Can we all just get along? Staying the course for civil rights

An earlier version of this article was published in the Arvada Press and its affiliated newspapers and is reprinted with permission here.

My recent discussions in the  Arvada Press (and its affiliates) on courtesy and civility was supposed to end quietly there. Then Rodney King died. He was only 47, yet each day of the last 20 years of his life has made an impact on civil rights in America.

Mistaken identity…

In a conversation not long ago, I mixed up Rodney King with Reginald Denny. I thought Rodney King was the trucker nearly killed 20 years ago during the violent aftermath of a jury verdict acquitting Los Angeles Police Department officers of brutally beating a motorist they stopped after a high-speed chase.

I was wrong, of course. Reginald Denny is the trucker dragged from his vehicle and viciously attacked by a riotous mob in random retribution for the jury verdict…because he is white. Rodney King was a black man, victim of the brutal beating by the LAPD officers in 1991 that was captured in 81 seconds of videotape by George Holliday from his apartment balcony.

What happened…

So, when I heard that he had died, I looked up Rodney King. I watched the 81 seconds of video—dark figures and glaring lights and no mistake about what was happening to the man on the ground.

I read about the April 1992 trial of the four officers involved, the trial where a jury with no black jurors acquitted three officers, and a mistrial was declared for the fourth officer. The verdicts touched off a week of riots in South Los Angeles that left more than 50 people dead and an estimated $1 billion in damage.

Then I watched the poignant interview in which a tearful and clearly shaken Rodney King begged for calm and asked—in a phrase that has become a cultural symbol for race relations—“Can we all just get along?”

A new appreciation…

I appreciate Rodney King all over again now.

The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times have reported that Rodney King knew he was a ne’er-do-well with an alcohol problem, and that much of his life after the attack was like a tabloid drama. He said he just wanted to work construction, and, in his words, “to survive.”

He didn’t want to be a symbol of racial tensions and police brutality. He didn’t want riots over the outcome of the trial. And he especially did not want anyone to die because of what happened to him.

That’s why my recent discussions of civility in everyday life cast a very different shadow when held up to the light of what emotionally intense people will do in extreme frustration or anger. (Just Google “road rage.”)

Could it happen here?

What if such a thing were to happen in our communities?

I know it’s not easy to solve some of our societal problems and I know there are no immediate answers to the some of the issues we face.

But I also know that we have to stay the course for civil rights. One step at a time, maybe, but we have to keep stepping.

Civility. Civil rights. Human rights.

We can’t separate them, so we must carry them all with us on this course. It’s not such a heavy burden when everyone gets along.

I believe Rodney King would agree.

A little more about the author:

Andrea Doray is a writer from Denver who serves on the board of “Writing for Peace”—an organization dedicated to developing a more peaceful world through understanding and empathy—and who believes in the power of the pen.