Moreover, it was not the first time that an act of police abuse in the black community spurred deadly riots and also made mainstream America examine the poverty, unemployment and desperate economic conditions of the inner city.  Consistently, the urban rebellions of the 1960s in Watts, Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere had been sparked by the senseless beating or coldblooded shooting death of an African American by police officers.

But with Rodney King, finally, we had the videotape.  Collectively, the experiences of black America were validated.  It was a “we told you so” moment.  And that made all the difference, beyond all the anecdotal evidence black folks had collected over the years, about a cousin or a brother or a son whose bones were broken in the precinct house, or strangled by the cops, or shot to death for no reason.

For some in white America, it was one of those teachable moments one always hears about.  But in the case of Rodney King, there was much to teach about the role of the police in communities of color.  White Americans had been conditioned to believe that the police were there to “protect and serve,” and they had welcomed that presence in their neighborhoods.  The police protected the innocent and arrested the criminals, and the criminal justice system punished those who committed crimes.

Meanwhile, black and brown communities viewed the police not as a force for good, but as an occupying force.  The Five-0, in their view, were there not to protect and serve, but to control and contain. In their eyes, this was confirmed by the disrespect, the heavy-handed methods that police used in the ‘hood, singling out racial minorities for drug sweeps when there was no shortage of drug use in the suburbs or the board rooms.

Before Rodney King, police brutality was not on the radar screen of white Americans, who were all too ready to buy into the notion of black criminality, taking it at face value.  Under that mindset, whatever happened to “those” people was exactly what they deserved, since they were up to no good to begin with.  And if they were punished for a crime they did not commit, surely this was payback for a previous crime.  White America was conditioned to believe “tough on crime” tactics were necessary to protect middle America from a threat of violence from dark faces.

Really, the fear of black criminality has provided a foundation for today’s criminal justice system:  more arrests, convictions and prison cells for black bodies translate into career advancement for politicians and actors in the system, and profits for corporations who service, or exploit, that system.

A reality TV star of sorts before the term was ever used, Rodney King came along in the early days of the 24-hour news cycle.  King helped lift the veil on race in the criminal justice system, and made the complex issues of racism and the law more accessible to a wider audience.  For all of the pain he endured, we should be thankful.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove