May Rodney King rest in the peace he called for


This May 1, 1992 photo shows Rodney King making a statement at a Los Angeles news conference. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, in 1992, died Sunday. He was 47. (David Longstreath/AP)

In his case, though, there were no signs of foul play. And King’s own claim, in an interview with the Associated Press earlier this year, was that he’d found at least some measure of the peace he called for at the height of the Los Angeles riots 20 years ago: “America’s been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all,’’ he said. “This part of my life is the easy part now.”

That may have been more a wish than a fact; he died at only 47, had several alcohol-related arrests over the years, and appeared on the reality show ‘Celebrity Rehab.’ Even if his earlier injuries played no role in his death, getting one’s skull cracked open in nine places is not exactly a marker for longevity.

You could say King was ahead of his time, because before there was YouTube or citizen journalism, camcorder footage of King, who was black, being beaten by white L.A.P.D. officers who’d stopped him for speeding was one of the first videos to go viral, in effect, on TV newscasts all over the country.

Riots exploded in South Los Angeles after a jury that included no African Americans acquitted three of those officers, and deadlocked on the fourth. In the violence that followed, thousands of people were injured and 55 died. While the city was still on fire, King stepped to the microphone and asked, “Can we all get along?”

I was then and remain in awe of all it took for him to do that. Here was a man who’d had his head beaten, his leg broken, his eye shattered. His face had been partially paralyzed during that rain of kicks and blows — 50 of them — with police batons. That he still called for peace over vengeance is pretty much the ultimate “manning up” in my book.

He didn’t always manage that; on the contrary, in 1996, he was jailed for domestic abuse, which is never OK, no matter what you’ve been through. He drank, drove too fast, and died too young. But though I know nothing about his religious beliefs, he was a person who in the moment he’ll be remembered for turned the other cheek.

“America’s been good to me,’’ he said just this year, and forgave us all over again.


Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.

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