Swim Good

Recalling Rodney King and expectations of justice

I’m like Martin Luther King, you’re like Rodney.

— Black Thought


odney King, long the butt of so many jokes with lead-ins about failed civil rights, police brutality, racism and profiling in the era of Arsenio Hall and NWA at the dawn of videotaping everything before the “broadcast yourself” edict of YouTube, the self-flagellating narcissism of reality TV and the faked friendliness of Facebook, was found dead Sunday at the bottom of the swimming pool he’d built himself inlaid with tiles with two dates.

March 3, 1991, was when Los Angeles officers Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell hailed 56 baton blows, nine skull fractures, a broken leg and a dislocated eye socket upon King on an L.A. freeway in the infamous ass-whipping seen the world over that was taped by George Holliday from a nearby apartment complex. 

The second date was April 29, 1992, the day three officers were found not guilty and one was acquitted by a jury of their non-black peers in the assault on King.

In Uprising, a VH1-produced documentary that aired on the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, King says when he saw the verdict all those years ago, “my heart just sank down into my stomach and I shed tears. I grabbed me a drink and I got drunk that night. I got drunk that night.”

Anyone old enough to recall when a browser was someone perusing items in a store and not anything related to the Internet and to whom “fuck the police!” was a rallying cry and a song will have total recall of where they were when they first saw grainy footage of the beating on the news and where they were when the verdict and subsequent riots exploded.

After a four-hour shift as an assistant behind the reference desk of the Literature Department of the Main Public Library, I was in my roach-infested stuffy apartment on Victory Parkway in Walnut Hills when the news came on and the footage was aired the night of March 3, 1991. 

I felt sick, embarrassed and scared: sick because the beating was relentless and deadly; embarrassed that America still treated blacks with such unabashed violence; and scared because I knew angry niggas across America could and would use King’s beating to avenge and assuage their own abuse by and contempt for cops specifically and whites generally. 

The King beating was a template.

In the polite, professional, hushed library tones of the time, staffers didn’t speak about the beating. But because the library is the nexus of all information highways — newspapers back then — we sat individually hunched over pages in the New York and Los Angeles Times reading stories about the beating and the growing West Coast tensions.

True to the hierarchies of institutional classism, pages, the subterranean folks who ran call slips to fetch the books, microfilm, magazines, etc., for patrons, were the most vocal and pissed off about the beatings. And on the No. 69 Metro to and from work, chatter on the proletariat chariot centered around Rodney King and the racist, fascist cops who’d kicked his ass with impunity.

“They’re not trying to hit me in my body,” King says in the documentary. “These guys are hitting me in the back of my cranium and in my face. These guys are going for the kill. So the only thing I could do is cover up.” He says there were cops involved in the beating who were a married couple. They went to the trunk of a cruiser to “get their little beating gadgets,” and returned to where he was spread eagle and face down. 

“(The husband) kicked me in my temple and broke my jaw,” King says. “He said, ‘Ha! Ha! How do you feel?’ I said, ‘I feel fine.’ I felt like my face was a mile away from my body.”

But none of that mattered in light of the proof caught on video. Finally, we thought, proof the shit does happen. Justice will surely be served.

So, for 13 months and 26 days, I waited like a good little house negro for justice to show herself to indeed be blind. 

I was a lucky one. I had inside me the balance and temperance of a child born in the mid-1960s but too young to have fought or marched.

I had been raised to wait and see. 

I’d also been raised to seethe and react.

Shortly after 6:30 p.m. on April 29, 1992, a patron came to the reference desk and asked if we’d heard about what was happening in L.A. We hadn’t. There weren’t any smartphones, Twitter accounts or even email. Los Angeles was on fire because the cops who’d beaten King had gotten off. My heart beat hard in my chest, my limbs went hollow and I immediately hated every white person I saw. And I was secretly glad niggas were burning down ostensibly their own neighborhoods — the ghetto landmarks of liquor, wig and dollar stores — because we all know niggas in these geographic locations are merely squatters, renting shelter from landlords and buying goods and services largely from Koreans.

I returned to my hovel countless nights during and after the three nights of pillaging that left 53 people dead and more than $1 billion in damages and I was absolutely transfixed by the televised violence that begat violence.

I never tried to reconcile it or make sense of it; I merely understood that when one small group among us goes rogue, there will be lambs sacrificed in retaliation. In this equation you can figure out for yourselves who was rogue and who was sacrificed. I’ve got my own notions.

“I’ll always be here to tell my story for whoever wants to hear it,” King says in Uprising.

“It means a lot to the next generation so it won’t ever happen again.”

Rodney King is dead. 

And he was an idealistic liar who changed my life.

CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]

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