Rodney King's real legacy: Forcing the nation to consider how we treat unworthy victims
It almost goes without saying that Rodney King was no saint.
In 1989 he was caught and convicted for robbing a store in Monterey Park, Calif. of $200 at gunpoint and assaulting the store owner. His longtime problems with alcohol led to numerous car crashes and convictions for hitting his wife with a car, speeding and fleeing officers.
The crime which led to his infamous 1991 beating involved a high speed chase after officers tried to stop him for speeding. He was afraid a driving under the influence conviction might ruin his parole.
Following King's death Sunday at age 47 in a suspected drowning, there's been lots of talk about his impact on media and society.
I wrote a piece last year for CNN.com on the 20-year anniversary of the actual beating where I note the video of police officers' attack against him -- captured on a newly-bought camcorder by a plumber from Argentina -- was the earliest high-profile example of the modern media age, where anyone can be journalist in the right circumstances.
But as important as the King incident's impact on media, was its impact on how we saw policing and poor lawbreakers, especially criminals of color.
Because King was no saint. He was a convicted criminal who had been stopped by police while fleeing them in a high speed chase. He had been driving drunk; he wasn't the blameless victim often needed to evoke outrage from a public weary of crime and criminals.
Still, his brutal beating drew a worldwide response. Even someone guilty of the fairly mundane (yet dangerous) crimes of drunk driving and fleeing police hardly deserved a tasering, 56 baton blows and a number of kicks from a half dozen police officers before he was handcuffed and taken into custody.
This is the toughest part of seeking equality for the poor and people of color; arguing for fair treatment of those who are clearly guilty of crimes and damaged people.
It's also why the current discussions about health care, poverty and easing immigration laws center on children and young people. Because we are too fractured as a nation to take on these topics about anyone other than what I call "worthy victims"; children and young people who presumably have little choice about their circumstances.
But how do we handle the unworthy victims?
How to argue for fair treatment of adults who have chosen to break the law and enter the country illegally? Or who are addicted to drink or drugs and live in poverty? Or who have committed awful crimes, including murder?
King's beating put all these questions on the table in stark detail, showing the consequences of ignoring how police treat people who may clearly be guilty of crimes. Forced to face visual evidence of police excess, the Los Angeles Police Department was pushed to ditch autocratic, militaristic leader Daryl Gates, diversify the force and allow civilians more control of policing.
These are questions we need to face again, as we consider when felons are allowed to vote after serving their jail sentences and racial disparities in everything from drug sentences to murder convictions and stand your ground defenses.
So, even as this media critic acknowledges King's legacy for media and policing, his larger message was even more profound:
Even those who chronically break the law deserve some level of respect.
The question left for our political system now, is whether we'll continue to learn the same important lessons.