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 hell, erupting in one of the worst urban riots in modern American history.
Haplessness thereafter attached to King 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 on June 17 has about it that sense 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?"
There was something almost unforgivably earnest about that question, something guileless, naked, even innocent. It came with no smirk of mocking subtext, no nudge of ironic knowing, no wink of post-modern detachment. It came from the heart, and some of us did not know how to process that.
Perhaps that's why they transfigured it, removed it from the realm of serious things, made it a catchphrase, a cliche, the punch line to a joke no one had told.
As a rule, history has shown flawless judgment in picking icons for African-America's struggle for human rights. It chose quiet, dignified Rosa Parks as the emblem of the fight against segregation. It chose handsome, prankish Emmett Till as the face of racial violence.
So perhaps King seems an odd choice as the symbol of police brutality. But there is a reason Shakespeare put wisdom into the mouths of fools. The fool could get away with saying what others could not.
No, King was not a fool. But he was a hapless guy, taken less than seriously — in part because he asked that question others would not. Yet that question, the one some of us tried to giggle into irrelevance, is the defining question of the American experiment. It follows us down 236 years of slavery, restrictive housing covenants, lynchings, suffragettes, Trails of Tears, English-Only debates, No Irish Need Apply signs, Stonewall uprisings, sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, riot, wreck and ruin.
Can we all get along?
King, a more reflective man than stereotype — and his own behavior would lead you to believe — understood the unique symbolism his life and that question had conferred upon him.
"I sometimes feel like I'm caught in a vise," he told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. "Some people feel like I'm some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I'm a fool for believing in peace."
It is telling that more of us seemed to deride his question than sought to answer it. Perhaps they feared what the answer would be. Perhaps they found it easier just to laugh it down. But if the man who believes we must all get along is a fool, then you really have to wonder: What word is left for the man who does not?