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Commentary: Rodney King wasn't a role model but that doesn't matter

When parts of Los Angeles erupted in violence in 1992 after four cops were exonerated for beating Rodney King like a candy-filled piñata, an oft-asked question went something like this: Why are y’all so upset over what happened to him? He wasn’t any kind of hero.

Precisely. Both the Constitution and the Bible counsel protection for “the least of these,” and in many ways, it didn’t get much more least than King was before he became the iconic battered face of police brutality. Remember that poem you had to learn in high school, “The Desiderata?” It had a line that went “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

That applies to alcoholic ex-cons who also have a right to be arrested without being brutalized. King apparently tried to change the perception and reality of himself over the years, but almost to the end King seemed to personify the proverbial “troubled soul.”

His earthly trouble ended Sunday when he was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool.

It’s true that King was nobody’s idea of a role model, and if your daughter showed up at the crib sporting someone with his criminal and track record on her arm, you’d be inclined to lock up your good silverware or lock her in a nunnery.

The good thing about the U.S. Constitution, though, is that it doesn’t just protect people who are paragons of virtue. Even violent alcoholics are protected by it, and no one with a lick of sense could watch that still-disturbing tape and not conclude that the cops “done him wrong”

Only, some people did, saying that King must’ve deserved what happened.

Buffalo chips. The L.A. cops had an acknowledged reputation for being hell on black and brown suspects, as an independent review commission concluded after the smoke cleared from the riots.

Los Angeles wasn’t the only such city, as my buddy Chuck Stone told me. When Stone was a columnist at the Daily News in Philadelphia, criminal suspects often turned themselves in to him so that he could document that they didn’t have any lacerations and fractures before their arrest. Or weren’t dead.

King was no Rosa Parks, but Rosa Parks herself almost wasn’t, either. In various histories of the modern Civil Rights Movement — which dates from the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 — you can read of another young lady who refused to give up her seat on a city bus and who went to jail. The young lady, whose name has been lost to history, was pregnant and unwed, and movement officials feared that she would not be a good face for the cause.

Shortly thereafter, Parks, a demure, married seamstress, was arrested for not giving up her seat, booked and on her way to becoming a revered icon.

History is not always convenient, and Rodney King found himself thrust into a role for which he was unsuited.

The taped, merciless beating administered by the rabid cops showed many Americans that not all police officers are the Officer Friendlys they encounter at the grocery store or at the neighborhood pool party. Many recoiled when presented with indisputable evidence that police brutality is real and that not every suspect who ends up concussed or dead was resisting arrest.

Duke professor and cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal was a teacher in the Bronx in 1991 when the tape was first played. “I remember talking to my 10th-graders about it the next day, and it didn’t surprise them. They were surprised that it was videotaped” in those days before every 8-year-old with a cell phone could record anything.

“The beating,” he said, “made police brutality explicitly visible. Before King, it was always the word of the person who was brutalized against the police.”

Even after seeing it, though, some people refused to believe their own eyes. Yeah, went the common refrain, but we didn’t see what happened before the tape went on.

OK: you tell me what could’ve happened to justify such a beat down?

Starting with the L.A. Police Department, Neal said, “we’ve seen some level of reforms,” not least of which are the cameras mounted on police dashboards to record police interactions. The dash-cams ostensibly protect the public and the officers and show just what police have to put up with when they make a stop.

Of course, it should go without saying that the baton-wielding thugs in blue who whaled on King’s head are no more reflective of all police officers than King is of every black male. But you have to say it, because just as some people think that all black dudes are bad guys, some think the same of all police.

Before March 3, 1991, everybody wanted to be treated like a king. After watching what those cops put on that dude, though, no one in his right mind wanted to be treated like a king — at least not Rodney King.