Rodney King, who died this week at the age of 47, was hugely symbolic and will always remain so. But he was never a hero. He was an anti-hero, a black everyman struggling with things so many other blacks struggled with back in 1991, have struggled with forever: sporadic employment, substance abuse, a lack of direction, and sense of connection to any kind of mainstream success. A drifter in every sense of the word who would not have attracted notice at all were it not for the fateful video that captured the brutal beating by four LAPD officer that King survived. Nor was that beating unique in the history of violent excessive-force incidents involving police and black suspects in L.A. and towns and cities across the country, incidents that almost never resolved in the favor of the suspect, or as was often the case, a plain citizen who was automatically viewed as a suspect simply he or she was black.
Blacks had sympathy for King as a symbol -- he was one of us, a clear victim of an unjust system that oppressed everyone, even those of us with a modicum of mainstream success. His video-preserved moment of crisis articulated better than any sociological argument could exactly what blacks were up against, revealed the machinations of a power structure that had long put people like him at the bottom of the heap, especially in the law enforcement/criminal justice nexus. Which is why King frustrated me as a symbol; he was too subtle. While many blacks were raising their voice and calling for justice in 1992, King was tearfully calling for calm and asking us all to get along. It appeared to me then that he'd spectacularly failed the moment he was thrust into -- one more failure among many. He'd gotten the stuff kicked out of him and couldn't be angry for the rest of us? I figured it was his job to be angry, and he was abdicating that job without our permission.
Of course he was just being himself, and that was also powerful because it refuted expectations of black behavior -- positive as well as negative expectations -- that always overshadow the people themselves. A big, physically imposing man, strong enough to withstand getting nearly beat to death, turned out to be vulnerable, uncertain, almost bewildered. He was the furthest thing from angry. That is not what we expected, what I needed, and it ultimately forced me to admit that Rodney King was just a guy, not an activist. He was not a pundit or a scholar who understood on a macro scale the racial, sociological, and historical factors that contributed to his own hemmed-in life. But his lived experience taught him much, and like so many other blacks, that experience forged a mishmash of responses to trouble and adversity: Christian forbearance, stoicism, circumspection, indifference, and yes, moments of anger and indignation that aligned with the indignation of many black figures who came before him, including his namesake Martin Luther King Jr. The truth is that I (a pundit, no less) operate on that emotional continuum on a daily basis, as do most black people I know, even those who do activism full-time. Life and circumstances catch you by surprise and politics can fail you. In the end -- in the beginning -- you are human.
The meaning of Rodney King goes far beyond his symbolism as the most famous victim of police abuse of the last American century. Long may that meaning resonate.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.