The Next Rodney King

Somewhere there’s a young, black American male looking to hit it big on the Blue Lotto.

A young, black man who has dropped out of school, has used drugs, spent some time in jail and has weighed the career options that seem available to him – hip-hop star, football or basketball star, drug dealer – and decided that one of his periodic contacts with the police might be a moneymaker.

This is one of the legacies of Rodney King that hasn’t received nearly as much attention from the media.

King was found dead Sunday in the swimming pool at his home on East Jackson Street in Rialto, Calif. He lived on the nicer end of Jackson Street, a neighborhood with modest ranch-style and tract homes.

Another stretch of the street, referred to simply as “the Jackson Street apartments,” has been notorious for its drug dealers and gangs. Two years ago, in an attempt to rehab it, the city renamed that portion “Golden Eagle Lane.”

Names mean nothing here. The two-county region southeast of Los Angeles, where Rialto is located, is called the Inland Empire, but there’s no emperor – clothed or otherwise – to be found in this empire. The region is pockmarked with too many enclaves ruled by drugs and violence.

I spent my early years in newspapers working in the Inland Empire, first as the Rialto Bureau Chief for the San Bernardino Sun. I later moved on to the police beat in San Bernardino, where I occasionally fielded calls complaining about the police. Given the nature of police work, there will always be complaints — justified and unjustified.

Likewise, you cannot be an effective police reporter without occasionally having run-ins with the cops, especially in an urban area like Southern California. Consequently, even before the King incident, reporters were inclined to give callers complaining about the police at least a hearing, whether or not it led to a story.

After Rodney King was videotaped being beaten, which made him famous and brought him a $3.8 million jury award, complaints about police brutality increased.

Some of the calls to the newspaper where I worked were absurd: A black family claimed they had all been pepper-sprayed by police during a birthday celebration for a child; even the birthday boy got nailed. When the city didn’t immediately offer to settle, and officers disputed the accusation, a family member admitted the story got out of hand. There had been a family fight, and the police had been called.

My personal favorite was the black mother who called me and said her children had been ejected from a movie theater by police and had been cursed at by officers for no good reason. They just didn’t want black kids watching the movie ‘cause it was about gangs, the mother said. She had contacted an attorney. Turned out, the mother had dropped her children off at the theater. They bought tickets for a G-rated movie, then snuck into an NC-17 movie. When they refused to cooperate, police were called.

Because blacks are disproportionately both crime victims and criminal suspects, it’s not surprising that they have more encounters with police. What is surprising, and what got worse after King, was that the suspects had more clout.

Four years before Rodney King became famous, the Rev. Jesse Jackson visited L.A. and was featured on the front page of my newspaper announcing that he was going to meet with deadly street gangs. He compared them to the Ku Klux Klan.

“(T)he klansmen wore white sheets and the gangs wear colors,” he was quoted saying.

The headlines would be bigger and bolder post-King, when Jackson would shift his aim from gangs to police brutality.

After the King riot, the infantilism of blacks was nurtured by political leaders of all colors for their own gain. These political leaders did not live in places like the Jackson Street Apartments.  They could always move if thugs crawled into their neighborhoods and put down roots.

King even came to be known as a “gentle giant,” a description repeated in some of the stories on his death. This for a man whose first felony was a robbery where he tried to beat a 41-year-old Korean store clerk with a tire iron. A man who admitted two months ago, when he was being showered with anniversary stories, that he had lost count of how many times he had been arrested in the past two decades.

It’s insulting to call a black man “boy,” but it’s OK to treat him like one, as if he can’t help himself.

The commenters at the New York Times were especially doting towards King:

“How about a RK boulevard in all US cities?” wrote bx of Santa Fe, N.M.

“RIP Mr King, an imperfect being doing a perfect thing,” said Bosco, Boston, Mass. (I’m not sure what Bosco considers King’s perfect thing. Speeding at 100-plus mph while under the influence of alcohol? Refusing to lay down on the pavement and cooperate with police while his two passengers complied and were later released?)

“No Rodney, we cannot all get along, but thanks very much for trying,” wrote A Stanton, Dallas, Texas. (King’s efforts to get along apparently did not extend to his ex-wives, ex-girlfriends and teenage daughter who called police at various times to report his physical abuse.)

King’s legacy lives on in so many ways we rarely read or hear about.

Speaking of which – he made fools of the media. In death, he’s still got them buffaloed.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

Related:
Rodney King’s ‘Junkyard of Dreams’

3 Comments

  • Pamela – well said. You might get a WTF out of this Guardian UK story about King’s legacy. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/18/rodney-king-legacy-post-racial-us]

    One would think that King would not be the icon best chosen by civil rights supporters.

    Another Guardian UK article saw his life and end tragic. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/shortcuts/2012/jun/18/rodney-king-tragic-end]

    When one chooses to live as he did – it is not tragic. Apparently there was no overt foul play leading to his death – but the toxicology results are weeks ahead.

    Odd too – maybe only in America – his girlfriend that found him at the bottom of the pool was a juror on his civil lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles.
    [http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/06/rodney_king_engaged_to_juror_can_plaintiffs_and_defendants_sleep_with_jurors_.html]

    At best King was an enigma.

  • G. Sanchez wrote:

    Yeah, it was real interesting to see that about his girlfriend. My wife and I lived in Southern California during the riots. It rearranged our thinking about a bunch of things. The Koreans got shortchanged in all the stuff that’s been written lately.

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