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
Arts and Entertainment
Masterchef cooks Tony Rodd (left), Emma Spitzer (second left) and
Simon Wood (right) posing with judges Gregg Wallace (centre) and John Torode (second right), as the three will be seen cooking their hearts out in the hopes of winning the show.
TVReview: Tired Geography teacher John Torode and shaved Scotch egg Gregg Wallace crown the champion
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week
Life and Style
The Grand Palais in Paris will be transformed into a 4,000-seat cinema, with 44 double beds at the front
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road