What Rodney King symbolizes

Gregory P. Kane

August 23, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

IS Rodney King anything more than the drunken fool who led L.A. police on a high-speed chase, got brutally bludgeoned for his law-breaking and precipitated the trial that precipitated the verdict that precipitated the worst rioting of this century?

NAACP executive secretary Benjamin Chavis seems to think so. To him Mr. King is a "symbol of fighting injustice," a man who has "emerge[d] out of the community to exemplify freedom-seeking, justice-seeking behavior."

When I first read those quotes, I figured Ben Chavis had imbibed too much of whatever Rodney King had been drinking the night he played a hard-luck Roadrunner to the Los Angeles Police Department's nightstick-happy Wile E. Coyotes. I still have problems with Rodney King. When he applied last year to have his driver's license renewed, he moved automatically to the top of my personal chutzpah list. Rodney King should never be allowed to drive again.

If he needs transportation, we should hand him a saddle and tell him to find a horse to put under it.

In addition, Mr. King has no discernible leadership qualities, has displayed no organizational skills and seems to have a vacuum where genuinely gifted people keep their charisma.

His only claim to fame is that he got drunk one night and got his head bashed by police officers -- hardly the credentials the NAACP normally seeks in a member.

Nor am I impressed with Mr. King's alleged "lack of bitterness" about his beating or his promotion of racial harmony in the wake of the L.A. riots. If he had gone before those television cameras and said anything less than what he said -- a furtive plea for us to "all get along" -- I would have gone out to Los Angeles and thrashed him with a nightstick myself.

But maybe Ben Chavis is on to something. Perhaps Rodney King has gone through "an evolution," as Mr. Chavis put it, which we can only hope includes Mr. King's realizing the need to drive sober. Perhaps Rodney King is a symbol. His own transgressions notwithstanding, he does represent all those victims of police brutality who committed no crime. He represents those who were victimized simply because police felt like victimizing them at the time.

I recall one of several police brutality tales my father told me. He used to wear his hair in the "conk" style popular in the 1940s and 1950s. One night Baltimore police decided to harass some black citizens at a local bar. One removed my father's hat, revealing the newly processed conk. Pop, never the diplomatic type, sneered at the cop, "It's pretty, ain't it?" The cop whacked him on the head with a nightstick for impertinence unbecoming a Negro.

More recently, Malice Green of Detroit was whacked repeatedly on the head by police. They used their flashlights efficiently and ruthlessly enough to beat Mr. Green to death. Mr. Green had committed no crime, though Detroit police bent over backward to find one. The three officers who killed him did so because they thought they could get away with it.

Why did they think that? I hesitate to say because of race. It would offend all those whites who fancy themselves veritable Clarence Darrows on the issue of race. No one's a racist anymore.

Everyone's for brotherhood and judging people based on character, not color. So let's rule out racism.

Let's blame classism instead. We've heard a litany of invective --mainly from white conservatives -- about how the so-called "black underclass" is responsible for virtually every social ill that afflicts the country. If it's said enough, eventually law enforcement officers might get the idea that treating members of this "underclass" in any abominable way they please will be accepted by society at large.

The problem is that the members of this "underclass" live right among the members of the black urban working class -- people who have jobs, pay their taxes and make sure their kids get to school.

Or they might be elderly people who are eking out an existence on their Social Security payments and whatever pension they're fortunate enough to get.

They don't receive paychecks as large as those of the affluent, conservative loudmouths who look down their noses at them, but members of the black urban working class are vital to the economy of whatever city they inhabit. Unfortunately, it is their lot to be painted with the same disapproving brush as their brethren in the "underclass."

When that member of Baltimore's finest cracked my father's head with that nightstick, he didn't ask whether my pop was a member of the underclass or gainfully employed -- as he was -- as a laborer at the A&P. Malice Green, an unemployed steelworker, wasn't asked about his class affiliation as he was being bludgeoned to death.

So if, by accepting Rodney King into the NAACP, Ben Chavis is making a statement against the invidious practice of judging people by class, I wish him Godspeed.

This business of lumping all poor blacks into the category of an underclass is a boil that badly needs lancing.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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