Black Deaths

What Rodney King's Death Symbolizes for the Black Community

King was emblematic of the violence too many black folk suffer at the hands of those charged with protecting us, says James Braxton Peterson.

Matt Sayles / AP Photo

Death seems to be the new black this year. On Saturday I spent some time reflecting on the 1996 murder of Tupac Amaru Shakur—Saturday would have been his 41st birthday. On Father’s Day, I spent time with my dad, but thought of so many who no longer have theirs. I thought about how this Father’s Day feels for Tracy Martin, whose son was so needlessly murdered just a few months ago. I thought about the presence of death in the black community. It seems so pervasive—more so this year than ever before in my life, and I grew up in Newark, N.J.

But as my dad, my family and I were headed to church for Father’s Day services, news broke that Rodney King had died. I got that sinking feeling—with which I am now all too familiar—I get when my Twitter timeline scrolls the passing of a life that matters to me, to the black community. And the usual process unfolded. People wondered if TMZ’s early report was reliable; was Huff Post any more reliable if they just picked up the link? Eventually, some trustworthy source makes it official, and the digital outpouring of sadness begins.

But none of the social-media tactics we deploy at these times provides any more meaning to the complexities of yet another black death. By “black death” I mean those lives lost that are also writ large across the black canvas of the public sphere—people like Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, Chuck Brown, Erica Kennedy. But Rodney King’s passing means something more: it will be registered somewhere within the Mount Rushmore of black mortality mostly because his life was emblematic of the violence that too many black folk suffer at the hands of those who are charged with protecting us.

Mind you, pundits will always debate the “validity” of the Rodney King tape that millions of Americans saw multiple times throughout the early 1990s. People will wonder if racial epithets were used while members of the LAPD beat King to the brink of death. The arbiters of state-sanctioned violence against black men will always rationalize: he was high on drugs, he was speeding, he was aggressive, he was ... a black man.

What I will always remember most is King’s sense of panic once he realized the LAPD was in pursuit mode on that fateful night. That’s why he sped up and fled. That panic he felt—being on parole, just days away from a job interview, an opportunity to keep his life on track and out of the annals of history—that panic is an unforgettable component of our lives. Black and brown men experience that dreaded sense of panic every day. We wonder if this stop, or this cop, is the one that will alter our life path irrevocably. Although Rodney King escaped death that night, his life was irrevocably altered; his history became inextricably linked with the violent history of police brutality, racial profiling, and racialized injustice.

Not ironically, the very day King’s death was reported (today), the National Action Network and the NAACP organized a silent march to protest and contest the latest iteration of institutional racism—the “stop and frisk” policy. There were some calls for the march to switch themes and honor King, but the organizers knew well (as should we all) that any effort to end “stop and frisk” is an important thread in the fabric of battling institutionalized injustice that defined Rodney King’s life. As a community we are still engaged in the good fight, even as one of our most unlikely heroes was called home.

And finally, I am glad that his name is King—just as I am glad that Trayvon Martin’s surname is Martin. Not that we are prone to forget these critical moments of violence and injustice, or when one of our heroes passes away, but nomenclature has always been a fundamental part of the black cultural experience. Names like Martin, Luther, and King ring bells in black America. This King is no different. May he rest in the peace he was denied here on earth and in the power of our collective will to end the kind of state-inflicted violence that determined his life.