Rodney King came to mind Wednesday during President Barack Obama’s speech to the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield.
King, who was black, infamously suffered a March 3, 1991, Los Angeles beating by white police officers after a high-speed chase. The assault was caught on videotape and broadcast worldwide.
In many respects, it foretold the numerous instances of police killings of black males in the last few years — and some of them being videotapes, now made easier because of smartphone technology.
But then like now, despite the undeniable evidence, a mostly white jury after a three-month trial in 1992 acquitted the police officers of charges of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force. That April 1992 verdict resulted in riots in South Central Los Angeles.
More than 50 people died in the unrest, more than 2,000 were injured, 9,500 people were arrested and more than $1 billion in property was damaged. On the third day of rioting, King in a televised appearance said: “People, I just want to say, can't we all get along? Can't we all get along?”
That’s what Obama’s speech brought to mind in urging a politics of civility — can’t we all get along?
The president reminiscing about his time in the state legislature said, “we didn’t call each other idiots or fascists who were trying to destroy America. Because then we’d have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America. And that respect gave us room for progress.”
Obama on the ninth anniversary of his announcing that he was running for president in 2008 added: “we wouldn’t bend on our most deeply held principles, but we were willing to forge compromises in pursuit of a larger goal. We were practical when we needed to be. We could fight like heck on one issue, and then shake hands on the next.”
He said, “I’ve always believed so deeply in a better kind of politics, in part because of what I learned here in this legislature.”
Obama partly blamed the 24/7 news cycle and the “fractured media,” promoting “sensational conflict and the most incendiary sound bites,” allowing people to “choose our own facts” in today’s dysfunctional politics.
He said U.S. “citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life. It turns folks off. It discourages them, makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void. When that happens, progress stalls. And that’s how we end up with only a handful of lobbyists setting the agenda.”
Media coverage of such political wrangling makes watching that kind of “news” as irresistible as the footage of King being beaten and rioters looting and burning property in Los Angeles or unrest in some cities today over black males being killed by police.
More voices like King nearly 35 years ago are needed now to break the gridlock and bring the country and elected officials back to their senses, to reduce the influence of money in politics and increase the civility that lawmakers need to have to get legislation passed to benefit the nation.
“Rather than paint those who disagree with us as motivated by malice, to suggest that any of us lack patriotism — we can insist, as (President Abraham) Lincoln did, that we are not enemies, but friends; that our fellow Americans are not only entitled to a different point of view, but that they love this country as much as we do,” Obama said.
Like Lincoln, Obama in this year of presidential campaigning and heightened political rhetoric, is one of those voices, saying that officeholders “have a responsibility to change the way that we, as elected officials and as citizens, work together. Because this democracy only works when we get both right — when the system is fair but also when we build a culture that is trying to make it work.”
Democracy in the U.S. — the envy of the rest of the world — has to “live up to the people’s expectations,” Obama said.
For the last few years, it has fallen far short.