zoot suit riots

Saturday night fervor.

I caught the last 10 minutes or so of the CNN special "Race and Rage: the Beating of Rodney King" tonight. I knew the 20th anniversary of the beating was this week; I think I found out when the tiny TV in the elevator up to the office where temping displayed the headline that Rodney King had been cited that day for driving without a valid license.

I had a little chuckle about it. "Stay classy, Rodney King," I said, under my breath, to the tiny TV and the stale elevator air.

I wasn't even 8 years old when the beating happened. And even if I had been old enough to understand, I'm sure the news outlets in Kansas City weren't giving the situation in Los Angeles much television coverage. So I lived in my little childhood bubble and missed everything: the beating, the trial, the acquittal, the riots.

As I grew older, I learned a man named Rodney King had been beaten in Los Angeles, but that's about all I knew.

Ignorance was kind of my thing for a really long time. I couldn't be curious about something completely unknown to me, and there was no one to tell me I should be curious. Or care. It's funny: We don't know what we don't know. In the way that completely not-funny things are funny. I'm still shaking off that ignorance.

The special closed with a short interview with Rodney King, a sweet — if not a bit more than star-crossed — man in his mid-40s. (He's had many run-ins with the law since he first entered the spotlight in the early '90s, from domestic disputes to substance abuse.) The interviewer asked whether he'd forgiven the policemen who beat him, and he said he had. Of course he had.

He's been given so many breaks in his life, he said, and everyone deserves a break. At least he didn't die.

And I thought…wow.


For all his missteps, this is a man with a truly good heart.

Because I finally got curious tonight and skimmed the Wikipedia article about the beating, the trial, the acquittal and the riots. I watched one of the many YouTube videos of the beating. Then I watched news stories following the acquittal, where one juror said she believed the officers had used "reasonable force" that night and that Rodney King could have been spared his fate if he'd just surrendered. And I watched footage of the riots: the city engulfed in flames, citizens turned against one another, National Guardsmen in Humvees rolling in on deserted streets.

And I was enraged.

This is America.

Not was — is.

Rodney King was an idiot for flooring it when he should just have pulled over when he was caught speeding, but I have to wonder whether he'd have been flagged down at all if he'd been white.

And things like this just. keep. happening.

To people who haven't even been speeding. Or done anything wrong. Prejudice and profiling and hatred and inequality based on nothing but a simple word or two: black, immigrant, gay, female, disabled.

And so much of this stems from people with two words in common: white male. The one group of Americans that has never, ever known discrimination.

And that? Is gross.

I know this is all just coming out as ignorant white-girl ranting, because that's all it really is. I haven't studied this; I haven't really experienced it in person. (Though Fred Phelps did bring his Westboro Baptist Church congregants to protest a Barenaked Ladies concert when I was in high school. Go figure on that one.)

But even if it's not on the order of Rodney King or Matthew Shepard or George Tiller or another story that makes the evening news for days at a time, all of today's tiny injustices add up to one big mess.

The Tea Party?

They should be collectively boxed up in a dusty antique shop somewhere in the Bible Belt, but somehow they're actually out there. Gaining power. Representing everything that absolutely terrifies me about America.

That Rally to Restore Sanity? It's not just the fact that it was emceed by comedians that made it a joke. I mean, they're right: Shit's gone completely insane. But two white guys on stage with a sea of privileged white kids cheering them on is not the answer.

That being said, a riot didn't fix things back in the '90s, and it won't fix things if it happens again. I really don't know what will. But I hope I live to see it change, and I hope I'm part of it. Sitting around getting mad at the TV isn't enough — but at least it means I finally know enough to care.