Rodney King dead: How he put police brutality on the map

Rodney King— the iconic black motorist whose videotaped beating by LAPD officers in 1991 sparked outrage and changed America—was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool on Sunday.

In March 1991, King was stopped by the police following a high-speed chase, ordered out of his Hyundai, and repeatedly kicked, tasered and struck over 50 times with police batons, sustaining serious injuries.

It is ironic that he died on the day that Rev. Al Sharpton led a march to protest New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy— which has targeted hundreds of thousands of innocent black and Latino men for walking while black or Latino.  That aggressive police tactics against communities of color are still a problem 20 years after Rodney King later tells us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And yet, King was responsible for making police brutality an important, cutting edge issue, and a topic of discussion on the national stage, particularly for white Americans who had never experienced it.

I spoke with Mr. King only several weeks ago, when both of us were guests on Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” radio show to discuss, of all things, the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.  The 1992 riots, of course, were sparked by the “not guilty” verdict in the trial of four police officers charged with excessive force against him.  The unrest claimed 53 lives and resulted in $1 billion in property damage.

I found Mr. King to be insightful, much deeper of a thinker than I had expected.  He had just released his book, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, and reflected on the impact his experience had on L.A. and the country.  It was clear Rodney King had grown from his experience, and had a message to share.

Surely, Rodney King was not a perfect victim, though imperfections do not warrant what he faced at the hands of the police.  Rather, he was an ordinary guy who was caught up in rather extraordinary circumstances.  He reportedly had been drinking with his friends the night of the incident, and struggled with alcoholism and brushes with the law after he became a household name.  King’s father was an alcoholic who died at 42, and the son battled with his demons and died at 47 on Father’s Day— the father of three children, and engaged to a juror in his civil suit against the city of Los Angeles, in which he collected a $3.8 million settlement.

The brutal beating of Rodney King was significant because for the first time, thanks to George Holliday’s camcorder, black America was able to go to the videotape, so to speak.  Certainly, this was not the first time that a black man was brutalized by police.  Without question, in the 1950s and 1960s, America and the world saw the televised images of civil rights workers being sprayed by fire hoses, bitten by four-legged police dogs— and beaten nearly to death by “two-legged dogs,” as Malcolm X so aptly referred to brutal police officers.