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Janice Harper Headshot

Rodney King: An Imperfect Victim Who Died a Perfect Hero

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All too often when considering injustice, we want perfect victims - the victim who did nothing to provoke others, whose own behavior was exemplary, whose moral code remains unblemished. But if justice were the privilege of the perfect, there wouldn't be much need for it at all. There are few less perfect victims that Rodney King twenty years ago - a drug addled thief and a thug, his near hundred mile an hour flight from police - through residential streets and while on parole - hardly made him sympathetic. But when a video camera caught the police beating him nearly to death with electrical tasers, heavy batons and booted feet, his head struck like a baseball until he could no longer move, even a drug addled thief drew sympathy from a nation appalled at law enforcement run amuck.

The verdict acquitting the officers who fractured his skull, his face, his legs and his teeth was so contrary to the evidence caught on film that it stunned even George H. W. Bush, who noted that it was hard to understand the verdict in light of the video that captured such a violent violation of one man's civil rights. The violence that followed in the wake of the acquittal - leaving 53 dead, thousands of injuries, thousands of businesses destroyed and over $1 billion in damages - and disturbingly labeled the "Rodney King riots" - demonstrated just how powerful a statement that acquittal was in light of the long history of racial injustice and abuse by law enforcement in L.A. and throughout the nation. Although the vast majority of law enforcement officers do not abuse their authority, the tolerance for those who do - and all too often target their abuse against specific racial or ethnic groups - is so strong in certain parts of the country that the videotaped beating could hardly be distinguished from a lynching.

I vividly recall watching and discussing the video with my late father, a white man who was at once as oblivious to his own and society's racism as he was removed from it. He had as many stereotypical racist ideas as he had sensitivities to misfortune, struggle and injustice whether suffered by a white man or a black one. So when he saw the videotaped near murder of a man lying on the ground, my father no longer saw a black man - he saw every man. And he was sickened to think that those entrusted to enforce the law would abuse that trust so violently, would so exuberantly join together to stomp the life out of a man just because they could.

That videotape and the acquittal of the officers that followed brought an awareness to my father of the reality of racial prejudice in a way that no preaching from me ever possibly could. "Show, don't tell" always proves to be persuasive, and that videotape showed racism and police misconduct in a way that words could never do. It changed my father's thinking about racism that day, and years later he still recalled that tape as evidence of a world gone weirdly wrong.

As for Rodney King, in the wake of the beating, the trial and the riots that followed, his private life became a target of endless attack by those who wanted him to be the perfect victim. When he proved, however, to continue to be an abusive drunk who sped through the streets, smashed into a house, and spent all his money (won in a civil suit against the city), many lost their sympathy. To many, Rodney King became the symbol of losing, a symbol of the unredeemable criminal who could never clean up his act, thereby somehow diminishing the abuse he'd suffered. And yet . . .

And yet throughout it all, from the dark days of the riots when Rodney King called for everyone to please just get along, to recent days when he saw in Trayvon Martin's killing the same racial injustice that he himself had suffered, Rodney King consistently called for peace and reconciliation. His was not the saintly call of a Desmond Tutu or a Nelson Mandela, but the call of a petty criminal no one would ever have heard of had it not been for the videotape of citizen George Holliday who broke the story when he sent the tape to the media (after the police department showed no interest).

And that is what makes of Rodney King the perfect hero. Because he was an ordinary, flawed man who showed us in his public suffering that he, too, deserved to be treated humanely, our nation faced its own racial divides. And when we failed to heal those divides in the wake of the acquittals, and racism spilled into the streets as rage took hold and people turned against each other, despite all his flaws and failings, Rodney King called upon us to please just get along.

It isn't the beating of Rodney King that should be remembered of his life, but his deep desire to see peace and compassion rise above it. For all the many imperfect victims who suffer injustice and abuse, let us remember Rodney King and his own personal perfection. It is because he was imperfect and the nation still saw in his beating a horrible injustice that we are reminded that even the most flawed of us have civil rights. And because despite all his many mistakes and abuses, he knew, deep in his heart, how terribly important it is that we live in peace together.