(The Root) — Monday morning I was sitting on an exercise bike in a hotel gym, listening to a drum-and-bass song from the '90s while I pedaled furiously and watched the morning TV news on mute. That's when I learned that Rodney King had drowned. The song Horizon, by LTJ Bukem, samples parts of Maya Angelou's inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton: "Each new hour holds new chances/For a new beginning … /The horizon leans forward/Offering you space to place/New steps of change."
It would be easy to call this a moment of irony: the pulsing music, with its inspirational message, in my ears while images of King being mercilessly beaten, Los Angeles aflame and an older King with his family flashed before my eyes. I came to the news later than many, having spent the day before traveling and largely disconnected from television and the Internet. But as I sat in the hotel gym, I felt there was something deeper here than irony. Rodney King, for all his faults, was a man of new beginnings and of tragic flaws exacerbated, if not caused, by the circumstances of his life.
On the television show Celebrity Rehab, he was shown so drunk while working as a day laborer that he nearly fell off the back of a truck that he was helping to load. Later he wrote the book The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption. King, who grew up in Altadena, Calif., died on Father's Day.
His book begins with a moving paean to his own father, which starts with a memory of them going fishing together and his father pulling Rodney out when he panicked after getting stuck in deep mud. "Dad's arm reached around my waist like a steel cable and pulled me out of that muck as easy as a greased pole." Safety in a father's arms.
But not too long later, King was out at a swimming hole with other kids. A rock whizzed by his head, then another. For the first time he heard the words, "Run, nigger!" He didn't even know until then what the word meant, let alone the violence that could go with it.
Violence — and his failed attempt to numb his own fear — would become a theme in King's life. He said that he began drinking in junior high school, and he was intoxicated years later when he was pulled over by the Los Angeles Police Department for speeding in March of 1991.
The video of the brutal beating momentarily changed a complacency about policing and race relations, and it changed the face of South Los Angeles (formerly South Central), but it certainly has not changed the fact that America's incarceration policies favor the constant lockdown of men and women who are more troubled than sociopathically violent or destructive.
Earlier in his life, King had pleaded no contest to battery against his wife and, later, to robbery. King said that he led police on a high-speed chase the night of the beating because "I was scared of going back to prison and I just kind of thought the problem would just go away."
In 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.26 million adults were incarcerated (pdf). The U.S. incarceration rate as a percentage of the population is the highest in the world by far, followed by Russia — hardly a badge of honor for the world's superpower. Just as relevant, an earlier study by the BJS found that more than half of all prison and jail inmates in 2005 had a mental-health problem. Many were homeless, and a majority with or without a mental-health problem had a substance-abuse problem.
America's overincarceration is a public health problem as well as a human rights problem. It is also a fiscal problem. In a nation where we constantly cry that government is fiscally overextended, a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (pdf) illustrates how much overincarceration is literally costing it. As the authors put it: "A reduction rate by one-half in the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year and return the U.S. to about the same incarceration rate as we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards)." That money could be put into drug treatment, job creation and education.
So when we remember Rodney King, I hope we don't just remember a black body beaten by batons or a trial gone bad or a city on the brink. I hope we don't just remember sad footage of him from a reality show, or the fact that he died before his 50th birthday in a backyard pool.
I do hope that we remember how many women and men are living lives like King's, and then I hope that we as a society take action to ensure that we treat the human potential of vulnerable Americans with respect, spending some of the money we now use on warehousing them to treat and rehabilitate them.
Farai Chideya is an award-winning author and journalist and a spring 2012 fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. Follow her on Twitter.