Faithful Departed: Rodney King

Anyone who was in college in the 90s remembers the powder keg that was the Los Angeles riots. Sparked by the acquittal of police officers who brutally beat Rodney King, Los Angeles saw some of the worst violence that we could imagine.

And one voice rose above the violence that day. It wasn’t a president or a pope calling for peace, but rather it was the man who had been beaten within an inch of his life, the one man who was wronged by the jury’s decision that day — Rodney King.

“Can we all get along?” King said after watching the violence erupt. He was a black man, victimized by white cops, who now stood up for white people who were being attacked simply for being white and being in the wrong area of Los Angeles at the wrong time. Reginald Denny was one who was dragged from his vehicle and hit in the head with a brick causing a near-fatal seizure as TV helicopters captured it all on camera for the world to see.

I sat and watched in my dorm room at Fordham University in the Bronx. “Will the Bronx be next?” one of my roommates wondered aloud. We hunkered down for the next five days watching and fearing the world outside our gated university. We understood the hatred that people felt, but couldn’t understand the revenge and the party atmosphere that ensued in Los Angeles the next few days. We pictured our very white university being overrun by Bronx residents, mostly black and Hispanic. We didn’t hate them and we didn’t want them to hate us. Working in the Bronx’s soup kitchens and after-school programs, we wondered if we were taking our lives in our own hands simply by walking down the street.

The violence in Los Angeles subsided, but the world today has become no less precarious. We still have an inability to get along with one another. Countries threaten war, terrorism places all of us in the crosshairs, and even dropping children off at school doesn’t seem to be safe anymore.

King’s call for us to get along together hits me hard. I have all I can do to get along with my family when they say hurtful things or bring up old hurts from the past. I have a short temper with my wife some days and say things I regret later. I even yell at the dog sometimes when he doesn’t obey my every command.

Perhaps we really don’t want to “get along” but rather prefer to just “move along”? We hope we can avoid the painful conversations required to forge peace with each other or even ask for pardon when we’re in the wrong.

Maybe the war is within ourselves? Maybe we don’t want to face the fear that we can’t possibly seek peace because we don’t care enough in the first place? Maybe we just don’t want to do all that work because it’s easier to just ignore our fears rather than face them?

Perhaps these are the roots that cause us to siphon off those who are different from us and make assumptions about people because of the color of their skin. We can’t just “move along” and push people away or excise them from our lives when we don’t like something they’ve said or done. No, we need to “get along,” doing the hard work that keeps us together despite differences and divisions.

Rodney King dreamed that vision that fateful day, but even he raged a war within himself that pushed him into drugs and alcohol and masked the deep pain he must have felt. King was not able to get along either. He was found dead filled with drugs and alcohol at the bottom of a swimming pool after years of trying to stay clean.

We all fight a war within ourselves and we all have different demons to slay. Looking deep within our hearts is the start of making peace not merely with ourselves but with the world. It is a journey that leads us to discover God in our lives. And God wants much more than merely for us to get along with one another. God’s vision is for us to love one another.

Maybe today, Rodney King can finally realize the love that God has always had for him.