Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

[Hiya.  I’m Ken White.  I’m a criminal defense attorney and civil litigator in Los Angeles, and I write at Popehat, a blog about free speech, the perils of state power, and the allure of all forms of geekery. Thanks to Radley for inviting me to offer some guest posts while he’s writing.]

They buried Rodney King this weekend. They came to praise the man they buried, not to condemn the criminal justice system illuminated by his videotaped beating. For the most part, speakers respected the family’s wish that the service be about remembering the man, not the politics. Indeed, speakers praised King’s capacity for forgiveness, an attribute that once exposed him to ridicule. “People should not be judged by the mistakes that they make, but by how they rise above them,” said eulogist Al Sharpton, a man with reason to hope fervently that proposition is true.

But while King — the man — inspired words about family and love and forgiveness at his funeral, King — the man and the symbol — still inspires raw hatred and outrage. Skim the comments of any news article about him, like this USA Today story about his funeral:

As usual this ass bag sharpton has to get his time in the spot light….and lets not forget king ran because he was on probation…..high as a damn kite….speeding…..once they got him stopped he continued violent behaviour. Ohhhh and after he got his money he was once again arrested and jailed for doing the same thing…..violating his probation….. the content of his “character” and his continued nefarious behaviour spoke volumes about him. He made the decisions that drove his life…and death.

Or check out the comments at National Review Online, which are fairly representative of some political blogs.

Rodney King committed numerous crimes in his life. He went to jail for robbing a grocery, he drove dangerously under the influence serially, he struck his wife with his car. Whatever his capacity for forgiveness and for rising above such things, he led a troubled life filled with significant bad behavior. But such people die every day, and nobody gets too exercised when folks say nice things at their funerals. Why the rage about Rodney King?

I think it comes down to this: being beaten by the police doesn’t make you either a good person or a bad person, but some people would like to believe that it does.

Some people have portrayed Rodney King as a hero. Perhaps there was something heroic about asking “can’t we all get along?” during the riots — certainly it subjected King to years of scorn in some circles. But there was nothing heroic about speeding under the influence and running from the cops out of fear of taking a parole violation. There’s nothing inherently heroic about getting the shit kicked out of you by a crowd of cops. It can happen to good people; it can happen to bad people; it can happen to most of us who are in between.

Just as some have portrayed King as a hero for being beaten, some have portrayed him as a villain for the same reason, and done so well out of proportion to his crimes. That may be because he ushered in an era in which citizens increasingly record the police — a trend welcomed by readers of this blog, but controversial in circles accustomed to deference to police. It may be because the Rodney King criminal and civil trials were the most visible attempt of the last century to hold police liable for excessive force against civilians — an event that is not welcome among those who have internalized more than forty years of thin-blue-line law-and-order political rhetoric. It may be because King was black and many of the officers who beat him were white and some are infuriated at the suggestion that race still plays a part in how people are treated in America.

But portraying Rodney King as a hero, or as a villain, plays into the central narrative of our criminal justice system, one that offers the ultimate excuse for cutting corners, giving police the benefit of the doubt, looking the other way at constitutional violations, putting our thumbs on the state’s end of the scales of justice. He got what he deserved — that’s what one side says, cutting through facts and law and reasoned analysis to pure us vs. them. He didn’t deserve that, says the other side, unwittingly lending support to the implicit argument that there are some who do. But deserve‘s got nothing to do with it. Heroism and villainy have nothing to do with it. We have to demand that everyone be treated justly, whether our viscera tell us that they do not deserve the rule of law at all. Rodney King should have been spared excessive force not because he’d earned respite, but because we extend it to everyone. We do so as a measure of grace, and because it’s so foolish and perilous to let the state (or the mob) decide who deserves rights and who doesn’t. Neither the state, nor the mob, will ever conclude that you deserve justice if it sets its eye upon you.

Don’t believe me? Consider the desserts dished out by law enforcement, as documented here by Radley every day. Consider Kelly Thomas, a disturbed homeless man beaten to death by police. As in Rodney King’s case, police said that Kelly Thomas deserved it because he was “combative.” Consider Lorna Varner, an 86-year-old grandmother tased by police in her bed. Lorna Varner deserved it because she took an “aggressive stance” with a knife in bed — to the extent her oxygen mask allowed her. Or consider Malaika Brooks, a pregnant woman tased by Seattle police. She deserved it because she wouldn’t sign a speeding ticket (for going 12 miles over the limit) or get out of her car in the presence of the sort of men willing to tase a pregnant woman. Or consider the hordes of dead dogs that Radley writes about here and that we write about at Popehat. They deserved it for, I don’t know, barking, or (in the case of some notable puppies) “charging.” The state will always have an excuse for why the recipients of its force deserved it.

Part of protecting rights is committing to protect them without caring too much whether the rights are held by people who are awful or wonderful. It means vindicating Rodney King’s rights to be free of excessive force without particularly caring whether or not King was a good person. For that matter, it means criticizing hallmarks of state power like the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine — even if that doctrine was what allowed King’s attackers to be convicted by the federal government after they were acquitted by the state. It means giving up the notion that deserve has anything to do with it.

Measured that way, a family mourning the life of a troubled man is no cause for outrage.

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32 Responses to “Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It”

  1. #1 |  Gordon Clason | 

    Bravo, Ken!!!

  2. #2 |  Difster | 

    And don’t forget the guy in Maryland that was driving home from Bible studay and had a diabetic crisis and crashed his car and 52 police officers showed up to every so helpfully beat him to death with their usual protect and serve helpfulness.

  3. #3 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    After all this time I remain deeply ambivalent about the Rodney king mess. Unlike most of the stories Radley highlights here, the cops in King’s case had cause to be wound up tighter than a drunkard’s watch. They were still wrong, but that violence didn’t come out of nowhere; unless my memory is playing tricks on me (I went to you tube to check but I haven’t the stomach to watch 15 sermonizing editorials to find a full length copy of the tape) the video shows King getting up after being tasered and attacking or seeming to attack. Moreover, I don’t much care for the second trial. Double Jeopardy is a principle that shouldn’t be cast aside for political expedience, and the “we aren’t trying them on the same charges, so it isn’t REALLY Double Jeopardy” excuse frankly smells. The State should have ONE SHOT at proving in a court that you are guilty in connection to an event. If, with all the advantages built into the system, they can’t get a jury to convict, they shouldn’t get to try again. The second trial set a lousy precedent that is going to haunt us for a long time after Rodney Kind has passed into obscurity.

    But the second trial wasn’t King’s fault. The riots weren’t King’s fault. The expectation of saintliness that he couldn’t live up to, and which caused the Right to mock him wasn’t King’s fault. May he rest in peace, and find a haven from whatever pains made it impossible for him to find anything that looked to me like happiness in this life.

  4. #4 |  Burgers Allday | 

    I think the most interesting part of the Rodney King beating is that the police were offered the recording (prior to its being handed to the media) and they turned it away.

    Did the district attorney instruct them to turn the recording away? If so, why?

  5. #5 |  derfel cadarn | 

    Does it not strike anyone as funny that no one is asking if the police in the King incident are good or bad ? Regardless of what King was accused of it dids not warrant the police behavior. Due to the fasct there is video we can make the conclusion that the police were neither good nor bad. They acted like savages and they are EVIL,the fact that they were protected by immunity shames all Americans

  6. #6 |  Other Sean | 

    Great post in the category of “I’d given up hoping anyone might say anything interesting about that news item but I was wrong.” One thing to add:

    A lot of the nastiness directed at King seemed, at least if I’m remembering it right, to have been a function of early 1990s P.C. fatigue. White people who had duly shed the racist attitudes of their upbringing, stopped telling ethnic jokes, acquired some black friends, rented a downtown loft for their own college-age kids years after white-flight emptied the cities, etc…white people like my parents found it incredibly disturbing to have a 1960s style race riot break out smack in the middle of 1992.

    They too thought: we don’t deserve this. We changed what you told us to change, and we were promised this sort of thing would not happen again. The deal was supposed to be: we renounce our racist attitudes, blacks renounce the behaviors we don’t like, especially those that involve making angry demands or complaints against white people. This was supposed to be over by now, and since we’re quite sure we did our part, it must be the other side that failed.

    It made no sense to blame Rodney King for what happened, and even less sense to make fun of him so cruelly. But since openly expressed racism had become such a universal taboo, it was no longer possible to blame a group for what was happening in Los Angeles.

    Unable to blame a people, they blamed a person – a person who happened to be an unsympathetic character with traits torn straight from the stuff of long suppressed white nightmares.

  7. #7 |  Irving Washington | 

    I think this is brilliant (and not just because it validates my own opinion). If the law and its guardians don’t protect someone like King who was likely to com into contact with the police, those protections don’t exist in any practical way.

  8. #8 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Ditto, Irving. Ken White notes one of the most important elements of this story. I’m tired of hearing for 30 years about cops being held to a higher standard. That job has standards. Deal with it or GTFO. But, instead of “protecting rights”, police forces have turned into grinning vultures eagerly waiting for a peasant to cross a line (any line) that magically changes them into a criminal—and somehow we’ve defined that criminals have no rights. Then the beatings begin.

    So, 20 years later we get the same beatings. Nothing meaningful has changed. Oh, and if you don’t actually “cross a line” and do something illegal? Well, they’ll be more than happy to crack your fucking skull and make something up. The internal review will note procedures were followed. Video (like maybe a man getting shot in the back while laying on the ground)? OK, smart ass, let’s go to trial where the judge will slap a wrist if the DA even has the balls to pursue.

    I remember vividly how police all over the country explained away every single blow to Rodney King. Mostly it emboldened them to continue with business as usual…and that doesn’t bode well for any of us over the next 20 years from today.

  9. #9 |  perlhaqr | 

    Fuck yeah.

    Ken, you are the bomb.

  10. #10 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    derfel cadarn,

    I won’t argue that the police weren’t wrong, but I do get a trifle weary of people acting as if the King case was typical of the cases Radley highlights here (this has happened to me elsewhere, I’m not accusing anybody present).

    In a typical Agitator case the cops aren’t tried. The King cops were tried. There was a lot of ‘viewing with alarm’ when the defense asked for a change of venue, but they were as entitled to it as any defendants. They asked that the whole tape be played for the jury, which is perfectly reasonable. The jury acquitted. That should have been the end of it, not because the cops were innocent, but because that is how it is supposed to work, damnit. Having them tried again on federal charges was bullsh*t that will, in the end, harm far more victims of bad cops than it will harm bad cops. The State should not be allowed to try people multiple times, regardless of how guilty they look, because that is a power that the State will use to benefit the State and not the people.

  11. #11 |  Deserve's Got Nothing To Do With It | Popehat | 

    […] Deserve's Got Nothing To Do With It Jul 2, 2012 By Ken. Effluvia My first guest post is up at The Agitator. […]

  12. #12 |  Maria | 

    A wonderfully fresh take on Rodney King, blame, and incivility in general.

    As a side note. I had a 15 year old sincerely ask me who Rodney King was and if he was related to MLK. She had hear about the LA riots in passing and through pop culture. It was an interesting conversation.

  13. #13 |  John Regan | 

    That commenter you quoted sounds so much like a cop I’d be shocked if he/she wasn’t one.

    It’s all about the narrative, isn’t it? Note how the cops’ focus is relentlessly shifted back to Rodney King’s crimes. When the accused criminal focuses on the crimes of others, he is “blaming others” and “not taking responsibility”; when the cops do the same thing, no one sees it that way.

    Almost no one, anyway.

    Does race influence all this? Yes and no. Your race, if you’re black, makes you much more likely to wind up on the wrong end of the system narrative, from which there is usually no escape. But on the other hand, at least from what I have experienced, anyone who has wound up on the wrong side of the narrative is treated the same no matter what their race is. So if you’re white you’re much less likely to wind up there, but if you do it’s the same for you as it is for anyone else in the same boat.

    The cops like to write the narrative, and once they do they shout down all competing or conflicting narratives. They do this even when reason and evidence proves their narrative is completely wrong, and often prevail purely because they regard themselves as the system’s owners, and few will challenge them.

    This is why the Rodney King fiasco prompted a riot. When you catch the police dead to rights, on tape, and it makes no difference people get upset with the system. As well they should.

  14. #14 |  Sara | 

    Derfel carden

    I dont think the police or Rodney King are “bad”. The are both human. Humans react instinctively and socially especially in high andrenalin situations. Fight or flight. The job of the police, given those two options is fight.

    The problem is that they aren’t taught to manage their instincts, to plan for and manage the high stress and fear and act in a third and more civilized manner.

    Humans take a whole lot of behavioral clues from other humans and if we aren’t careful we will act automatically based on those cues. If one person acts a certain way, it gives others close to them an unconscious permission to act similarly. If in high stress a perceived foe resists, it gives unconscious permission to fight.

    We need to stop pretending that people are thinking about the right and wrong thing in these moments. Most of them aren’t doing much thinking at all. Training to over come the mindless reactions is possible. Some police depts are implementing it with some degree of success.

  15. #15 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    John Regan,

    I will point out again that the whole video, which was NOT generally broadcast until well after the public narrative of ‘innocent mann beaten by cops’ was well established, showed King apparently ignoring taser shots and charging the police. Such behavior didn’t seem to ME to justify the extensive beating he got, but it went a long way to explain it, and a jury – a jury that the prosecution passed on I remind you – found the cops not guilty of the charges against them.

    I don’t remember what the charges were. Were they overreach by the prosecution? Did the prosecution simply do a lousy job? Did the jury get mad at the presumption that they would do what everybody expected them to do? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does, anymore. Not even the jury members, who have probably talked themselves into believing all kinds of things by this time.

    The blacks rioted because they were told that THE MAN had gotten away with beating an innocent Black Man, a narrative arguably as dishonest as anything said in after years about King by the Political Right, They rioted because society has allowed their worldview to be controlled by parasites like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who prime them to riot so that they can threaten people they want something from with those riots.

    King was a lout. He got one hell of a lot more sympathy from all concerned than a white man who did what he did would have, beating or no beating. But that isn’t his fault, and I don’t recall that he asked for it. May God receive him into heaven, and a pox on all the swine who used him while he lived.

  16. #16 |  Carl Weetabix | 

    Really well put. We want to make every narrative into a morality play, rather than look at the basic facts. It doesn’t matter if the victim is a good person or a bad person or deserved it or not. It’s not ethical to (or ideally, legal) to use excessive force or force at all when not absolutely necessary, even if the target doesn’t fit our definition of a “good” person.

    I know it’s a hard job, but we pay them to put their lives at risk. No one forces them into the job either.

    The sad thing is they could get the respect they sadly so often try to force on others. All they would have to do is act like normal human beings and not the jack booted thugs, which in many cases they quite literally have become.

  17. #17 |  Anthill Inside | 

    All very true. We should care about what happens to any person being arrested, even if they are clearly and unambiguously guilty of some horrible crime. I see no evidence that the world is a safer place with the deaths of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or Muammar Gaddafi. Yes, rendering them powerless made the world a better place, but killing them did not. If we want due process applied to us, we must see it applied to everyone, including and especially the people we dislike.

    (Yes, I am aware that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were not killed by the US. They are still symptoms of a clear desire for revenge, not any form of justice.)

    @C. S. P. Schofield: are you suggesting that a black child in Los Angeles in the 1990s could hope to attend a reasonable school, get a reasonable job, and never be harassed by police without probable cause? The statistics say otherwise – that at every step of the way people who appear black or Hispanic are victims of both active and unconscious discrimination.

    When the man takes every opportunity to stop and search you, and never employs you, you don’t need advice from anyone else to realize that the man is keeping you down.

  18. #18 |  PeeDub | 

    Just really, really fantastic.

  19. #19 |  PeeDub | 

    @Irving Washington

    Stellar handle!

  20. #20 |  Andrew S. | 

    What the heck, Ken? This has nothing to do with Bronies! I demand you keep to your promised My Little Pony focus!

    Seriously, this might be the best take I’ve read on the Rodney King story. The blog is in good hands it seems.

  21. #21 |  Kingadingding | 

    Vincent: Probable cause. Thomas Jefferson put that in the Constitution.
    DA Stubbs: He didn’t put it in for you!
    Vincent: Yes he did, I’m exactly the guy he put it in for. I am the worst-case scenario of Thomas Jefferson’s dream.

    from My Blue Heaven

  22. #22 |  Laura K | 

    @ Derfel,

    I suspect the Derfel Cadarn of the Bernard Cornwell books would have been a bit more logical and better at typing–and for a 5th century warrior and monk, that is saying something. I’m not saying I found the police behavior around the incident anything but savage…But somehow despite my agreement with the outrage of every police brutality that Ken is citing, I am wondering if the solution really lies in writing them off as evil. For all time. As your post seems to suggest. I believe if the Rodney King issues and this article illustrate anything they show that there isn’t an easy verdict to hand down on this.

  23. #23 |  Valerie O'Gilain | 

    Very well thought out defense of rule of law in civil society, Ken.

    It makes me think about the Treyvon Martin case. At this point much of the public discourse involves ascertaining who is the good guy, rather than whose actions precipitated the tragedy.

    At the end of the day, just as with Rodney King, it should come down to who did what to whom and when. Rights are not rights when they are applied selectively. They are perks.

  24. #24 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    “We do so as a measure of grace, and because it’s so foolish and perilous to let the state (or the mob) decide who deserves rights and who doesn’t. Neither the state, nor the mob, will ever conclude that you deserve justice if it sets its eye upon you.”

    In this layman’s opinion that would be an excellent closing statement, counselor ; ). The state must “wither away,” so to speak, for many reasons. One of the major reasons–and Agitator readers see this every day–is that government has so much control over information and its subsequent portrayal in the media. Thanks to this control and the skilled propagandists of the state, they always win even when they commit horrid atrocities or pathetic blunders. The internet and other technologies have put a dent in the state’s ability to manage perception, which is why many in government are seeking ways to get their hooks into these new tools.

    Great post Ken, and welcome!

  25. #25 |  marie | 

    This morning, I skipped over this post when I saw it was about Rodney King. I’d heard enough rehashing. I am so glad I went back to read it. This is brilliant:

    Part of protecting rights is committing to protect them without caring too much whether the rights are held by people who are awful or wonderful.

    At the time, I thought the police were right…because the police are good people. Heroes, even! Since then, I have learned differently (lots of reading and then through personal experience that confirmed everything I’d read) and I am sorry I wasn’t able to see the Rodney King story through clearer eyes back then.

    Thanks, Ken.

  26. #26 |  SJE | 

    This is one of the best written articles I’ve ever read on this subject.

  27. #27 |  Kenneth H | 

    Preach it, brother.

  28. #28 |  Windy | 

    “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” — HL Mencken

  29. #29 |  Goober | 

    Rodney King was a heel. He did bad things, made bad choices, and likely came to an early end as a result o those choices. I would not have been his friend had we met IRL.

    None of the above justifies the beating that those cops gave him. I’m glad that they did time. I think that they are lucky that they didn’t get an attempted murder rap, because it easily could have been justified.

    THe one thing that I have the utmost respect for Rodney King for doing is the one thing that people strangely seem to lampoon him for – his being brave and reasonable enough to go on TV and call for an end to the senseless violence being perpetrated in his name. That took guts and fortitude, and proved to me that he wasn’t totally lost.

    I pray that he can finally find the peace that seemed to elude him in this life, and re-state his poignant, simple words that so many laughed at him for saying:

    Can’t we all just get along?

  30. #30 |  That Was the Week That Was (#33) « The Honest Courtesan | 

    […] For another excellent essay on human rights being independent of “worthiness”, consult Ken White’s “Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It”. […]

  31. #31 |  Ariel | 

    I’m late to the party, but I did see the full video sometime before the Simi trial. I was left with about 12 seconds at the end where I knew the cops had crossed to criminality. Those of us who have not made crime a career, we are only law abiding citizens until the moment when we didn’t stop.

  32. #32 |  Return of the Agitator « The Honest Courtesan | 

    […] White was first out of the gate on July 2nd with “Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It”, a powerful essay about Rodney King’s death: …portraying Rodney King as a hero, or as a […]