Sunday afternoon a 20-something white guy in a Ramones t-shirt standing in front of me in line at my local coffee shop remarked to the young white woman he was with, "Hey, did you hear Rodney King died?" She didn’t look up from her iPhone as she replied, "Who's Rodney King?"
Her response made tears well up in my eyes. I'd only found out a few hours earlier that King had been found at the bottom of his Los Angeles-area swimming pool at the age of 47. History knows King as the black construction worker who, back in 1991, was pulled over and infamously beaten at the hands of four LAPD officers. They struck King 56 times with their batons. He suffered 11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken bones and teeth, and kidney damage. He was in his 20s when it happened, just like the duo in the coffee shop.
The beating, which was filmed by an everyday citizen, George Holliday, and subsequently broadcast on news stations across the nation, was documentary evidence of the brutal treatment at the hands of cops that many black Americans have experienced firsthand. The following year, when those LAPD officers were acquitted, the frustration over systemic social inequality and racism that a generation of young blacks and Latinos felt boiled over and the city erupted into a blaze of rioting. More than 50 Angelenos lost their lives, thousands were injured, and the city sustained billions of dollars in damage. On the third day of rioting, King made his now famous plea in a news conference: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"
In the years since, King's heartfelt words—and his ongoing alcoholism—have become a joke, part of a caricature that some Americans use to dismiss the physical and emotional trauma he experienced. However, 20 years ago as Los Angeles burned, people listened to King. The day after he spoke out, a peace rally was held and attended by tens of thousands of the city's residents.
While King didn't subsequently become some modern day Rosa Parks, what happened to him—and to Los Angeles—reverberated across the nation in innumerable ways. In particular, a $3.8 million settlement the city had to pay King, catalyzed change in the way the LAPD and many other police departments officially operate.
For my two black 8- and 11-year-old boys, the obliviousness of the young woman in the coffee shop is not an option. As my sons get older, being followed in stores, being stopped and frisked, and being pulled over by the police because they fit the description, is a possibility that my husband and I have to educate them about. King's story is a part of that education. And, when George Zimmerman can shoot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black teenager, and not be arrested for weeks after doing so, clearly the problem isn't just the police.
In an April interview with the Daily Beast for the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, Martin's murder and the enduring nature of racial prejudice—our inability to "get along"—was clearly heavy on King's heart. His father, who was from the Deep South, had "always told me as kid not to let them (police) catch me if they were chasing me, because they would kill me," said King. "I think that was racing in my mind as the cops were chasing me back then. I think I could hear my daddy’s voice and his stories of how much people hated you if you were black. I try not to get upset about it or think about it, but some days it ain't easy, particularly when kids are being shot and killed because of their skin being brown."
I don't know whether that young woman in the coffee shop has deep friendships with black Americans, or if she's had heart-to-heart conversations with them about how racism affects them. But I'm saddened when people don't know King's story because it suggests that Americans aren't having the conversations about race that our country needs.
What King died without experiencing is what Boston University sociologist Ruha Benjamin calls a "broader, much deeper, more radical justice that permeates our cultural norms and our social institutions." It takes time, says Benjamin, and can only happen "over several generations, and only then through a very concerted, deliberate effort to transform hearts and policies in such a way that recognizes the oneness of humanity."
To achieve that more radical justice, we need to have honest, open, and informed conversations about racism in America. From there, we each need to ask ourselves what part we play in fostering getting along—racial prejudice isn't limited to cases like those of King and Martin; it can be subtle and even subconscious. That's what King's story should spur us to do: fearlessly confront our own biases and actively build relationships with folks who are different racially and ethnically from ourselves.