File photo shows King speaking during a signing of his book in New York

What Rodney King Meant To Me

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I have a student who already glorifies the idea of enrolling for the armed forces. He resolves every imaginary conflict with a shotgun or a mixed martial arts move. I’ve made it a running joke just to show how absurd he sounds every time he puts his fingers up in a shot-trigger motion. Yet, something unnerved me about him. For the last three years, I’ve worked on making him one of my student leaders, and thus, he reflects me in a way no other student in the building does.

His continued impersonation of local and federal officers made me wonder what would happen if his community asked him to keep the peace, where he might offer war.

Growing up, Rodney King symbolized the continued persecution of people of color by local police. It might have shocked the nation, but it only made those of us from the hood nod in unison. While the videotape kept rolling in the media, I kept watching, hoping to see when he would rise and kick their butts back. I kept waiting for the posse to roll up and fight back at whatever cost. I kept still because, even though I saw this constantly, it just reaffirmed the bitter and unnerving relationship so many of us have with authority.

Admittedly, as a youth, I felt relieved with the increased police presence in my neighborhood, but as I got older, I started to see the police presence not as necessary, but as a necessary evil. Would I prefer to have to find against the unwritten rules of the hood or against the written laws of the land? Would those glares from the drug dealers and the boys in blue get me tossed into the corner of a building or behind a local jail cell? Only two types of cars drove slow, and both made me walk quickly back home. Friends caught up in one life eventually found themselves too immersed in the other, so it often became a question of who protected who from what.

Some of the media only exacerbated the situation by emphasizing his drug use and his appearances post-beatdown. Some commentators almost said to us, “This man is less than a man. He almost deserves to be beaten down. None of this will matter anyways, so just move along.” Yet, we saw a little of him in all of us. When the offending police officers were acquitted on all charges and the revolts raged through Los Angeles in 1992, we were asked to see these as riots because riots infer a lack of intent or intellect behind the actions. An angry sort of Black surfaced.

A similar sort of angry that I see linger into today. When Operation Desert Storm raged on through the early 90s, a war at home for justice occurred … and resolved little. Yet, Mr. King’s assault may have planted a seed into the minds and hearts of others needing a glimpse into our existences as people of color here. For a moment, I can only hope to teach future Rodney Kings to rise up and plea to fellow brothers and sisters to, at least, get along.

And not just in the pseudo-post-racial way we do now.

Jose, who suggested to my student to read Malcolm X’s autobiography. I might even gift it to him …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonWhat Rodney King Meant To Me

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