The Rodney King legacy lives

Richard Carter | 10/12/2012, 4:17 p.m.
"The world has been a slaughterhouse since the beginning of time, and it still is..."--Orson...
Colony Records was my place for original Black R&B

"The world has been a slaughterhouse since the beginning of time, and it still is..."--Orson Welles, "Compulsion" (1959)

It's been 21 years since the infamous night in Los Angeles when Rodney King was brutally beaten by four white police officers, but has America recovered from the racially inspired jury verdict in Simi Valley that found the cops not guilty of the savagery shown around the world? Think about it.

And all these years later, have we recovered from the death-dealing riots spawned by the all-white jury's ludicrous acquittal of officers Theodore Briseno, Stacy Coon, Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind? The three-day conflagration left 55 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and swaths of Los Angeles on fire. Think about that too.

Now, King is dead at 47, drowned on Father's Day, June 17, under mysterious circumstances in the backyard swimming pool at his Rialto, Calif., home. Although in and out of trouble in recent years, his neighbors said nothing but nice things about him.

In recalling King, many remember him as much for what he said at the height of the resulting Los Angeles riots as for the horrific, videotaped police brutality he underwent. To wit: "Can't we just all get along?" Hmmm. A sad, sad story, indeed.

As King underwent the infamous beatdown, I was an op-ed columnist and member of the editorial board at the New York Daily News, and I often wrote on racial matters. Following is my lead editorial of March 9, 1991, about King's beating that ran at the top of that newspaper's editorial page. It was headlined, "In Los Angeles, bad cops":

"The whole country should be outraged at the nationally televised images, in a black-and-white videotape, of up to a dozen Los Angeles cops viciously beating, kicking and stomping a Black man they'd pulled from a car.

"The sickening tape, shot by a neighborhood resident, clearly shows the man on the ground offering no resistance as the cops pummeled him reportedly 56 times in the body and face. According to witnesses, 25-year-old Rodney King pleaded for the cops to stop. The nightsticks just kept on swinging.

"Mayor Tom Bradley, a former police officer, called for an investigation. But Police Chief Daryl Gates, already under fire from activist groups, wrote off the incident as an 'aberration,' promoting understandable calls for his removal.

"The Gulf War is over. But there's still a war going on right here at home--a war against hate. It must be won."

Long before King, and numerous times since, there have been depraved incidents of white cops beating the hell out of innocent Black people. And death sometimes resulted.

In New York, many such atrocities--and the names of the victims--are well known. Indeed, these familiar outrages are too numerous to recount. And they keep on happening.

That said, I'd like to mention a few police incidents in my own life--while not nearly as epoch-making as the King beating--that left their imprint on me. I speak as a man whose sister was a policewoman in Milwaukee for a few years, and my late uncle was a street cop and later that city's first Black detective.

As a teenager, I used to get stopped by cops with annoying regularity late at night on the way home from my girlfriend's house. I'd be nearly blinded by a powerful police spotlight and unceremoniously told to lean on the hood of a squad car and "spread 'em."

On one occasion, after my night shift at the main post office in my pre-journalist days, I'd had coffee at a diner and awaited a bus at 2 a.m. on a deserted downtown street. A black-and-white police car passed three times before it stopped, and a white cop rolled down a window and growled: "What the hell are you doing here this time of night, boy?"

"What does it look like I'm doing," I calmly replied, looking up at the bus stop sign.

The next thing I knew, I was facedown on the ground, a knee in my back, my arms pinned at my side as one of the two cops barked: "You keep up that smart mouth and you'll be riding an ambulance." Needless to say I survived, but my psyche was scarred.

Then there was the scene I witnessed on a quiet inner-city street. One of three male members of a Black family that owned a popular car wash was berated by a white beat cop for "talking back" when ordered to move a car the officer said was blocking traffic.

Pulling out his billy club, the cop foolishly shoved the 17-year-old--a prize-winning amateur boxer--and in the next instant was on his back from a straight right hand. He got up, spotted two more Black males, and ran to a corner call box to summon help.

Within two minutes, three squad cars showed up and the teenager, his brother and father faced seven big, billy club-wielding white cops. However, each of the Black males were boxers--the older brother a two-time Golden Gloves light-heavyweight champ and the 43-year-old father a middleweight GG runner-up in days of yore.

The ensuing brawl was a doozy, with the outnumbered car washers knocking over the cops like 10-pins to cheers by scores of Black onlookers, including me. When four more police cars arrived, the car wash men were overwhelmed, handcuffed and taken to jail.

Where does all of this leave us? Where, indeed. What about the thousands of Black people who aren't videotaped being beaten, as was King, or publicly or privately humiliated by white cops? What about them? And that's the name of that tune.