It was all on tape and ultimately changed the way America witnessed and reported crime and official misbehavior, documenting it on video cameras and, today, camera phones.
But at the time, the videotape of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police did little more than spark black fear of and anger over brutality and racial injustice at the hands of police and confirm how little black life was valued when the officers who attacked King were acquitted.
King, 47, was found dead Sunday in his swimming pool, 20 years after the acquittal sparked the L.A. riots. At the height of the violence he appeared at a news conference and appealed for calm and civility.
His plea, “Can we all get along?” became the catchphrase of the early ‘90s, finding its way not only into the lexicon of peace, but political discourse and comedic routines.
King was not the perfect protagonist for a story about police brutality.
In March 1991, he was a 25-year-old paroled robber, fleeing an attempted traffic stop because he was driving drunk, which he feared would have sent him back to prison for violating the terms of his parole. At times, the chase reached 115 mph, some of it through residential neighborhoods.
When King finally stopped, four frustrated LAPD officers descended on him; they tasered, kicked and struck King, hitting him repeatedly with their batons and made no effort to handcuff him.
The beating was videotaped by George Holliday, a resident of a nearby apartment building. The video was seen repeatedly on television and sparked stories of similar abuse by Los Angeles police. After intense media scrutiny and a huge public outcry, four officers were tried on assault charges.
Many people assumed the video would make conviction a slam dunk. Instead, defense attorneys won a change of venue from Los Angeles to more conservative Simi Valley, managed to seat a jury with no black members and parsed the video frame-by-frame to argue that when dissected it was reasonable for police to believe King posed a physical threat to law enforcement.
On April 29, 1992, three of the officers were acquitted and a mistrial was declared for the fourth.
That outcome triggered six days of rioting, resulting in 55 deaths, hundreds of buildings destroyed, an estimated $1 billion in damages and led to the news conference at which King appealed for peace.
Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell, the officers who beat King, were indicted in the summer of 1992 on federal civil rights charges. Koon and Powell were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. King was awarded $3.8 million in damages.
King struggled for the rest of his life with alcohol and drugs, additional arrests and notoriety. In his memoir, “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption,” released in April to coincide with the anniversary of the riots, he said he was never completely comfortable being cast as a symbol for civil rights.
“People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” he told The Los Angeles Times in an interview. “I should have seen life like that and stay out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations.”
“Rodney King was a symbol of civil rights and he represented the anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling movement of our time. It was his beating that made America focus on the presence of profiling and police misconduct,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a news release from his National Action Network. “History will record that it was Rodney King’s beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement.”
According to police reports, King’s fiancée, Cynthia Kelley, called 911 at 5:25 a.m. and said she had found King in the pool at his home in Rialto, 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Efforts by emergency personnel to revive King failed and he was pronounced dead at a hospital at 6:11 a.m.
Two of the tiles in the pool, which King built himself, were inscribed with the date of his beating and the start of the riots.
“I realize I will always be the poster child for police brutality,” King told The Los Angeles Times in April, “but I can try to use that as a positive force for healing and restraint.”