Rodney King, R.I.P.

Some people, like Rosa Parks, seem determined (if not destined) to make history. Some, like Parks, are successful. Others are not (many of them are appearing right now on reality TV shows).

Then there are the people, guided by fate or fortune, have history drop on them like a script. Rodney King, who passed away this weekend (obit here.), was of this ilk. He was not a hero. In fact, he was a criminal, in the process of committing a crime, when another, more serious crime, got committed and captured on tape. The rest, of course, is History.

Whatever one thinks of King, the joke of a trial that saw all the officers go free, the resulting riots, and the uneasy aftermath, there is no denying that his so-called fifteen minutes were among the most meaningful of the last quarter-century.

I wrote about him –and us– a little over a year ago on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his unforeseeable encounter with immortality.


On March 3, 1991, in a case that sparked a national outcry, motorist Rodney King was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers in a scene captured on amateur video.

Twenty, already?

As incredible as that is to process, it also underscores on so many wonderful levels how far we’ve come as a country. Don’t get me wrong, it also casts a bright dark light on how unevolved we insist on being, and how much work there is to do (yesterday: women, minorities and homosexuals, today…workers’ pensions?).

But just thinking about the racial dynamic, it is difficult to deny that we’ve come light (skinned) years compared to how we rolled, collectively, a couple of decades ago. Put it this way: it was a leap of something greater than faith to conceive of an African-American being president four years ago. Twenty years ago? The only person who had that type of hope & audacity was Jesse Jackson, and even he wasn’t kidding himself. (And don’t kid yourself: without this man and the indescribable lifting he did, the notion of President Obama would still be a fantasy.)

It happened: we made it happen. Yes we did; we have an African-American president (even if he’s a Republican…just kidding, mostly).

In any event, looking back at March 3, 1991, it’s difficult to determine what is more unlikely: that something this barbaric happened, or that it happened to get caught on tape. Because let’s face it: if it had not been caught on tape, we would never know about it, and a great many of us would never have believed it. History usually happens quickly (in hindsight anyway) and this was definitely one of those seminal occasions where everything changes, immediately. This was exactly the see-it-with-your-own-eyes evidence America needed to be slapped upside the head with, and it began a dialogue that put us, however tardy and reluctantly, on a path toward progress.

In so many ways, this appalling spectacle anticipated what was to come in the subsequent decades (culminating in Obama’s victory): the use of amateur handheld video going “viral” (back then you still had to get through the gatekeepers at the major news outlets but those buttoned-up buffoons know a story when they see one), leading us in a crooked and narcissistic path to YouTube and Reality TV. The sensationalistic nature of infotainment where instead of letting actions speak louder than babble, we bring in “experts” to explain to us what we are witnessing, or more importantly, what we should be making of it (I’m thinking here of our number one agent of contemporary intellectual debasement, Oprah Winfrey and her stable of charlatans, all of whom epitomize a sick aspect of the American Dream as they prove you can manage to extract inconceivable wealth from gullible fans no matter how little you have to offer). We also see an engagement with current events from artists that would give rap music an edge that saw it through its golden age (post Run DMC and pre-cartoon character knucklehead solipsism) where acts like Public Enemy, Ice Cube and KRS-One began to voice defiance to the prevailing storyline (this was both welcome and distressingly overdue as we limped toward the end of the Reagan/Bush debacle).

Make it rough. That is exactly what artists started to do, and it’s possible to imagine that the next generation was poised, if not exactly prepared, for the paradigm shifting possibilities of the Internet. Within a decade after the world got its own URL, people plugged in, dialed on and woke up (ironically, right around the same time Timothy Leary got set to “explode into space”). At first a novelty, the ability of people to download music, create digital files, record themselves and the world around them –and share these advancements with people they didn’t know, half-a-world away, in real time –quickly became the new normal. Initially downplayed or demonized, blogs and (increasingly) independent sources of information began breaking stories and busting down walls.

We’re not even close to where we need to be, and we never will get that far, but recent events prove that underground voices and unauthorized agents of dissemination can challenge, even counteract the sanctioned (and sterile) storyline. Look at Wisconsin: it was business as usual, and the game-rigging mainstream media was either promoting the anti-worker talking points or else not reporting at all. But a funny thing happened: people (finally) started paying attention and talking about it; like a healthy rash, awareness quickly spread and all of a sudden we had a minor movement on our hands. (Check out how social media has energized the various uprisings happening right now across the pond…)

It still takes entirely too many of us entirely too long to see (and smell) what’s happening right in front of us, but after the last 20 years (Rodney King, Iraq, Wall Street’s Big Adventure), it’s no longer easy –it may no longer be possible– for this younger generation to set the controls for the heart of the couch and fall asleep. Now we know that things we are unwilling to even imagine are happening, daily, around us and to us. We are unable to ignore what is staring back at us, on the screens and in our mirrors. Even more important, we are finally able to acknowledge what is going on when we are not watching. That, in its own irregular way, constitutes progress.


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