist and just caustic, and the police get off their - they have immunity and we're seeing that today in the news over and over again. And he just - he looked at it through potentially more rose hued grasses, and he was disappointed in my statement about burn this city to the ground.

CONAN: He was disappointed.

KEN: Yeah.

CONAN: You see the country as incredibly racist, more racist, less racist than it was in the '60s?

KEN: Well, I wasn't around in the '60s. I'm sure it is less racist, but obviously, there's - like you were discussing earlier, the fact that the video age, these things are now visible to millions, hundreds of millions of people, and it's becoming commonplace. There was recently an incident - I feel bad I cannot remember the young man's name - but these three big, white police officers jumped out of an unmarked car and this 16-year-old was walking home - or 18-year-old - from his grandmother's house and they beat the tar out of this young man, and he was - and they - and then they get off and this and that. This is Pittsburgh. This isn't Mississippi. You know, that happened in Los Angeles, not Alabama. But it's always pervasive. I see it everywhere. And it's disappointing that this country is as racist, and the police have the impunity to terrorist young, black guys.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

KEN: Thank you.

CONAN: This is from AP's - another AP story. This one by Linda Deutsch: The LAPD is famous and notorious and other departments key off of what they do, according to Lou Cannon, who researched every aspect of the King case for his book "Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD."

The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country. It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black, Cannon said. It was his beating that made America focus on the presence and profiling and police misconduct. The city's current police chief, Charlie Beck, agreed that King's beating served as a catalyst for reform. What happened on that cool March night over two decades ago forever changed me and the organization I love, he said in a statement. His legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life, but the immensely positive change his existence wrought on this city and its police department.

Let's go next to Josh. Josh calling us from Yukon, Oklahoma. Is that right?

JOSH: Yes, sir, Yukon, Oklahoma.

CONAN: Go ahead, go ahead, please.

JOSH: I was just telling your guy answering the phone, I'm a white Caucasian in my 30s. I was 12 years old when the beating happened, and I was raised by a black woman. And at the time I was at 12 years old, I really don't understand the race issues until she brought it to my attention. And just like I tell everybody else that I live in Oklahoma, and it's pretty neutral state. But once in a while, you have some racist remark, and I feel like I had to stand up and say something about it and bring the ignorance back down to a level where it's tolerant. And a lot of people - a lot of Caucasians, I think, don't - can't see the same picture as the black society can. And it's unfortunate that even the Rodney King beating hasn't changed any of that, in my opinion.

CONAN: And change any of that.

JOSH: I don't think it has, and to even say that is - I have half-brother and a half-sister, a Mexican, and so I have a three-dimensional view on the racism and, you know, inequalities of life, compared to what I can get by just being white, and it's unfortunate.

CONAN: All right. Josh, thanks very much for the phone call.

JOSH: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And this is an excerpt from an op-ed piece in the Herald Sun, which is published in Australia, written Paul Toohey, and he wrote: King's unscheduled victimhood finally tore the lid off a very public secret, state-sanctioned racism and hatred were alive and well in America. This time, people in the poorer parts of L.A. knew there was no way the cops could get away with it. They were wrong. Two days of intense rioting followed the verdict in the trial, shopkeepers defending their properties in wild gun battles as the police response failed. The National Guard was called in. More than 50 people were dead, property damage was estimated at a billion dollars.

Attempts to make Rodney King a spokesman for black rights were thwarted by his own reluctance and his continued problems with alcohol, drugs and domestic abuse. The fact that King was not a saint gave his story power. Black men everywhere took the view, I am Rodney King.

Rodney King on the opinion page this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get George on the line. George with us from Charleston.

GEORGE: Yes. I appreciate the conversation. I think it's great conversation, you know, reflection upon this particular point on history. But I think we - on the problems we have as we put too much emphasis or we talk excessively about Rodney King as opposed to the totality of the problem or the whole event rather, I guess, is a better way to say it, because there was much more that took place in that entire point in our history, period in our history. For instance, as I was telling the screener, we forget about the Reginald Denny or the 50 or so people that lost their lives during that time.

CONAN: Reginald Denny, the truck driver who was pulled out of his cab and beaten to death. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Denny survived the brutal attack.]

GEORGE: Exactly. And all of us think, every one of us thinks that happened when Rodney King, Reginald Denny to all of the fires and the destruction and the other people that lost their lives are symptomatic of a number of problems in our culture. And we are - it's just highlights our skewed perspective, I believe, when we don't discuss the totality of the issues, as opposed to focusing on just one microcosm.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call.

GEORGE: You're welcome.

CONAN: This is from Frank, an email: I spoke with nonwhite friends after Rodney King, and I told them I understood because, as a male with a Mohawk, leather jacket and combat boots, I've been followed by security guards and pulled over by police. They told me I didn't understand and I argued with them. I felt that being judged by the way you look was the same as being judge by the color of your skin. Only later did I realize how wrong I was. There's nothing to be judged for the way you look or the way you dress compared to being judged for the way you were born. To be beaten brutally for the body you live in is nothing compared to the glaring eye of a security guard because you look like you might steal something. I'm sorry for my mistaken belief. I will never know what that feels like. I only hope Mr. King's words will get through to everyone. Can't we all just get along?

And let's see if we can get Patrick. Patrick on the line with us from Los Angeles.

PATRICK: Yeah. Hi. My biggest comment in terms of conversation that I never had, was I grew up in Los Angeles, and I'm a white person. And, you know, the Rodney King episode was kind of an evolution for someone like me who grew up in the middle-class, upper-class neighborhood about the brutality that went on and the blatancy of it, and what the caller said about being beaten just because how you were born. And then comes along - after that, we realized in the course of this how much there has been in terms of brutality in the black community.

Then we see the O.J. Simpson case come along, and we see an acquittal of O.J. Simpson, and I think that was really symptomatic of the lot of - I've heard a lot of writers talked about how the jurors in that case, and especially the jurors of color, while they voted their conscience in that case, couldn't help but not reflect on the amount of brutality that occurred in the police department, Los Angeles Police Department under Daryl Gates and Chief Parker before him against black people, and that affected the credibility of all the police officers in that case.

So I think, in Los Angeles, that we've had this kind of maturation in the communities about understanding, about how much brutality that occurs in the communities, not only in the black communities, but now in the Latino communities, and it's conversations that we need to continue to have. And it's frustrating to realize that it still goes on even after all of this.

CONAN: Yeah. So you - well, a lot of people drew that link to the O.J. Simpson case, and it's an important one to note. Thanks very much.

PATRICK: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's - this one from the News One staff. Rodney King cut a pathetic path through life for sure, but let us not forget the root of the word pathetic, pathos, which also has a less pejorative connotation of poignancy and tragedy. He was initially thrust into the spotlight not as hero, but as a flawed and helpless victim, his own weaknesses and mistakes and addiction bared to the world along with the horrible crimes against him. And King was then forced to live that tortured life publicly, which ended up amplifying his personal problems.

But King never asked to be a symbol. He never asked to be beaten. He had no role in the videotaping of that beating, though it made the crimes against him and the crimes against himself public, and he never asked to be the spark for the Los Angeles riots, but all those things happened. And though he might have wanted nothing more than to live his life as he did before, history thrust him onto the world stage regardless.

Some humans, when called by history, act in ways that inspire us. Rodney King didn't live up to many folks expectations for him. His plea for peace is often taken as evidence that he was less than worthy of this role. Rodney King was not an inspirational figure. He was not a revolutionary. He was a flawed man who, when faced with a choice few humans have ever faced, said he didn't want more blood to run in the streets. We may not have been able to respect him in life for that, but let us respect him at last in death.

Thanks to everybody who called and wrote in. We appreciate your calls and your time, and we're sorry we couldn't get to everybody. Tomorrow, we'll talk with Ted Koppel and David Sanger about the growing tensions between covert wars and democracy. Join us for that conversation. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 18, 2012 at 11:00 PM CDT
We incorrectly say that Reginald Denny died after being pulled from his truck and beaten during the Los Angeles race riots 20 years ago. In fact, Denny is still alive.
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