An Elegy For Rodney King

He was a symbol, but not a solution

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Chris Pizzello / AP

This photo, taken on March 23,1994, shows Rodney King, second from right, leaving the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles with his lawyer Wilton Grimes, far left, and two unidentified men. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, died on Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rodney King said the screams he heard in the background of a 911 call in the Trayvon Martin case reminded him of his own screams during the 1991 beating that was central to his life and to modern American history. That’s bizarrely fitting because for so many the two are linked by so much. King died on Sunday — he was found at the bottom of a pool at the home he shared with his fiancée — after years of being a walking symbol and finding it hard to live that way.

(MORE: Rodney King, Whose Police Beating Led to Los Angeles Riots, Dies at 47)

King was a symbol of many things. Primarily of police brutality. In 1991 he was savagely beaten by several LAPD officers after speeding and refusing to stop. He was on probation after serving a year in prison and was afraid of going back. He felt the familiar dread that all black men feel when we see the blue lights in our rearview. When King finally stopped and got out, he acted strangely — he blew a kiss to the helicopter above — and resisted arrest, striking an officer. They feared he was on PCP. He was not. He was tasered and hit with more than 60 baton blows and kicks that left him with 11 skull fractures, brain damage, and emotional and physical trauma. King was no angel — he had done time for a robbery with assault and was driving drunk — but the law is not here just to protect angels. A resulting commission would condemn the LAPD for its use of excessive force—something L.A. rappers had been talking about for years—and lead to the resignation of the militaristic police chief Daryl Gates.

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The King beating was vicious, but not uncommon. What separated it from others was that 81 seconds of it was surreptitiously videotaped by a stranger, giving the world a look at the police coldly and cruelly beating a black man for an extended period of time. The video showed King writhing as cops took turns kicking and clobbering him with batons. It looked less like professional police behavior and more like vengeance. It was reminiscent of a lynching, or beating a slave into submission, with officers arrayed in a circle around him, chopping him down with a seemingly endless series of blows. The video became an instant national phenomenon — it went viral before that was a common word — and played endlessly on cable news until it seemed as if the entire country had watched it 10,000 times. And in that way King also became an early symbol of a world where video cameras were ubiquitous, which changed society, and of a nation where 24-hour news media was like wallpaper, replaying stories or tape so incessantly that we moved from outrage into a numbness, which also changed society.

(MORE: TIME’s Final Interview with Rodney King)

It was the media that transformed King’s horrific ordeal into a moment that would never die. That’s why the moment sits on a gruesome continuum of other horrific moments that were captured by the media and thus swelled to have a forceful impact on America. From Emmett Till in 1955, who was killed and beaten beyond recognition and memorialized by a photograph of his mutilated corpse lying in its coffin, to Trayvon Martin this year, whose moment of death was captured by multiple pieces of audio that seem to paint a frightening portrait of his last moments. These three are martyrs who were crucified, their bodies sacrificed, and their moment recorded and disseminated, thus showing black pain and revealing American injustice and accessing the moral power that was necessary to inspire change. They were not crucified for our sins but to unveil the sins of others and thus possibly help other blacks have better lives.

King, of course, survived his moment, but things he said made it sound like he never truly got beyond it. He revealed that it was hard living as a man who was famous for being an accidental member of history. He had nightmares and his body retained the scars — he walked with a limp ever since that night. And more, the struggle to deal with becoming a transcendent figure was heavy. Earlier this year he told the L.A. Times, “I didn’t go to school to be ‘Rodney King’ and [be] beat up by cops and thrust into the limelight. It’s taken years to get used to the situation I’m in in life and the weight it holds.”

King sued the city of Los Angeles and won a $3.8 million settlement, but told the L.A. Times that he wound up with less than $1.7 million. He bought a house for himself and his mother and unwisely invested in a new hip-hop label, all while struggling to find employment because his fame made it hard to work in his field, construction. He is said to have been essentially broke at the time of his death. King also told the L.A. Times that, “It’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations,” and surely as a sort of Civil Rights figure who had not wanted that role and who had longtime alcohol problems, those expectations were impossibly burdensome. King participated in two reality shows — Celebrity Rehab and Sober House — which can be seen either as tawdry exploitations of fame that held significant meaning or attempts to get clean in public. Or both. He also participated in and won a celebrity boxing match against a cop, which sounds like an ironic slice of revenge or the opportunism of a man who needs money or maybe even a modern version of the sort of Battle Royale that Ralph Ellison wrote about in Invisible Man. Perhaps all of it.

(MORE: Put to Death for Being Black: New Hope Against Judicial System Bias)

King told the L.A. Times that, “Obama … wouldn’t have been in office without what happened to me,” which I find difficult to agree with. King may have changed the LAPD and impacted America, but it’s quite a leap to say that his beating was an essential step on the road to preparing America for a black president. King also said things suggesting that his beating changed history — it did, in that it brought new light to the issue of police brutality and led to the massive and transformative L.A. riots — but blacks are still being regularly brutalized by police from coast to coast. The tragic killings of Oscar Grant in San Francisco, Aiyanna Jones in Detroit and Sean Bell in New York — and many others — as well as the NYPD’s entrenched policy of stop-and-frisk, which shreds the Constitution to mistreat thousands on a daily basis, reminds us that the King incident merely shined a light on the extraordinary difficulty of being black in America. But despite the nation watching in horror and feeling for Rodney King, another Rodney King incident could happen today.

ARCHIVE: Read TIME’s original 1992 cover story on the Los Angeles riots