A Farewell Fit For A King
But mention of the unintentionally significant figure may long generate passionate discussion, as it did among the 70-plus people who gathered in Leimert Park Monday evening.
In a cloud of media coverage and ceremonial sage smoke, they came to memorialize the man’s death, and address broader issues of race and violence in American society.
Najee Ali, who organized the tribute, took the opportunity to hammer home his belief that King’s passing was cause to celebrate constructive changes made since the infamous 1991 arrest. Ali heads Project Islamic H.O.P.E. and says he’s a proud USC alum.
But this evening, without a trace of any broader agenda, he displayed his conviction for King’s famous line, “Can’t we all just get along?” Ali repeated the phrase via bullhorn some 16 times before the evening’s discussion petered out around 7:30 p.m.
The crowd nodded their heads and piped up in approval. But 20 years later, the answer to King’s question is still not clear. The memorial itself showed signs of unrest. One incoherent woman was physically removed from the center of the congregation twice. While she was carried away by a trio of men, Ali and his supporters attempted to maintain the audience’s focus on the life and importance of the recently departed, turning a blind eye to the commotion.
Ali and a cadre of speakers suggested a celebration of King’s legacy would be incomplete without acknowledging the multi-faceted challenges faced by contemporary civil rights activists.
“If we can’t just get along,” attorney Carey Hopper said, “we’re in for one hell of a fight.” Her comment drew a sharp surge of approval from those among the crowd.
One man in attendance, Joseph Serrato said active participation with these issues was necessary for individuals seeking an understanding of the nature of life for systemically oppressed people. “The people are more enlightened,” Serrato said. “The dominant culture people, they’ve been abused. Now they’re experiencing this stuff—not at the Rodney King level, but things are gonna change.”
A speaker by the name of Brother Dina directly questioned some of the early reports of circumstances surrounding King’s death. “We know that he was smoking weed,” the activist said, “and we heard that he was drinking. But we know that he could swim. So now, help me understand how this man’s going to come up at the bottom of his own pool. With no trauma. So, I got a problem with that, and I want a separate investigation.”
One audience member in a green three-piece suit, who self-identified as a militant but declined to share his name publically, said he didn’t consider the gathering a sign of broad reform. “I wish there was a million of us out here,” he said, gesturing to the generally vacant park. “Then you’d get militants.”
Speaking from under a soft red shawl, Rose Johnson Brown said she felt the occasion should be geared toward recognizing King’s decent actions. “It means everything for me to be here,” Brown said. “I think the night he took that beating, the way he did, it helped change humanity. He said, ‘Can we all get along?’ And that’s what I remember him for. He lived ‘Can we all get along?’ And how did we repay him?”
Iris Stevenson also applauded King’s handling of his experience. “He could have said, ‘burn, baby, burn,’ but he didn’t,” she said. “Everyone should get along, just like he said.”
Jesse Hudson said King was a peacemaker. “This man here was great at bringing people together,” he said. “Sometimes they say, ‘You ain’t nobody till you leave this world. And when you leave this world, people start seeing who you are.’”
Few of those at the ceremony Monday had ever met King. Jamaine Walker Adams crossed paths with him while working as a diagnosis counselor with the Pacifica House rehabilitation clinic. She said King visited as a guest from another facility for a dance. She stressed that she would have been the last person to praise Rodney King a civil rights visionary, even in memoriam. “He wasn’t no damn hero,” she said. “He got high and all that.”
“But it’s not all about him, it’s about what happened,” she continued. “He said, ‘maybe I shouldn’ta this, or shouldn’ta that,’ but he didn’t deserve what happened to him. Nobody—black, white, green or purple—nobody deserves to get beat like that. So this is just something to keep the public aware of what’s going on. People should realize that this kind of stuff goes on.”
Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of Rodney King's L.A. legacy here.