By Leonard Pitts
Maybe they should have beaten the crap out of Denzel Washington.
I say that thinking of the time an Oprah Winfrey fan said she never fully appreciated the tragedy of slavery until she saw a picture of her idol dressed as human chattel, her body scarred by the whip. It struck her that at another time, Oprah — EVEN OPRAH — could have been a slave. And finally, she understood.
So maybe if Denzel had led police on a high-speed chase, staggered around drunkenly and been beaten like an animal, beaten out of all proportion to the threat he posed … if those things had happened, maybe some people wouldn’t have such difficulty understanding why black people cry out about racism behind the badge.
But that didn’t happen to Denzel. It happened to an oafish drunk named Rodney King, who goes to jail like some people go to the ATM.
His most recent misadventure was earlier this year. King, reportedly high on PCP and driving 100 miles an hour, crashed his car into a house in San Bernardino, Calif. He suffered a broken pelvis and other assorted cuts and contusions — the only injuries sustained in the accident. A little over two weeks ago, a judge sentenced King to 120 days in jail and three years probation.
There is — or so some would have us believe — a lesson in that for all the people who adopted King as a symbol of police racism and malfeasance 12 years ago. Indeed, Dana D. Kelley, writing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, contends that King’s legacy points out “all that is wrong with the modern civil rights lobby.”
Conservative gadfly David Horowitz sounded a similar theme in the L.A. Daily News. Liberals, he wrote, refuse to concede that King is a loser. In making his case a “racial melodrama,” he added, they sparked the ruinous riot that followed the 1992 acquittal of the police officers accused in the beating. To Horowitz, King is no symbol of an important cause, but only “a pathetic bum.”
All of which misses the point so dramatically, one can only surmise the two writers were never trying to hit it in the first place.
No one disputes that King deserved to go to jail. The problem is that he went in pieces, struck 56 times by batons wielded like baseball bats and left with a broken leg and a skull fractured in at least nine places. All this the work of a gang of adrenaline-pumped white police officers who laughed about it, then lied about it in their reports.
Then-President George H.W. Bush, a man not known for his liberalism, said watching videotape of the beating made him physically ill. It was an opinion echoed by a number of other observers you’d never accuse of liberalism, among them Daryl Gates, then the chief of police in Los Angeles.
So much for liberal conspiracies. As for character: Perhaps Horowitz and Kelley would be good enough to show us where in the L.A. police rule book it says officers can brutalize a suspect if he is a jerk.
The truth is, King’s character is irrelevant. Black people did not rally to the man because we thought him a good person. Rather, we saw in him captured-on-camera proof of a complaint we’ve made for years: that some police officers administer to us a different kind of justice when they think no one is looking. It was, we thought, proof no one could deny.
Shows what we knew.
So yeah, maybe if it had been Denzel — handsome and popular movie star — taking that beatdown, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion. People would understand how we could look at that tape and see our brothers, our fathers, our sons, our “selves” writhing on the ground under those blows. Maybe they would know why we whispered a prayer of there but for the grace of God.
And maybe they would finally understand what black men have always known about character. That, movie star or drunken fool, in moments like those, it doesn’t matter who you are.
It only matters what.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: