There was always something hapless about Rodney King.
He entered the nation’s consciousness — and its conscience — as a shambling drunk, an unemployed black construction worker who tried to outrun L.A. police rather than be arrested for drunk driving. The result was a police beating, surreptitiously captured on video, so profoundly vicious that the chief of police himself said it made him sick. In 1992, when a suburban jury, conspicuously bleached of black jurors, acquitted four white police officers of any crime, the City of Angels went to h–l, erupting in one of the worst urban riots in modern American history.
Haplessness thereafter attached to King like a stink, as he bounced in and out of the news for domestic violence, drunken run-ins with police, driving into a tree under the influence of PCP. Even the manner of his death Sunday has about it that familiar odor of haplessness. King is believed to have accidentally drowned in his backyard pool.
If true, isn’t that about what you would have expected? Hapless could have been his middle name.
But there was a moment, a signature moment, when Rodney Glen King was not hapless. You remember it, of course: Los Angeles is burning, the death toll is mounting, property damage is approaching $1 billion, the National Guard is trying to restore peace, the Red Cross is trying to help the stricken, and there comes King, shaken and uncertain, agony on his face and tears in his voice, pleading for peace and asking a question deceptive in its simplicity:
“Can we all get along?”