Rodney King: Victim of police whose beating provoked riots in LA

 

Two decades ago, Rodney King was an improbable martyr for America's civil rights movement – drunk and with a history of various addictions, unemployed and out of jail on parole after a robbery conviction. All that changed, however, when he was stopped by police after a high-speed car chase along Foothill Freeway north of Los Angeles shortly after midnight on 3 March 1991.

King had fled because he had been drinking that night, and feared that a drunk-driving arrest would send him back to jail. The two friends who were with him got out of the car without incident, but King delayed. When he did emerge, he blew a kiss at the four police officers on the scene and waved a helicopter circling overhead.

The police – or so they claimed later – thought King was on the hallucinatory drug PCP. So they "swarmed" him, throwing him to the ground and then tasering him and hitting him more than 50 times with kicks and batons. The beating was captured on video by a local resident, who provided the grainy but shocking footage to television stations.

Its airing created a national outcry, focussing attention on police brutality. After intense public pressure, and an independent blue riband report finding that the use of "excessive force" was a problem for the LAPD from bottom to top," the officers were put on trial. But on 29 April 1992 an all-white jury acquitted three of them, while the fourth was freed as a mistrial was declared.

That night, black Los Angeles erupted in America's worst race riots in a quarter of a century, that left 55 people dead and swathes of south central LA in ruins, and caused over $1bn of damage. In vain did King appear before the world's media to plead for an end: "Can't we all get along, can't we get along?"

The violence led to the resignation of Daryl Gates, the city's hard-edged and combative police chief, who was accused of reacting tardily to the mayhem. A clamour for justice led to a new trial for the four officers, on federal charges that they had violated King's civil rights. This time, two of them were convicted and given two-year prison terms. King himself sued the city and eventually won $3.8m in damages, although most of the money went on legal fees and failed business ventures.

By now, whether he liked it or not, he was a national figure. But the pattern of his life did not change. He continued to drink and use drugs, and was briefly jailed on several occasions, for drunk-driving and assaulting a former wife. King appeared on various celebrity rehab TV shows, but as late as February 2012 – four months before he was found dead in the swimming pool he had built at his home – he was was given a misdemeanour conviction for driving recklessly and without a licence.

Over the years King gradually came to terms with the spotlight he had never sought. People "look at me like I should have been Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Rosa Parks," he said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times earlier this year on the occasion of his memoir The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, timed to mark the 20th anniversary of the riots. He was well aware he did not meet such lofty standards. But, he told the paper, even as a mere "poster child for police brutality," he could still try to use that role as "a positive force for healing and restraint."

Rodney Glen King, victim of police brutality: born Sacramento, California 2 April 1965; married twice (three children); died Rialto, California 17 June 2012.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own