Rodney King never set out to be a James Meredith or Rosa Parks.
He was a drunk, unemployed construction worker on parole when he careened into the city’s consciousness in a white Hyundai early one Sunday morning in 1991.
While he was enduring the videotaped blows that would reverberate around the world, he wanted to escape to a nearby park where his father used to take him. He simply wanted to survive.
He did survive, but the brutal beating transformed the troubled man into an icon of the civil rights movement. His very name became a symbol of police abuse and racial tensions, of one of the worst urban riots in American history.
- Joe Mozingo and Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
You could say King was ahead of his time, because before there was YouTube or citizen journalism, camcorder footage of King, who was black, being beaten by white L.A.P.D. officers who’d stopped him for speeding was one of the first videos to go viral, in effect, on TV newscasts all over the country.
Riots exploded in South Los Angeles after a jury that included no African Americans acquitted three of those officers, and deadlocked on the fourth. In the violence that followed, thousands of people were injured and 55 died. While the city was still on fire, King stepped to the microphone and asked, “Can we all get along?”
I was then and remain in awe of all it took for him to do that. Here was a man who’d had his head beaten, his leg broken, his eye shattered. His face had been partially paralyzed during that rain of kicks and blows — 50 of them — with police batons. That he still called for peace over vengeance is pretty much the ultimate “manning up” in my book.
- Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post
He inhabits a world stocked with heartache and struggle. He calls himself a recovering addict but has not stopped drinking and possesses a doctor’s clearance for medical marijuana. He says he is happy and hopeful, content enough now to forgive the officers who beat him. But he tenses when they are mentioned and admits to being burdened by the weight of his name. He suffers nightmares, flashbacks and raw nerves that echo the symptoms of a shellshocked survivor of war.
On the dock, he gazes out at the smooth water. Fishing is healing. It calms him. Once his therapy was the ocean and surfing, until he was frightened one day by a school of dolphins that he mistook for sharks.
“I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a vise. Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero,” he says of the beating. “Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I’m a fool for believing in peace.”
- Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2012
The 47-year-old King’s untimely death Sunday will undoubtedly focus even more media attention on the tragedy of his life — highlighted by the infamous videotaped beating, the riots and two decades of personal missteps, including repeated clashes with the law, drug and alcohol addiction and failed business ventures. When we spoke in April, it appeared that King might finally have turned his life around. He arrived at the interview in a chauffeured limousine courtesy of HarperCollins, which published his book, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, just days before the April 29 anniversary of the Los Angeles unrest.He received 50 rejections before HarperCollins agreed to publish his story. But he said he was finally getting the opportunity to tell everyone what it was like to be Rodney King then and now. He was also planning to get married. His fiancée, Cynthia Kelley, a juror from King’s successful civil trial against the acquitted LAPD officers, came with him and sat next to him on a sofa during the interview. “I am happy to be alive,” he said. “I see things differently now. I have gotten to know my Creator, gotten closer to my family and my new fiancée. I try to be happy every day and do something that’s making a difference in somebody’s life.”
- Sylvester Monroe, The Root
When I leave here, when my final day on this earth is up, I want to leave in peace. I want to have peace in my heart.
- Rodney King, New York Times
We wanted King to win, because the system that he wound up challenging failed him and it failed us miserably on so many levels. It’s hard for people of younger generations to really understand what it meant when we saw the horrific footage of King being brutally beaten LA police officers after a traffic stop in ’91.
Despite its unsettling nature and the anger it conjured up, the video gave us all a sense of hope. At long last all those stories Black and Brown folks told of over the top police brutality which were routinely dismissed, said to be outright lies & exaggerations or somehow justifiable police actions was finally caught on tape. The whole world got to see the truth before their eyes. We felt vindicated and we knew those cops were gonna pay.
Rodney King and that tape of his beating had many of us buying into the belief that justice would be served. Those responsible would be punished and substantial changes would come within LAPD and police departments all over the country. On April 29 1992, the acquittal of those 4 officers moved Rodney King from a symbol of Hope to a symbol of Naivety. Sadly he underscored that naivety when he stood before the world as LA was being burned down by folks angered by the verdict and asked in a halting voice … Can We Get Along?
Him asking that famous question had many of us concluding that we can’t trust the system nor could we trust Rodney King to toe the line for the people when we needed it most…It disappointed and angered us that King still was believing in the justice system when were all given a clear message it would not ever work for us.. It certainly didn’t work for him..
- Mr. Davey D, hip-hop activist