Patt Morrison on Rodney King: An Unlikely Symbol

Rodney King’s book The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption is due out on April 24th. In anticipation of the book’s publication and the 20 year anniversary of the LA Riots, King will sit down and talk with KPCC radio host and LA Times columnist Patt Morrison at the LA Festival of Books this weekend.

If King has become a symbol in LA’s long and complicated history of race, justice and social change, then Morrison could be the lexicon where you discover the rich and varied nature of such symbols. Even talking with Morrison for a short time, one can’t help but feel that she’s not only seen a lot of LA history as it unfolds, but she’s more than capable of weaving together the stories and people with the city itself. In discussing King’s new book and her upcoming conversation at the festival, Morrison shared some thoughts on how we look at Rodney King and what’s happened in LA since the riots in 1992 and how King became a symbol in LA.

“[As journalists] you and I are used to dealing with people who are in the public sphere by choice. And in many ways they’ve groomed themselves for the public sphere in terms of speaking, in terms of their worldview. Here’s a man whose name, in the last 21 years, has appeared in the LA Times database well above 7,000 times– in reference not only to him and what’s happened to him, but his name as a symbol. Here’s a pretty simple guy, who clearly has not had the easiest path of it and, as he acknowledges in the book, some mistakes of his own making. But here’s a man whose name is instantly recognizable, certainly in the African American community and in many ways, this is not a limelight that he sought. But he’s become a symbol whether he likes it or not. A lot of the book, a lot of his story has to deal with that.”

I found this an interesting perspective. King’s name comes up every few years in the news, unfortunately it’s often been for another arrest or violation. Even after 20 years, it’s easy to conjure up the brutal image of the police beating Rodney King. The videotape taken by George Holliday was seen around the world. One friend of mine sat glued to a television in the French Alps watching the events unfolding in LA. The video recorded or narrated an incident that might have otherwise gone unreported. Morrison and I discussed that almost certainly, without the video the beating of Rodney King wouldn’t have become such a charged moment.

“Everyone, essentially, has a video camera in his pockets now. That wasn’t the case 21 years ago when the beating happened and so I think of the remarkable concatenation of events that led to all of this. Certainly in the book he talks about what he did wrong on that night, certainly on events beforehand, but just the serendipity that someone would happen to have a camera there at that time and record that incident– part of that incident, not all of it–I think it has changed, beyond anybody’s reckoning, expectations and ideas about how we view events and what we expect to see when we talk about world-shattering occurrences, like this one. Our whole sense of experience of these things–it didn’t start with the Rodney King video–you can go back to the Zapruder film… What a lot of people think of as clarifying video images–and in one way they are– but with the Zapruder film, it just opens up different areas of debate and discussion. I think Rodney King’s sense of what might have happened subsequently if the cameras had not been there, if this had been just another incident with the LAPD, certainly one that even police officials said was shocking, but it has brought so many changes in LA. The Christopher Commission. The way police chiefs are chosen and retained. The attitude, the changes in the department itself. All of this comes back to what happened, and what we saw of what happened that night.”

Morrison pointed me to a study conducted by the The Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at LMU. They’ve polled a variety of LA residents at five-year intervals since the riots in 1992. The most current study was done in the early part of 2012 and involved polling more than 1,600 people (equal numbers of black, white, Korean and Latino). It’s interesting to note that while most people felt public education, traffic and jobs and the local economy were worse, they felt that race relations in their neighbors had improved since the ’92 riots by a wide percentage. Morrison spoke about changes that have come about in LA since King’s beating, the verdict and the riots.

“There’s a lot of significance in what ensued after the Rodney King beating. The Christopher Commission and the findings about the nature of whether you want to call it profiling or stereotyping in the police department–where the problems were, where the problems were not. For LA, Rodney King’s contribution, if you want to put it that way, is as a symbol that resulted in changes. It wasn’t just that he’s a symbol of what African Americans and others regarded as indefensible conduct in the police department and an attitude of resistance to change. That fact is, change happened in part because of what happened to Rodney King. Patterns and practices were observed by the Christopher Commission… So it isn’t just Rodney King as the symbol of something bad happening. He’s a symbol of the changes that were made possible because of what happened to him.”

Patt Morrison will be in conversation with Rodney King at the LA Times Festival of Books at USC on Saturday, April 21st at 12:30pm. The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption goes on sale April 24th.

This article was reprinted in the Huffington Post.

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