Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It

Thoughts From 2012 Seem Relevant in 2023

In the wake of the killing of Jordan Neely, several people reminded me of this old post from 2012. I wrote it for Radley Balko’s great and regrettably departed web site The Agitator. I had to fish it out of the Internet Archive. Fortunately Radley’s tearing it up doing great work at his new site The Watch, which you should read.

I wrote this eleven years ago about the death of Rodney King and about the rhetoric we use to justify or condemn how the police treat people, but I think it holds up today, and increasingly applies to how citizens use violence against each other. It’s been edited for my general illiteracy and to remove dead links. It grieves me how little has changed, despite a temporary surge of concern for police violence. Some people reacted to Jordan Neely’s killing by being mad at Jordan Neely; they remind me at the people who were incensed at Rodney King’s funeral 11 years ago.

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 critics of police, 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 20th Century to hold police liable for excessive force against civilians — an event that is not welcome among those who have internalized more than sixty 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 unjustly 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.

Join the conversation

or to participate.