Rodney King and the Unanswered Question

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I was 12, just about to turn 13, when Rodney King was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers. During CNN’s coverage, words like beating, riots, and PCP were used often. The home-video footage of the beating was played repeatedly. I remember Rodney King curled up on the ground at the center of the ring of four cops, as their batons rained down on his body.

The other thing that stands out is this: Later, in a moment of desperation and exhaustion, Rodney King asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

And everyone laughed.

It became a catch-phrase to be mocked and parodied alongside phrases like, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” King’s question, perhaps too naive and too honest to be taken seriously, entered the lexicon as a punchline and left like all timely jokes do: stale and forgotten.

While the Rodney King beating wasn’t the beginning of racial tension in this country, that single piece of video footage brought it to the surface and started a new conversation. Except, we haven’t been talking -- we’ve been shouting, and no one is listening. We’ve all drawn lines in the sand, boxed ourselves in, and now we each live within an impenetrable Fortress of Ego from where we preach and opine at the top of our lungs, only able to hear the voices that support us. Somewhere along the way our beliefs became an agenda. Such is the power of a threatened ego.

Culturally, this is where we are. We are so threatened and angry we fail to see the complexities in life and each other. We only see black and white. We make blanket statements. We refer to “the hive mind.” We formulate beliefs that make the world easier to understand, leading us to say things like, “Anyone that looks like X is good, and anyone that looks like Y is bad.” We label factions and demographics one thing, fraternities and governments another. We undermine thoughtful movements because we feel slighted. We are weak, we are tired, and we are getting more thoughtless with each senseless act of violence.

As I said, I was 12 when Rodney King was beaten. In a few years I'll be 40. Two events have bookend racial violence during that time: Twenty-five years ago, four white cops beat an unarmed black man in Los Angeles; two days ago a black man shot and killed four white cops in Dallas, Texas. Two events separated by twenty-five years of violence. Same intents, different results. Both driven by the same hateful, stupid, and thoughtless agenda.

And we aren't doing anything sensible to fix it.

This is the part where I say we have to live kinder lives, and respect each other, and love each other while remembering how finite and precious life is. But none of that means a damn thing if we don't start talking. We have to start asking questions and listening to the answers -- no matter how hard they may be to hear. We have to start being honest about our feelings for one another. They don’t have to be pretty, but they have to be voiced if we ever expect to heal. We have to be upfront about the fear we have of our neighbors, or at the very least, admit that we do in fact fear each other. We each have to ask ourselves what can we do better to dissolve the tension, fear, and bigotry that thickens the air in our world.

Since Rodney King never got an answer to his question, I’ll answer it now.

Q: Why can’t we all just get along?
A: Because we all choose sides.

At the risk of becoming a punchline, I have a follow-up question...

Q: How does that make our lives better?

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