Twenty years ago today, I brought my firstborn home from the hospital. He was barely 24 hours old and not well-adjusted to his new environment. I was in pain from a difficult delivery and not well-adjusted to my new role in life.
I expected to shut the doors on the outside world for a few days as I recovered and focused on learning to care for my new son. But that night images so horrific and bizarre began exploding on our TV screens that we could not ignore them. Although the burning blocks were 1,500 miles from our quiet Austin, Texas, neighborhood, we found we could not turn away from the scenes of rage engulfing the south-central neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
At that time, I had no idea that we would move to the Los Angeles area a little more than a year later. But that move cemented the connection in my mind between my son’s birth and the riots as coverage of the various riot anniversaries annually appeared in local media as we were celebrating my son’s latest birthday. Yesterday, we marked Tyler’s 20th birthday, just as local and national media have been marking the 20th anniversary of the riots for the past several weeks.
So I jumped at the chance last week to take that almost-20-year-old son and his 14-year-old brother to see and hear Rodney King at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. King was appearing as the coauthor of a new memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption.
I had to educate my children on the incident as they knew few details about King or the riots although they have heard about them all their lives. We looked at YouTube footage and online articles to learn that King was speeding and drunk when he led police on a high-speed chase in 1991. When he finally stopped his car, he initially refused to submit to the officers’ orders; Los Angeles Police Department officers responded to his erratic behavior by kicking him and striking him dozens of times with their batons. The incident was captured on video by a bystander, and the tape became an instant sensation—long before cellphone cameras or YouTube clips.
Four of the officers were tried for excessive force; news that they had been acquitted sparked the April 29, 1992, violence that grew to become one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history, resulting in 54 deaths and millions of dollars in property damage.
We arrived at the Festival of Books session early and were able to grab seats toward the very front of the large auditorium. But King did not arrive early—or even on time. So session moderator Patt Morrison was forced to improvise—sending out microphones and asking audience members to stand and recount their thoughts about the riots and whether Los Angeles had changed in the past 20 years.
Many were eager simply to recount where they had been and how they had felt during the riots. Others wanted to talk about the injustices that had led to the beating and the riots. Some said progress had been made; others angrily declared that nothing had changed and that the riots could happen again at any moment.
By the time King arrived, apologizing for being stuck in traffic, the atmosphere in the auditorium had become more tense. Jonathan, my 14-year-old, was looking puzzled; Tyler was ready to argue with the audience members who had most passionately complained that nothing had changed. He felt too many of them were pointing out problems while offering no solutions.
King took the stage looking uncomfortable; he had never asked for this role—he didn’t decide to be a civil rights leader or look for the spotlight that made him a symbol of racial violence and tension. Twenty years later, it is apparent that he is still not really happy in that spotlight.
But as Morrison asked him questions about the beating, about the riots, about his life in the past 20 years, he grew more comfortable, and a remarkable spirit began to emerge, which seemed to calm the tension in the room.
When asked if he had forgiven the officers who had beaten him, he replied, “Oh yeah. Because I’ve been forgiven many times, and I’m only human, so who am I not to forgive someone?”
Asked if anything had changed in the past 20 years, he pointed to improvements in the Los Angeles Police Department and other signs that showed better relations between the races in L.A. and our country, while admitting that problems remain and that progress needs to continue.
But instead of pointing out the problems without solutions, King’s sometimes rambling answers seemed to me to offer small but important glimmers of hope. He told the audience that every day he works to let go of a “little more hate.” And he said change is possible if each of us would follow that kind of plan. Small steps taken every day—steps to ease racial tension and promote justice—that’s how the world becomes a better place.
And that philosophy makes sense to me. It’s like watching a baby grow up–it’s hard to tell one day how that baby is different than he was the day before. But days turn into years, and those little changes add up. And before you know it, the helpless newborn is a 20-year-old, 6’2” man who is contemplating what he can do to make the world a better place.
King wasn’t eloquent; he didn’t offer up a coherent plan for anyone to follow; he didn’t incite the crowd to great passion. But I was grateful that my sons had seen and heard this man who never held himself up as a role model and yet seemed to offer practical tips for how the two of them can make a difference and also battle the disappointments that often ground high-flying idealism.
And then maybe one day, they will know that the progress that seems so insignificant today has grown and matured in ways that no one expected.
And I hope they can also carry with them King’s final words that day, words that reprised his famous plea made in the midst of the riots. “Remember one thing,” King said, as the crowd prepared to disperse, “Yes, we all can get along.”