Twenty-five years after Los Angeles rose up, how far have we come as a nation? Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.
By the time I was old enough to understand Rodney King as more than the man at the center of a city’s push to the edge, it was two years after the videotape. I understood him, from then on, as a man drawn back over and over to the same mistakes. In 1993, he crashed his car into a wall in downtown Los Angeles while driving under the influence. Two years after that, he was arrested after hitting his wife with his car and knocking her to the ground, later spending 90 days in jail for the offense. In 2003, he was arrested again after slamming his car into a house and breaking his pelvis. In 2007, King was shot in the face, arms, and back with shotgun pellets while on a bike ride home. On March 3, 2011, the 20th anniversary of his violent beating at the hands of the LAPD, King was stopped for running a red light and later charged with driving under an expired license. This came only about a year before he died, found by his fiancée at the bottom of his swimming pool, a combination of alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and PCP in his system.
It is true that we are more than the violence that has been inflicted upon us — either by ourselves or others. It is also true that there is some violence that defines a life, not only for its trajectory, but for the trajectory of those surrounding that life. Sometimes even for a city the life fills. It also depends, of course, on the victim of the violence, and the hands that build the victim. A video of a man on the ground being beaten is, perhaps, jarring enough now, in the era of murders being streamed and shared along the internet. In 1991, though, the grainy video of Rodney King is still disturbing and intense. He crawls, briefly trying to hold a hand up — perhaps asking the white Los Angeles police officers for some mercy — while they cock back their nightsticks and swing again, and again.
Because of the video’s rattling nature, and the city swallowed in flames a year later after the officers were acquitted of the beating, it is difficult to imagine Rodney King as a full person beyond his writhing on Los Angeles concrete in 1991. To assign sole responsibility to the 1992 Los Angeles riots to King’s beating and the acquittal of the officers would be somewhat inaccurate. The riots were the inevitable explosion of a city that had been at a boiling point of racial tension for a while, accelerated by the murder of Latasha Harlins less than two weeks after the video of King’s beating took place. While the weight of the riots doesn’t entirely rest on Rodney King, it was the officers who beat him walking free that pushed the city past the point of no return. Everyone remembers the pin being pulled from the grenade, and not always the entire architecture that led to the moment of the pin’s falling.
Rodney King was a whole and haunted person, who fought his demons publicly from the moment he was pulled over in 1991 until the moment he died in 2012. But I saw Rodney King most clearly decades after he was beaten by police, on reality shows where he tried to fight the uphill battle of sobriety. In 2009, stories surfaced of King traveling the country in a boxing league for low-level celebrities. It was, he said, a way to stay busy, and away from all of the ills that had chased him for an entire life. He wasn’t very good at boxing. There isn’t much video of this period, but in the few short clips that exist, he throws and misses several short-armed punches at his opponents. The fact that he wasn’t a beautiful fighter seemed appropriate to his life. In the ring, he was like a street fighter — someone aching for survival. He won matches, too, once beating a former basketball player named Derek MacIntosh in a three-round decision. There was something that I found riveting about this era: a man who came into our cultural consciousness through violence, now using a circus act of organized violence as a tool to give himself freedom.
In one fight, which I remember watching on some small local television station, King faced off against a former police officer named Simon Aouad, a match that he ended up winning. King wore a black shirt and white trunks, and danced clumsily around the ring, throwing mostly short jabs. The camera was shaky, a little grainy, almost like it was looking in on some brutal clash from a time past.
What hasn’t changed is the idea that black people, even in the face of injustice or death, have to have lived a life that earned the right to be fought for. We are all angels until we are actually angels. It is a struggle, I imagine, to try to be so good that you might not be worth killing, or that you will be worth mourning if you are killed. As a boy, I watched Los Angeles go up in flames from across a country and never once asked if Rodney King was a good man, because I had seen, days earlier, the footage of him unarmed and struggling to rise from the ground while men hit him with sticks. And so it seemed to me then, as it does now, that there had to have been better methods, whatever his level of goodness might be.
I am not in the business of tallying sins, but Rodney King had plenty. The night of his beating, he didn’t stop for police because he was driving drunk and concerned about the parole violation that would stem from that being discovered. And still, what we have done cannot open up a window for all manner of injustice to sit on our minds, our bodies, to have our blood in the streets. What I grew to appreciate and understand about the Los Angeles riots was that Rodney King could have been anyone black, beaten by anyone white and in power. But underneath the talk of violence, death, and property damage, there is something small to be said about a people so fed up with the generational effects of their condition that they will take to the streets, at least partially in the name of someone who perhaps could have been their kin, a family member who couldn’t get right but was still trying nonetheless.
My heart broke when I heard of King’s later transgressions. We, in the larger conversation, do not afford grace to people who are in the grips of addiction, especially if they were once sympathetic figures in the center of major moments. King fought with alcohol until his death, even as he managed to claw out of the bottle’s hold.
What often gets overlooked in King’s narrative, particularly after the beating, is the impact it must have had on him, mentally and emotionally. In an interview late in life, while promoting his 2012 book The Riot Within, King told NPR that he was still plagued with nightmares from the beating. That he still felt the impacts of it in his bones, even years after. What lingers from these types of wounds doesn’t go away when a city settles a civil suit for some amount that can be burned through in a few years. Rodney King was maybe always pulled toward excess and addiction, and perhaps that worsened the more he had to escape from — the memory of that 1991 night, and of the city exploding a year later. It is hard, I think, to have a riot unfurl in your name, even if you believe that what happened to you is unjust. Even if you can still feel the effects of what happened to you every time you close your eyes.
Barkley Hendricks died last week. This may mean nothing to you, or you may think it means nothing to this particular story. But Barkley Hendricks, painter of black people, is dead. I am sad that he is dead, even though I never met him. I am sad because I feel like even though I never met him, Barkley Hendricks saw me. Which is to say, he saw all black people with a type of tenderness, a type of fullness, which sat in his work. He painted his subjects large and dignified, often against backdrops of American stillness. His best subjects were black people who felt like they could be your type of black people: some folk you could know from a porch, a barbershop, or a cookout where the music was something all of the black people could sing along to. His subjects wore bellbottom pants and tall Afros and crop tops and bucket hats and baggy jean shorts and sometimes nothing at all.
This is less about art and more about ways of seeing, is what I’m saying. I’m saying that I would have loved to see how Barkley Hendricks would have painted Rodney King, in any era of his life after 1991. What dignity he would have seen in him and been able to bring to life. It is the whole life worth fighting for, after all, which is what I remind those around me when people take to the streets in the name of someone who perhaps accumulated a mug shot in their time on earth before being unjustly killed, beaten, or detained.
I used to imagine a world in which every black person lived a small life inside of a Barkley Hendricks painting, immortalized forever. I am sad that Barkley Hendricks is dead because, through him, I saw my people the way they were meant to be seen. Even the hustlers, even the fighters, even the drunks, even those who bled once and never healed. Someone who looks at you and sees a whole life is, sometimes, the best weapon. Someone who looks at you and sees an entire line of people whom you have loved and will love, beyond what you have done or what you fail to do.
It’s hard, I know, but I try to remember Rodney King as someone greater than just the violence that was committed against him. So much of American history, specifically black American history, is held up as a series of survivals against that which would rather not have you survive. I also try to remember Rodney King as someone greater than just the things he couldn’t escape. Somewhere at the intersection, he boxed to get free. He made reality television shows rich in a quest to get sober, even if it was for the sake of performance. He had grandchildren and nephews and I imagine he sometimes held them in his arms and I imagine they sometimes smiled up at him. Somewhere this year, a building will surely burn in some city, though not in his name. You are not always the fires you start, and you are not always the ruins after the fire is through. Sometimes, you are just trying to stay alive as best you can, for as long as you can. Rodney King, eventually, lost the big fight. And I know that makes him easier to romanticize and sympathize with, for some. Without a doubt, his struggles pushed him to do harmful things. Not only to himself, but to others. No one asks to be remembered for the brutalities laid upon them, though.
I’m going to miss Barkley Hendricks, and I hope that what he gave to the world was a type of empathy for what exists for a person in a long and layered life. What happens when, instead of your worst and most infamous moment being captured and frozen in time forever, someone imagines you standing tall, briefly undefeated, and with a whole unpredictable world waiting for you.