King would be the first to tell you that his lifelong bout with alcohol and drugs and frequent run-ins with police did not qualify him for icon status. Yet, that’s what he achieved in 1991 at the age of 27 because of one video clip.
The brutal beating of King, an unemployed construction worker, forced America to see what many did not want to believe existed – police officers brutalizing citizens who pose no immediate threat to them or the public.
Started with robbery
King’s entry into the national spotlight has its roots in an incident that took place in 1989. King robbed $200 from a grocery store in Monterey Park, Calif. and was sentenced to two years in prison. On the night of March 2, 1991, following hours of drinking with friends, King was spotted speeding in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. When cops tried to pull him over, he tried to elude them by driving even faster, fearing that he would go back to jail for violating his parole.
After a high-speed chase, King was cornered and ordered out of his vehicle. The two passengers accompanying him exited the car and lay facedown on the ground. When King exited, he acted strangely, waving at police helicopters that had been part of the chase and giggling uncontrollably.
Supervising officer Sgt. Stacey Koon fired a taser into King’s back, causing him to drop to his knees. Other officers pummeling King with their nightsticks. After being struck 56 times and kicked a half-dozen times, King was handcuffed and dragged to the side of the road on his stomach to await the arrival of an ambulance. King later reported that he had suffered 11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, kidney damage and broken bones and teeth.
Four officers were charged with excessive use of force. The trial was switched to Simi Valley, a largely White community. On April 29, 1992, a jury that contained no African-Americans acquitted three of the officers and was unable to reach a verdict on a fourth.
Los Angeles exploded upon hearing the verdict. At the end of six days of unrest, there were 53 deaths and 2,383 injuries. Property damage was nearly $1 billion.
In an effort to end the violence, Rodney King appeared in public to utter his now- famous “Can we all get along?”
Later, the federal government obtained indictments charging the officers with violating King’s civil rights. Koon and Laurence Powell were found guilty and sentenced to 32 months in prison; Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted. The city of Los Angeles settled a civil suit brought by King for $3.8 million.
Rodney King’s beating was not an aberration.
• Feb. 4, 1999 – Amadou Diallo was killed by New York City police officers who claimed they thought he was reaching for a gun. Four officers were indicted for second-degree murder, but were acquitted.
• Sept. 2, 2005 – Following Hurricane Katrina, Henry Glover was shot to death while near a strip mall shopping for baby clothing. Two cops were sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for shooting Glover, tossing his body into a car and setting it on fire.
• Nov. 26, 2006 –Three unarmed Black men, including Sean Bell, were shot a total of 50 times by New York police officers. Bell, who had been celebrating at his bachelor’s party, died in the hail of bullets. Three officers charged with manslaughter were acquitted.
• Jan. 1, 2009 – Oscar Grant was shot in the back by Officer Johannes Mehserle while on the ground at a train station in Oakland, Calif. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but served only 11 months in prison.
Thanks to Rodney King, the public is not as quick to believe police officers who abuse their power and violate public trust.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.