“We didn’t start the fire/ It was always burning/ Since the world’s been turning./ We didn’t start the fire/ No, we didn’t light it/ But we tried to fight it” – “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, Billy Joel
Protests are human nature. When the underdog gets bitten, the pack strikes back.
Such was the case in 1992, when police brutality victim Rodney King saw his city of Los Angeles, California, ignite into a ball of flames and smoke. All over him.
After King’s brutally long, videotaped 1991 beating was revealed and sure to bring justice, the acquittal of several California Highway Patrolmen was the breaking point for a people already seething from maltreatment. As humans oddly do when frustrated and helpless, they turned on themselves – burning homes, businesses, and their spirits of togetherness in the balance.
Hip-Hop held it down at that time, though, helping to bring gang warfare to a halt, talking Rodney King’s injustice in their music, and spreading the word about the racism that still rears its ugly head across the country.
AllHipHop.com spoke with Rodney King as he set off on a promotional tour for his new book, “The Riot Within”. We met a person who is still very rooted in the past – but not 1991 or 1992. He’s thinking of times when he came up, and even back to a time when being Black meant possibly winding up dead:
AllHipHop.com: Rodney, we have somewhat of a younger demographic on the site – a lot of 18 to 30s who may not have known much about you. Going back to that time, right when [the beating] was happening, did you have a sense…were you like, ‘Oh my God, I hope someone finds out what they did to me?’ Where were you in your mind when it was happening?
Rodney King: In my mind, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for people who were brutally beaten by the government, and you know, the police force, and never get any recognition. It’s a real hurting…it’s a hurt. It just takes all of the life out of you. You just think that you don’t have any life left to fight, as far as when your Civil Rights have been violated in that manner, too.
There’s other manners [in which] they take your dignity away. To be beaten almost to death, you think that no one’s going to believe you. I was just holding onto my little tennis shoes that had blood on them, and a piece of my shirt, and that’s the only evidence I had, until this police lady came in the room. She said, ‘Baby, we seen it all on the tape. We seen it.’ She said, ‘It’s a shame what they did to you. Just lay down and get yourself well.’
Now, can you imagine me being around 30 or 40 years ago, and somebody saying ‘We seen it on tape, and don’t worry ‘bout nothing’? No. Because they had it on tape even back then, and they wasn’t doing anything about it. But now, at least a Black man’s got a chance, you know? I had a chance. But, really, I can’t say that the Black man has a chance, because so many of them don’t and have died over this same topic, you know? I was really lucky to have made it alive through that incident, and to have it on camera. I really didn’t think I had the evidence to prove it. It just took the soul out of me. You know, it was a sad, sad day.
AllHipHop.com: Yes, you had the footage, and that was a great thing. But when the trial came and the police were acquitted, what did it say to you about being a Black man in America? Did you feel like you didn’t matter after all?
Rodney King: Well, you know, it kinda, uhhh…it felt really bad. But what happened was the Feds had stepped in, and the lawyers told me the Feds had called and said President Bush, Sr. had sent them down and, you know, they would be prosecuting it. So then it was a different feeling.
But, it was a different feeling even before the call from the President. His people, I felt like, uhh, I wouldn’t have wanted to be alive back in the ‘30s, back in the ‘40s. It was so hard to get a conviction on the first case, because they had gotten away. And it was like, man! I can imagine what they felt like in the ‘30s and ‘40s and even the ‘60s – it must have been a really hurting, shameful time to be alive back then.
So I’m just so glad to be alive and to put in all the work. Things happen. Blacks and Whites have died for the cause of Civil Rights, to see a man get justice in this country. After that beating, I thought there was justice at the end of the tunnel for me, just based on the blood that had been shed before me.
AllHipHop.com: Right. So we’re at the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, and everybody knows you for your famous line – ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ At that time, did you feel like you had to step forward and make a statement, because you were the one that set it all off?
I was telling someone how you’re the Trayvon Martin of our generation…the difference is you lived afterwards and there was violence. Trayvon died, but there wasn’t any rioting or anything… As the poster boy for what was going on back then, did you have to do something?
Rodney King: Yeah, I felt like I had to step up to the plate and try to put some water on the fire, because I knew that the government had told us shortly after the trial that they were gonna be prosecuting those guys [the rioters]. And so that’s why I came out publicly and said, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’
I also could feel the people’s anger and their fear; it was just an empty, lonely feeling at that time. I understood why people were upset, but after a couple of days and watching people starting to get killed and, you know, them shooting at innocent people, I had to come out and, you know, say something. This is America! This is my house! This is where we live, and I wouldn’t want to walk out of my house and it’s on fire and there’s chaos like that.
I felt like I had to say something. I still feel a big, big part of this country, you know what I mean? So, based on the work that my people have done, the structures and roads and stuff from back in the day that made the country so great, to how it is to this day.
Blacks don’t get credit; we get kicked to the side. I still realize the work and all of the nationalities that it took to get this country to greatness, although the Black man doesn’t get credit for it. It takes time, but I just gotta keep knicking at it, keep knicking at it. Do my part while I’m here, and be positive, and make it easier for the next generation. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about me telling them, ‘Burn this son of a gun up! [laughter] Keep it going!’ No, it’s not about that; you can go about it a different way, so it will last longer, and it will mean something.
I knew that once that happened to me, it was on film, and I got lucky. I knew I would have my time to be in the spotlight. Every chance that I get – I’ve got kids – I want to leave good things that I’ve done, good things that I’ve said, some good words left behind. That’s really important to me now that I’m grown.
AllHipHop.com: We have a real young Hip-Hop audience, a lot of brothers in the ‘hood, a large audience over on the West Coast that reads AllHipHop, too, and I want you to give them some good advice, Rodney, about what is the best way, when you’re targeted by authority figures, or someone like George Zimmerman or the police, what’s the best way to handle yourself and walk away with dignity? What advice can you give on something like that?
Rodney King: I know it sounds strange, but I would just be real humble. I’m not saying kiss nobody’s behind, but just be very humble to move yourself away from that situation, and I guarantee you’ll come out smelling like a rose. I know the good guys don’t seem like good guys, but when it comes to tension, only two things can happen. If you’re in a position to run then get the hell out of there quick, ‘cause I’ve been young before, and I’ve been old before and have been violated, not just by the police, by regular people. It’s tough being a Black guy these days, a Black man, because people look at you in a different way.
We’ve been in the middle of so much for so long and doing so much for so long, the credit is way overdue. For them to give us credit now would break the whole system. Like a dinosaur, we’re a very historical species of people and very, very, very important to this world, and so many of us are dying off. It’s sad because it’s like our backbone to even see another Black face, just to see it, you don’t even have to know it just see it.
To keep from losing your mind or losing your life when you’re in a bad situation, just remove yourself in your mind from the situation, and then actually remove yourself from it. If you can remove yourself fast then remove yourself fast, if you can do it slow and get out of it easy then do that. Whatever it takes, just remove yourself from that, and don’t give a son of a gun no energy or no room to take your life. Even if you come back at them in a different way, if you’re able to do that, it may be the case where you’re going to have to see them again, but you will come out the winner. I guarantee you on that one.
AllHipHop.com: Okay. I heard you say two important things there. The first is to get out alive. Number two, I heard you say even during your beating that 20 years ago you made sure you had some piece of evidence that you could hold onto and say “something happened to me.” I think that they always need some way to document, whether it be in their mind or a piece of cloth with some blood on it, anything to say that “something happened to me.” I think that’s really good advice.
I know we’re running out of time but I have one more question for you that’s on a more personal note. I know we got to know you a little bit more as a person during your stint on reality TV while you were going through your recovery, so the first thing I want to ask you is how you’re doing now. And as far as Hip-Hop goes, who really shaped Rodney King as a person and as the kind of guy who gets up and keeps fighting when it’s all said and done? How are you now, and who shaped you within Hip-Hop?
Rodney King: Who shaped me in Hip-Hop? You know, Hip-Hop is a part of my generation. Thank goodness for Hip-Hop, because in one manner, Hip-Hop played a big role in getting the justice that I did receive. I’ve always wanted to be a part of some music business or have some type of claim in there, and my hat goes off to Hip-Hop because they got some good word out for me with the police beating, so I owe Hip-Hop the credit for that in me getting justice in this case.
AllHipHop.com: That did help, for sure. How about you Rodney? How are you, and what are you looking forward to?
Rodney King: I’m doing pretty good; I’m engaged. I’ve been engaged for like two years, and I’m looking forward to getting married in two more years once my daughter gets out of college.
AllHipHop.com: Four years? That’s a long engagement [laughter].
Rodney King: Well, two years went by so fast, I figured might as well wait until my baby gets out of school and wait another two. So I’m looking forward to being a powerful force for myself and for the world and being positive.
AllHipHop.com: Well, that’s great to hear and best of luck to you, Rodney, because maybe people like you are chosen for a reason. You might not have even known that you would be this guy, but people like you are chosen for a reason, so your story is important, and we thank you for that. Are there any last words you want to share?
Rodney King: Yeah, you know I want you to take a look at my book, guys, because you, too, can write a book these days. It’s not that hard for a company to pick you up and put your book on a shelf nowadays. It’s work from a Black writer and a Black person who went through it. We need to have people see and hear and read this sort of stuff. And you don’t hear from too many Black writers these days, so it’s really good to hear the serious side of a Black person’s life, and how he made it this far being Black.
Rodney King: Sit down and document everything in a journal. Write down some high points of something you went through in your life, ‘cause the time goes by so fast. Before you know it, 30 years will be here – it happened to me.
AllHipHop.com: That’s so true, thank you for that. That’s great advice, and we need more books to get away from the TV and video games, and definitely more Black writers. Thank you so much, Rodney.
Rodney King: Thank you so much.