That question has been repeated so many times, played for laughs and effect in so many situations over the last 20 years that people forget it was once not only a legitimate question, but an impassioned plea for peace. Or at least for a return to the time where the hatred wasn't so open and destructive.
I thought about that question today, as I found out that Rodney King, the man who asked it, was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool this past Sunday. I thought about the question itself, the time it was asked, the circumstances behind it, and if 20 years later, we are any closer to an answer.
For those of you that don't know, Rodney King was the face of police brutality -- specifically against Black men-- in the early 90's. The full story is that he was drunk, driving, and in violation of parole. But when police caught him, they unleashed a massive beatdown, hitting him 50 times with batons and fists, and all of this was caught on a camcorder. The four officers involved were acquitted of wrongdoing in a jury trial, and the result was Los Angeles burning in a three day-long riot, in which 55 people were killed. As a result, Mr. King was asked by various media outlets for an interview, and he responded with his famous question, "Can't we all get along?"
I find it ironic, looking back, that the victim in all this was asked to be the healing agent, to call off the dogs so to speak.
It's a shame in any day and age that a question of whether or not individual members of a "civilized" society could get along without killing each other even comes up. And it's an even greater shame when 20 years later, the answer to that question is still up in the air. Can we all just get along? I mean, in general, we all want the same things -- a place to call home, people with whom we can relate, a measure of comfort. Can't we all work together to achieve our individual dreams? Can we not cannibalize each other? Can the color of our skin -- or differences therein -- not be a barrier to accomplishing these shared goals?
The disturbing thing behind this question is that although the answer should be - and in a perfect world, would be - a resounding yes, it's not. It's not a resounding "no" either, which does instill some hope, but not nearly enough. Rodney King's death underscores the failed realization of a dream, that while not quite as ambitious or moving or unifying as that other King Dream, is tragically unfulfilled. Rodney King died in a world that was not entirely dissimilar to the world he lived in. True, the President is Black, and there are more mixed children running around now than in anyone's memory. However, the attitudes, the stereotypes, the training hasn't changed much. I get cross-eyed looks from the police in this little tiny town I now reside in.
So what do we do about it? Can we all just... you know... get along?