By Rich Larson
On May 1, 1992, Rodney King stood outside of his lawyer’s office. South Central Los Angeles was at war with itself, borne from the frustration of the “not guilty” verdict handed down two days prior on the four members of the LAPD who had been charged with excessive force in the apprehension of Mr. King himself. With the LA Riots raging outside, the man at their epicenter looked into a sea of press cameras and said “People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?”
Much of America, particularly those of us not residing in Southern California, chuckled at King’s lack of sophistication and at the simplicity of the statement. It’s a quote that has been ridiculed in the twenty-five years since it was made, as a symbol of naiveté and the inability of the established powers (for whom King was seen as speaking) to understand the riots or extinguish them.
While Rodney King was no great orator, I happen to think his quote is among the best public statements of my lifetime. There is no rhetoric in that statement, nor is there an underlying purpose. It’s simple, yes, but it’s a statement boiled down to the most important point: “Can we get along?”
Can’t we all just get along?
By now we’ve all seen the footage of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The videos are horrific. The violence is ugly. The anger in those crowds is palpable. We recoil from the pictures, react in disgust and then in anger. We demand immediate justice for the innocent victims, and if that justice is swift and terrible, well, that’s what you get for plowing your car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.
That was certainly my initial reaction. I felt a need to see that driver dragged from the car/weapon and beaten bloody. I sat and stared blankly at my computer screen, feeling the kind of rage and disgust I haven’t felt since September 2001. Earlier I had seen footage of the fights that had broken out between the white supremacist group and the counter demonstrators and wondered how in the name of hell did we wind up back here? This is the kind of thing you see in black and white footage from Alabama in 1964. Haven’t we moved beyond this?
Unfortunately, even tragically, the answer to that question is no. No we haven’t.
I want to write an angry piece. In fact, I want to write a tirade. I want to spit vitriol at the people I see as responsible for the situation, starting with those Virginia Nazis, those Ku Klux Klan members – those white terrorists – who set this particular powder keg ablaze. I want to scream at the President of the United States for making a weak statement that spread the blame around to all Americans but somehow deflected responsibility for the current climate from himself and his administration.
But how does spewing anger and hate at anger and hate make anything better? People died today, people were hurt today, and
lives were changed today because of hate and fear. If the driver of that car was dragged onto the street and subjected to mob justice, what would that accomplish? This is the most difficult time for any human being to take the “high ground,” but this is precisely the moment that we all need to do just that. We have to unclench our fist, breath deeply and let the evil of the action speak for itself.
As I said, I was pretty unimpressed with the statement made by President Trump, but I will agree with one point he made: we must study this (although, I suspect the president and I will reach different conclusions as we do that studying). We need to take a long hard look at the white nationalists and see what hate and bigotry looks like. We need to tune out the extreme voices and stop giving them the time of day. The more attention we lavish on the fear mongers, the more amplified their message becomes. You want to really frustrate these people? Do you want to really hit them where they live? Don’t give them publicity. Certainly, be aware of them, but don’t use their names in public. Don’t ignore them; in fact
educate yourself about them. But stop sharing their videos on social media as examples of what we need to extinguish. Isolate them. Marginalize them. It’s their biggest fear. Study the situation. Know those you oppose. And then do everything you can to keep the spotlight from finding them.
Nearly a quarter of a century before Rodney King made his statement to the world, Bobby Kennedy was faced with a similar situation on the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Speaking to a group made up of mostly African American people in Indianapolis, Kennedy said this:
“On this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”
Fifty years later, RFK’s words are still as painful and beautiful and compelling as they were that night. We still want that kind of country, don’t we? We still want the United States to stand as the great example of compassion, justice, and equality for the rest of the world, don’t we? Those are still the ideals we strive for, even though we fail more often than not, right?
America may well be at a tipping point in race relations, but we’ve been here before and in the long run, we’ve always come through on the side of progress. It doesn’t come nearly as quickly as we would like, but forces like hatred, fear, and ignorance can take multiple generations to weed out. We simply have to keep pushing forward. That starts with one simple question:
Can’t we all just get along?