Rodney King Dead at 47 – An Appreciation of a Working Class Hero

The Independent Workers Party is saddened to hear of the death of Rodney King at the young age of 47.  His death appears accidental; he was at home with his wife when it occurred.  He was a Hero of the Working Class.  Our sympathy and condolences go out to his family and friends.

Rodney King became famous in a way that no one wants to become famous: he was beaten into the world’s consciousness by the racist Los Angeles Police Department in 1992.   The video of the savage beating he received at the hands of the LAPD on the night of March 3, 1991 was broadcast all over the world and provoked outrage from all decent human beings everywhere.

“I was close to death on March 3, 1991,” he said during an April interview for Ebony magazine at the Los Angeles Marriott Hotel downtown. “I thought they were going to kill me.” [Source: ‘The Root’, “Rodney King’s Legacy: A Civil Rights Symbol”]

Mr. King had been drinking beer at a friend’s house – as young men everywhere do – when they decided to drive somewhere – as young men do.  He was driving a car along the freeway in Los Angeles when a husband-and-wife team of California Highway Patrol officers saw King’s car coming up behind them “at a high rate of speed”.   While it is certainly not unusual for automobiles to drive on the freeways of Los Angeles at speeds well in excess of the posted limit – when doing so is actually possible – King’s car was the one that caused the CHP officers to give chase.  King, who was on probation at the time and who quite reasonably did not want to go back to jail, foolishly took off in his car, and a chase ensued.  According to the CHP, they reached speeds of up to 117 MPH.

Soon, King had left the highway and started speeding through residential streets; the LAPD was notified of the ongoing chase and their officers responded.  After driving through the city at speeds up to 80 MPH, the chase ended when police blocked off the road King was driving on.  It was at this time that the events transpired that made Rodney King a household name in much of the world.

King’s friends exited the car and basically cooperated with the police.  King, according to pilice, was “acting strangely”.  At least one LAPD Officer took a quick look at Mr. King and immediately fantasised that King was high on PCP, which meant, according to LAPD and Drug War propaganda and training, that King was capable of “superhuman feats of strength” and could single-handedly pose a deadly threat to the half-dozen armed police on the scene.  Mr. King was acting oddly, but was not making any attempt to attack the police when the first cop drew her gun.  King was ordered to lie down on the ground, which he did.

The group of LAPD officers then “swarmed’ Mr. King and attempted to subdue him and handcuff him all at once.  He resisted this assault – which it is within a citizen’s right to do.  It is illegal in most states (if not all of them) to resist arrest in any way – UNLESS excessive force is being used to effect that arrest.  Mr. King, seeing the police “swarm” him, attempted to push two cops off his back, and then he allegedly punched one cop in the chest.  At this time, one of the officers fired a Taser into Mr. King’s back.  Mr. King reacted to the electricity blasting through his body by screaming and making a move toward one of the police.  At this point, the police began beating Mr. King to a pulp.

He was struck over 50 times, during which time he was handcuffed and dragged across the ground.

Just moments after the beating of Mr. King, one of the arresting officers, Sargent Stacey Koon, “typed a message into his in-car computer: ‘U just had a big time use of force.  Tased and beat the suspect of CHP pursuit.’  [Another LAPD officer, Laurence] Powell also reported the incident on his computer–in a seemingly boastful way that would come to haunt the defense.  Powell typed, ‘I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time.’ It wasn’t Powell’s only controversial message that night.  Later, investigators would discover another message sent shortly before the King arrest in which he described the scene of a domestic disturbance involving African-Americans as right out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist.'” [Source: Univ. of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law website: “The Trials of Los Angeles Police Officers’ in Connection
with the Beating of Rodney King”, by Doug Linder (2001)].

The savagery of the beating, which had been captured on video by a man who lived 100 feet away from the scene, outraged people worldwide.  Protests against racist police attacks took place in every major US city and college campus.  Without question, the video was, and is, a perfect example of unprovoked police brutality.  In the climate of anger that resulted from the national broadcast and rebroadcast of the video, people called upon the government to see to it that the police who committed this outrage face criminal charges.  And a Grand Jury did, in fact, find that four of the LAPD officers who took part in the beating should stand trial – the four were charged with “excessive use of force”.  This seemingly mild assessment of a beating which could very well have resulted in death outraged many; and the decision to move the trial from Los Angeles County to the neighboring Simi Valley, in Ventura County – a change of venue from a county with a high percentage of minority residents to one that was nearly all-white.  But the final outrage was to be committed on April 23, 1992, when the jury hearing the case acquitted 3 of the 4 officers.

Immediately, Los Angeles erupted in outrage.  The LA Riots began.  Crowds surged into the streets expressing their very real and very justified anger at the miscarriage of justice.  Stores were looted, fires were set, and racist attacks occurred.  In one case, a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, was pulled from the cab of his truck and severely beaten by black youths.  His life was saved by another group of black citizens who immediately rushed to his aid and drove his assailants away.

In Chicago, this reporter was working with the Trotskyist Spartacist League; we prepared to go out and distribute a leaflet the party had just produced, condemning both the racist acquittal of the cops and the racist retaliatory attacks that had taken place in response to the acquittals.  Even here in Chicago, the tension in the air was palpable: you felt that any small spark could have ignited a similarly violent response from black workers here in Chicago and all over the US, who had long suffered from exactly the same kind of racist assaults that Rodney King had suffered at the hands of the LAPD.  African-Americans everywhere were very justifiably angry all over the country and it seemed that we could be on the brink of nationwide rioting similar to what occurred in the wake of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was into this maelstrom that Rodney King appeared.  he was going to make a statement in response to the acquittals that would be broadcast live on worldwide television.  Everyone paused to see what he would say.  In his hands was a lot of power to set events in motion, either for the better or for the worse.  No one really knew that much about him; he did not seem to have been very political at all before he was beaten into fame by the cops.  But over the months that had passed since that brutal attack, he had been propagandized by every political group in the country, from the Democrats to the New Black Panthers.  What would he say?

The video, or portions of it, are still available on You Tube.  Well, dressed and obviously extremely nervous to have been placed in such a situation, and with the riots happening nearby in Los Angeles, surrounded by the news crews and their cameras that would beam his every word to hundreds of millions of waiting people all over the world, Rodney King came forth and asked for… peace!   Speaking with great difficulty – he was not a public speaker; nothing he had done in his life had prepared him for this moment – his voice quavering with emotion, he spoke: “I just want to say…  you know… can we… can we all… get along?  Can we… can we get along?  Um… can we stop making it… making it horrible for… for the… for the older people and the… and the… and the kids…?”

It was one of the most moving speeches I have ever seen.  This man heroically, in the words and gestures of, not a politician or a demagogue, but of a working man, in just a sentence, asked the nation to just calm down and to back away from the precipice of what could have been the start of some very ugly racial attacks.  He completely defused the most explosive racial situation I’ve ever witnessed.  He was brilliant.  He was courageous. And he was right.

The content of his message has been ridiculed by fools of every stripe.  They seem to have completely forgotten the context in which these simple words were uttered.  By openly repudiating any assertion that Rodney King wanted people to go out and “tear shit up” in retaliation for what had been done to him, he pulled the rug right out from under all the angry people and opportunists who were using the atrocity of the beating he received and the racist acquittals as a justification for rioting and worse.  Immediately after Mr. King spoke, you could feel the tension rolling back; and though people were still very angry, they were starting to see things from a much less purely emotional perspective.

Mr. King’s speech did not end the violence immediately:  the riots in LA had already gone out of control.  Many people in LA were already out in the streets and did not get to hear the live broadcast of Rodney King’s appeal to their rational sides.  In LA, the US Army, Marines and National Guard were called out to “settle things down”.  In LA, 53 people lost their lives, almost 2400 people were injured, and over 7,000 fires damaged or destroyed thousands of businesses.  Additional significant outpourings of anger took place in Atlanta, Las Vegas and San Francisco and smaller disturbances occurred all over the US.   We believe that it was Rodney King’s actions that prevented many more elemental outbursts of violence from occurring.

The Independent Workers Party, on behalf of the working class salutes our fallen brother Rodney King and remembers him fondly from pulling the nation back from the brink of the nightmare of coast-to-coast race riots.  On the night of April 23, 1992, Rodney King was a Rock Star.  More than that: he was a Working Class Hero.  And we will never forget him and what he achieved for the multiracial working class of the world that night.



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