The lives of Rodney King and now interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae intersected in 1992 at the point of the shocking yet predictable Los Angeles riots that followed the not guilty verdict of the four Los Angeles police officers charged with assaulting King in 1991.
What they also have in common is that the events of both their lives have had significant impacts on their respective societies, yet without each fully completing the course each intended for himself.
Certainly King’s death by drowning in the backyard pool at his home in California early this week is a tragedy. And, arguably, many consider Rae’s decision not to seek the leadership of the federal Liberal party as something of a tragedy.
It was during Rae’s tenure as Ontario premier after leading the province’s New Democratic Party to a historic win that the also historic May, 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles erupted.
Rodney King was just another Angelino until the fateful night in 1991 when, after a high-speed highway chase in which he tried to outrun the police, he was finally caught and mercilessly beaten.
The relationship between Los Angeles’ Black community and its police force at that time was a bitter one in which many Black residents complained of police brutality that went unchecked. What made the difference in the King incident was that a man named George Holliday, whose apartment gave him full view of the confrontation, videotaped what was happening. That video showed the brutal four-on-one beating of King and enraged America, so that even then U.S. President George H. W. Bush called for an investigation into the incident.
While the riots raged in Los Angeles, a demonstration of about 500 led by Toronto’s Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) was held in front of the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue to protest police brutality in that country. BADC was also highlighting concern over the treatment of Black youth here by local police. The protest came after the police shooting just two days earlier of 22-year-old Jamaican immigrant, Raymond Lawrence.
But at a time of high youth unemployment and attendant social unrest – the province was facing recessionary spasms and was in one of its worse economic periods in decades – the protest quickly descended into chaos as street youth attached themselves to it. By the time that day was over there were more than 1000 youth involved in rioting and vandalism along Yonge Street.
At the time, Rae as Ontario premier commented that racism was a systemic problem that merited further investigation. In the aftermath came the notable report by Stephen Lewis.
Lewis stated: “What we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-Black racism. It is Blacks who are being shot, it is Black youth that are unemployed in excessive numbers, it is Black students who are being inappropriately streamed in schools, it is Black kids who are disproportionately dropping out.”
But what change have we witnessed since then? Today, Black youth unemployment in Toronto remains higher that the general population. On the other hand, the videotaped brutality of King led to significant changes within the LAPD which, at the time, was 60 per cent White. Today, visible minorities make up 60 per cent of the LAPD.
King was a reluctant activist, while Rae chose political activism, first as a Liberal, then as a member of the NDP and finally returning to the Liberal fold.
One other important factor that connects the two men is depression. Rae has spoken about his months-long bout of debilitating depression as a young man studying at Oxford University in England. King battled depression, perhaps before, but most certainly after the 1991 incident. It had also led to his struggle with alcohol dependence. Rae describes how the “talking cure” helped lift him out of his depression. King tried to get help through the television show, Celebrity Rehab.
The day of King’s drowning, his fiancée described him having used alcohol and marijuana. That being the case, his struggles with substance abuse followed him to the end.
As King said it, but you get the feeling that Rae may also want to say it to his fellow Liberals: ‘Can’t we all just get along?’
A note on minority tactics…
It looks like we will have a period of political game playing now that we have a Liberal minority government in Ontario. Such was the case in recent days with Premier Dalton McGuinty threatening an election if New Democrats did not vote with Liberals to pass the latest budget.