“People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” Rodney King told the Los Angeles Times this year. “But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations.”
King’s brutal beating by police officers, and the riots provoked when white officers were acquitted of charges, provoked dramatic reform at the LAPD. It spawned a still urgent debate about racial profiling and police brutality. But what King, who passed away Sunday, also symbolizes, tacitly to conservative white people, is a seemingly endless loop of black pathology.
Can’t they just get it together?
What a dramatic image. After the 1992 riots, you could see a fleet of U-Haul trucks barreling north out of Los Angeles for whiter pastures. A white exodus vacated Southern California. In 1993, 11,212 people fled California for Idaho alone. The one-way truck rentals from California to Idaho were so overwhelming that year, U-Haul had to pay people to drive trucks back empty. Rodney King, and the riots his case spawned, helped provoke White Flight 3.0 – or the Californication of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Colorado. LAPD officers themselves helped popularize those destinations to other white migrants out of Southern California.
The “blue migration” – or white flight -- of LAPD officers from California began in earnest during the 1970s, when that state’s economy hit doldrums. But the migration of LAPD officers, and Southern Californians, generally, picked up pace in the early 1990s, due to the riots and a devastating earthquake. When former LAPD cop Mark “You do what you’re told, understand, nigger?” Fuhrman made his exit from L.A. in 1993, after the O.J. Simpson trial, that didn’t hurt the allure of exodus to like-minded officers.
In 2007, I went golfing with retired white LAPD officers expatriated to North Idaho. In most cases, they were delightful and friendly. But their hostility to poor non-whites in L.A. sounded unmistakable. The ex-LAPD officers are a tight-knit community that hunts and fishes together, plays poker, bowls and holds BBQs, and helps one another out. During a charity golf tournament, Warner, a retired California officer who now flies private helicopters, shot a golf ball into the air. It smacked an errant golf cart, helmed by an apparently confused golfer. A bystander scowled at him. “He shouldn’t have been there!” Warner smirked. “That’s how we’d play in L.A. We treat you like a king. A Rodney King.”
Days later, I spoke at length with three other retired white LAPD officers in Finucane Park, a glistening park in Coeur d’Alene. Policing was a calling for the three, not just a paycheck. They described active and retired officers as a “brotherhood” and “fraternity.” From his lawn chair, one officer pointed to the immaculate park surrounding us. “Look at these four posts. Would they be bare if we were in New York or Los Angeles? Look out in the parking lot, not one bit of graffiti or rubbish,” he boasted. “Sitting here, we don’t have to worry about somebody smoking dope or somebody panhandling while they’re drinking a shorty.” He paused. “Carrying a badge and a gun down there was a bloody zoo.”
The question haunts my mind: How prevalent is that viewpoint? If young black men hold Rodney King as an icon – a stand-in representative of their complaints — do white Americans fed up with cities see him as the opposite, the proxy of black dysfunction, the deserving recipient of his fate? Before his violent beating, King had been arrested. And after his beating, he went in and out of jails, a revolving cycle of criminal charges and substance abuse. In the white conservative mind, there are two forms of black men: the polite, intelligent black man who earned his success, like the president or Herman Cain. Then there is Rodney King: the idling, shuffling, repeat offender who is irrelevant to this country’s success. This black archetype’s civil rights are beside the point, since he himself is disposable, a dispensable item for the country to succeed. Aggressive law enforcement is always the more urgent priority to his well-being, and takes precedent to his civil rights and very life. Having spoken out against Trayvon Martin’s killing in the New York Times and on “The O’Reilly Factor,” I have been verbally confronted by dozens of conservative whites who suggest Trayvon had it coming to him. I’m constantly astounded by how deeply and immediately these whites identify and empathize with George Zimmerman and “law enforcement,” over the assaulted teen.
Beating be damned, Rodney King personifies the revulsion and disgust many conservative whites hold for big swaths of black America. They had literally fled the idea of him and the aftermath of his case.
For black men, the Rodney King case pioneered the Gotcha Redemption video. Legions of black men are grateful for digital advances. From King to Trayvon Martin, voice and camera recordings provide the hard evidence of abuse that otherwise would go unbelieved. They force police authorities to square their own claims with what Americans plainly see or hear. These recordings prevent authorities from blinding the public to brutality and inequality. That’s part of King’s legacy to young black men.
Can we not all get along? In some cases, yes. But the symbolism of King does not rest in peace. He is as divisive in death as in life. He symbolizes police brutality, racism and social inequality to some Americans, and the chronic failure of black men, their inability to get it together, to legions of others.