Surfing the Spectacle

When Rodney King Made a Speech

Sometimes even the most flawed and inarticulate of men find a way to express profound truths starkly, without pretense or practice.

Witness Rodney Glen King.

He’s a loser, a drug abuser, a high school dropout, a bully, a royal fuckup.

But after the murky video surfaced that captured L.A. cops wailing on his oversized frame, King’s image spread throughout the world.


His brutal beating in 1991 replayed endlessly on television, evoking the darkest iconography of an American past built on slavery and racial denigration: a lone black man overpowered by a group of whites.

A year later, after a jury acquitted the officers of assault charges, scores of angry residents took to the streets for three days of violence, looting and arson. Some 55 people lost their lives, and more than 2,300 people were injured.


Amid this mayhem, and in his first public appearance since his beating, Rodney King speaks to the cameras, to the citizens of Los Angeles, and to history. The result is a raw authenticity rarely glimpsed in television’s prepackaged world. Struggling to address a situation wildly beyond his control, and visibly distraught by the brutalities done in his name, King mouths one cliché after another, desperately searching for the right thing to say.


His message is born of compassion, and he emerges with a stark, human eloquence:

“We’re all stuck here for awhile. Let’s try to work it out.”

This appeal to human tolerance will be quickly ridiculed. His phrase “Can’t we all just get along?” becomes a punch line, a catch phrase of common mockery, as if the mere expression of a reconciliatory impulse must be denounced as absurd naiveté.


Such has been America’s ability to confront the national legacy of race, violence and inequality.

Here’s a rough, treated excerpt of the speech:

[All the images are courtesy of Disturbance, a series of immersive video installations that excavate the ghostly remains of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.]

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