That question asked by Rodney King following his brutal beating March 3, 1991 still haunts this nation and is part of the legacy of an ordinary Black man whose extraordinary suffering is forever burned into the collective memory of Black and White America.
Mr. King was found dead June 17 in a pool at his home and with his death have come examinations of his life and the state of race relations in the country.
When the grainy black and white videotape of the beating King suffered was seen, it pulled back a curtain on police abuse not hidden from or unfamiliar to Black people in Los Angeles and across the country. Still the tape was seen differently when viewed through the eyes of the children of the oppressor and the children of the oppressed. Blacks largely saw themselves, tased, thrashed with batons, kicked and beaten by a crew of police officers. It was a stark example of the experiences of Black men, women and children at the hands of those assigned to serve, protect and “break a brother’s neck” as protest signs declared in the aftermath of the beating.
Thirteen months later came the Los Angeles rebellion when four White officers on the tape were let go by an all-White jury. The trial had been moved to the White suburban Simi Valley, Calif., and jurors obviously saw officers doing their duty and perhaps a dangerous Black brute who needed to be subdued. But when Black anger overflowed April 29, 1992, and rioting cost $1 billion in damages; when White trucker Reginald Denny wandered into a sea of rage at the corner of Normandie and Florence in Los Angeles and was attacked and beaten before a Black preacher and Black trucker rescued him; when gun-toting Korean shop owners fired bullets at Blacks in streets amid the clashes; when fires burned and flames lit the night sky and 55 people died–America and the world took notice.
There were changes made in the Los Angeles police department and elsewhere and finally some acknowledgement of the problem of racial profiling with the King video with the rebellion and his plea as the furor raged.
It says something about Black suffering, dehumanization and the Black soul that Mr. King pleaded for some kind of calm, some attempt at peace, some sort of racial dÃ©tente that would stop bloodletting and acrimony. He didn’t demand justice. He didn’t cite 400 years of slavery, suffering and death. He didn’t cite Black deaths at the hands of police officers sanctioned by courts and justified by political leaders. He essentially asked if enough was enough and could there be some sort of beginning, some manner of fresh start despite a bloody past? Don’t forget Mr. King was the victim here and his crimes were essentially traffic violations.
Sadly over the past 20 years from Oscar Grant, shot in the back unarmed in a Bay Area Rapid Train system platform New Year’s Day 2009 on the West Coast, to Sean Bell, shot to death November 26, 2006 on the night before his wedding–just two of many names that could be mentioned–the answer to the King question appears to be “no.”
Perhaps no more fitting example exists than a silent march against racial profiling in New York through the NYPD Stop and Frisk held the day of the King death. Based on a whim, fancy or hunch, or better yet, a skin tone, NYPD stopped about 700,000 Blacks and Latinos, in the name of crime fighting. But critics say the humiliating stops and pat downs have done little except violate the rights of Blacks and Latinos, while the mayor and police commissioner remain unapologetic about the controversial program.
“Can we all just get along?”
The words of Rodney King will live long after his passing and how America answers that question will determine her fate. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, patriarch of the Nation of Islam, has warned that Caucasian people are not a people that Blacks can peacefully co-exist with. “Since we cannot get along with them in peace and equality, after giving them 400 years of our sweat and blood and receiving in return some of the worst treatment human beings have ever experienced, we believe our contributions to this land and the suffering forced upon us by White America, justifies our demand for complete separation in a state or territory of our own,” he declares in The Muslim Program, under Point No. 4 of “What The Muslims Want.”
“We believe this is the time in history for the separation of the so-called Negroes and the so-called White Americans. We believe the Black man should be freed in name as well as in fact. By this we mean that he should be freed from the names imposed upon him by his former slave masters. Names that have identified him as being the slave master’s slave. We believe that if we are free indeed, we should go in our own people’s names–the Black peoples of the earth,” he writes under The Muslim Program in Point No. 7 of “What the Muslims Believe.”
The Muslim Program shows peace can only be achieved when justice is present and further explains that the solution to the racial trouble that so deeply affects America is a divine solution. Other solutions have failed, other opportunities have been squandered and the day of decision is at hand and it is not a day in which Black people are left powerless.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and his National Representative Minister Louis Farrakhan, warn this is the day of God’s presence, and his desire to free Black people and provide a “universal government of peace wherein we all can live together in peace.”
The presence of justice removes the need to just get along. It provides a foundation for respect and fair dealing that eliminates discord and opens the doors to mutual respect. America must decide if she wants justice and peace. You cannot have one without the other and the time to make a choice is running out.