MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, I still can't stop thinking about Rodney King, whose drowning death in his swimming pool this weekend seemed like the kind of ending only the authors of a Greek tragedy would write. It's as if the gods are sending some sort of message.
But what message? Was it really too much to ask that this man, who made mistakes in his life, but who knew what they were; who openly mourned the suffering of others; could end his life peacefully in his own bed?
Still, it's worth remembering just how that whole Greek tragedy got started. Let's let him tell it.
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RODNEY KING: I know drinking and driving is not OK, and I shouldn't have been back then and it's - no excuse for it. But I had a job to go to that Monday, and so I went over to a friend's house and popped a couple of beers. And we were sitting around a while, and I decided to go to a spot where my dad used to take us fishing - called Hansen Dam, in California.
MARTIN: This, from a conversation I had with Mr. King just a few weeks go - around the time of the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, in April.
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KING: On the way over there, you know, I saw the Highway Patrol behind me. And the only thing I could think about is, maybe I could lose them. And the only thing I was thinking about is, getting to work Monday. And like I say, I keow I shouldn't have been drinking and driving. I was on parole, and I knew that I was going to go back to jail and just lose everything - my family, everything that I had been working hard for since I'd been out of jail.
MARTIN: Now, let's think about this for a minute. All that death, all that destruction, all that sorrow - six days of riots, more than 50 people killed, an estimated billion dollars in damage - because a man had a problem with alcohol, and he didn't want to lose his job because of it.
Now, I know there are people listening to this who will say no, this happened because those police officers thought they were judge, jury and executioner, and they had the right to beat a man half to death because he bucked them.
So let me just say, of course what those officers did was wrong. You don't have to take my word for it - a jury eventually said so, and sent three of them to prison. And even if the officers were right to pull him over and arrest King for driving drunk, there is nothing in this country's penal code that says you can fracture a man's skull, break the bones in his face and body, because he tried to get away from you.
And of course, there are those who will say no, this happened because too many people believe that anything a man, or a woman, with a badge does is acceptable, as long as they do it to a poor man, or a black or brown man, or someone who is both. To which I would say that in the long, ongoing story of how race and poverty and criminal justice collide in this country, this is indeed a bitter chapter - but one which did finally cause millions of people to see, in the light, what their fellow citizens had too long suffered in the shadows.
But while we're thinking about all of that, could we also take a moment to think about the fact that at the very beginning of this story was a man who, like millions of other Americans, had a problem with alcohol; and it had messed up his life; and he'd finally gotten a job he wanted, and he was afraid he'd lose it?
And can we wonder what would have happened if, when he'd had too much to drink, he would have had a place to run to get help; or if, instead of beating him to the ground, those officers could have taken him somewhere to sober up?
Now, I know that's a fantasy - but how much better than the nightmare that Rodney King, and all of us, have already lived through.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.