LOS ANGELES – His beating stunned the nation, left Los Angeles smoldering and helped reshape race relations and police tactics. And in a quavering voice on national television, Rodney King pleaded for peace while the city burned.
But peace never quite came for King – not after the fires died down, after two of the officers who broke his skull multiple times were punished, after Los Angeles and its flawed police department moved forward. His life, which ended Sunday at age 47 after he was pulled from the bottom of his swimming pool, was a continual struggle even as the city he helped change moved on.
The images – preserved on an infamous grainy video – of the black driver curled up on the ground while four white officers clubbed him more than 50 times with batons – became a national symbol of police brutality in 1991. More than a year later, when the officers’ acquittals touched off one of the most destructive race riots in history, his scarred face and softspoken question – Can we all get along? – spurred the nation to confront its difficult racial history.
But while Los Angeles race relations and the city’s police department made strides forward, King kept coming before police and courts, struggling with alcohol addiction and arrests, periodically re-appearing publicly for a stint on Celebrity Rehab or a celebrity boxing match. He spent the last months of his life promoting a memoir he titled The Riot Within: From Rebellion to Redemption.
King was declared dead at a hospital after his fiancée called 911 at 5:25 a.m. to say she found him submerged in the pool at his home in Rialto, about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. Officers found King in the deep end of the pool, pulled him out and tried unsuccessfully to revive him with CPR.
An autopsy was expected to determine the cause of death within two days; police found no alcohol or drug paraphernalia near the pool and said foul play wasn’t suspected.
King’s next-door neighbor, Sandra Gardea, said that about 3 a.m., she heard music and someone really crying, like really deep emotions. Like tired or sad, you know?
I then heard someone say, OK, Please stop. Go inside the house.’ We heard quiet for a few minutes Then after that we heard a splash in the back.
King’s death was a grim ending to a saga that began 21 years earlier when he fled from police after he was stopped for speeding. The 25-year-old, on parole from a robbery conviction, had been drinking, which he later said led him to try to evade police. He was finally stopped by four Los Angeles police officers who struck him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns. He was left with 11 skull fractures, a broken eye socket and facial nerve damage.
A man who had quietly stepped outside his home to observe the commotion videotaped most of it and turned a copy over to a TV station. It was played over and over for the following year, inflaming racial tensions across the country.
It seemed that the videotape would be the key evidence to a guilty verdict against the officers, whose felony assault trial was moved to the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, Calif. Instead, on April 29, 1992, a jury with no black members acquitted three of the officers on state charges in the beating; a mistrial was declared for a fourth.
Violence erupted immediately, starting in Los Angeles. Riots lasted for three days, killing 55 people, injuring more than 2,000 and setting swaths of Los Angeles aflame, causing $1 billion in damage. Police were outnumbered by rioters and retreated. As the uprising spread to the city’s Koreatown area, shop owners engaged in running gun battles with looters.
King appeared at a news conference on the third day, asking for an end to the uprising. Can we all get along? he asked – a question the city and nation have struggled to answer ever since.
Although the four officers who beat King – Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell – were acquitted of state charges, Koon and Powell were convicted of federal civil rights charges and were sentenced to two years in prison. King received a $3.8 million civil judgment; one of the jurors in the case, Cynthia Kelley, was his fiancée.
But he quickly lost the money as he invested in a record label and other failed ventures. He was arrested multiple times for drunken driving – including last summer.
Despite his troubles, King remained upbeat.
America’s been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all, he told The Associated Press in an interview this year. This part of my life is the easy part now.