Rodney King symbolizes the fears that divide us

WILEY A. HALL

August 19, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Don't blame Ben Chavis and the NAACP for turning Rodney King into a symbol -- Mr. King has been a symbol for some time now. The question is, what exactly does he symbolize?

Rodney King, of course, is the black motorist whose videotaped beating at the hands of four white Los Angeles police officers in 1991 made him perhaps the world's best-known victim of police brutality.

The officers were acquitted of state criminal assault charges in April 1992, sparking one of the country's worst riots in decades. At least 54 people died during the riots in Los Angeles and over $1 billion in property was destroyed. At the height of the violence, Mr. King made a nationally televised appeal beseeching looters to end the violence.

Three of the officers in the beating were convicted early this month on federal civil rights charges and each was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Since the beating, Mr. King has been portrayed as victim and villain, as peacemaker and clown.

The television show, "In Living Color," opened the fall season last year with a parody of Rodney King's appeal for peace during the riots.

"Why can't we all get along?" quavered comedian David Alan Grier -- his face and body twitching spasmodically. The humor had a cruel edge when you consider that the quavering voice and twitching movements Mr. Grier portrayed so adroitly were due, in part, to nerve damage Mr. King sustained as a result of the beating.

On their top-selling rap album, "Sell-Out," the Ghetto Boyz accused Mr. King of betraying the black community when he made his appeal for peace and brotherhood. Using angry lyrics laced with obscenities, the Ghetto Boyz vowed to beat up Mr. King themselves. The rap ended with the Ghetto Boyz pretending to shoot Mr. King in the face.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the case has sparked a backlash in defense of the police -- from citizens who argue that Mr. King has a criminal record and would not have been beaten if he had not fled.

And, we must not forget that two separate courts have, in effect, ruled that Mr. King deserved the beating he received -- which was the defense of the police officers accused of attacking him.

A predominantly white jury said as much last spring when it acquitted the officers of most of the criminal charges lodged against them. And a federal judge, who also is white, underscored that belief during the sentencing of Mr. King's assailants on federal civil rights charges. U.S. District Court Judge John G. Davies accused the victim of provoking police to assault him and even argued that most of the police blows were justified.

All in all, it would be safe to say Rodney King has been victimized more than once. And through it all, he has shown a remarkable lack of bitterness. If the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People doesn't applaud him, who will?

At a Tuesday news conference to publicize the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington on Aug. 28, Dr. Chavis, the NAACP's executive director, announced he has enlisted Mr. King's aid as "a symbol of why we march." Dr. Chavis said Mr. King has joined the NAACP and will work with the organization in inner-city neighborhoods.

"He has become a symbol of fighting injustice," said Dr. Chavis, "and Rodney King himself has gone through an evolution."

These sentiments have proven to be controversial from both sides of the political spectrum, although they seem entirely appropriate to me. The NAACP should use Mr. King to deliver a double-edged message. To young blacks, whose anger and alienation are exemplified in the Ghetto Boyz rap, he can deliver the message that blacks have the power to fight for justice in this society and that this can best be achieved through concerted, nonviolent means.

To reactionary whites whose bigotry and fear were exemplified in the four police officers, the Simi Valley jury and Judge Davies, he can be used to symbolize, first, that our system of justice still is not colorblind, and second, that blacks will not stop fighting until we make it so.

Neither victim nor villain, peace-maker nor clown, Mr. King actually has become a symbol of the suspicions and angers that divide us.

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