Rodney King beating was 'catalytic' moment for LAPD, civil rights attorney says
What happened after the beating captured on the black-and-white video more than 20 years ago is well-documented: The acquittal, the riots and, woven throughout it all, a man eulogized by the Rev. Al Sharpton as a "symbol of civil rights" who spent years battling addiction and run-ins with the police.
As news of Rodney King's death spread Sunday, many wondered if the 47-year-old fully grasped the impact his 1991 beating had on the city of Los Angeles and the way it was policed.
"I don't know that he really understood that his getting crushed, beaten and then that tape got around the world — I don't know that he understood how catalytic a point in time that was," said attorney Connie Rice. "It was one of those events where you have to mark the beginning of the end of the old LAPD."
Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, said she saw Rodney King three weeks ago at a breakfast and remembered thinking that, 20 years after his fateful beating, he appeared healthy, happy and with "none of the haunted pain" or outward signs of his struggles with addiction.
"I thought, 'Wow, he seems to have finally chased the demons away. He's finally come out from under the storm clouds,'" Rice said. "You could see the change."
Following the beating, King was eventually awarded a $3.8-million settlement, but the money and fame brought him little solace. He had repeated run-ins with the law and, as of April, said he was broke.
Rice said despite King's troubles, there was something "fundamentally decent" about King despite being "a troubled and broken human being. That decency was personified in his famous question, "Can't we all just get along?" to Angelenos as the riots tore apart Los Angeles, she said.
"He could have poured gasoline on the fire. At a time when he could said something destructive … he said, 'Can we all get along?'” Rice said. "When you think about it, there aren’t a whole lot of guys I know that would have done that."
It was unclear if King ever fully grasped all the change that was triggered by the beating, Rice said, which resulted in 59 fractures to King's body and could have killed him.
"I hate that he had to go through it, but I think that his night of his suffering set off a whole chain reaction that ended up in a whole number of good things," Rice said. "The end of the era of LAPD immunity, the beginning of a serious quest for constitutional policing, and more that that, public trust policing."
She continued: "You could see it over the next two decades in the reaction to high-profile incidents. … You could see LAPD slowly changing. … We actually got police reform. And we couldn’t get it before."
King’s fiancée found him at the bottom of his pool at his home in Rialto early Sunday, police said. Officers pulled him from the pool and began CPR until paramedics arrived and took King to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, where King was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m.
Preliminary information indicated King drowned and there were no immediate signs of foul play, police said, but an autopsy will be conducted.
— Andrew Blankstein and Matt Stevens
Photo: An attorney points to still copies of a video of the Rodney King beating as the video is displayed on television monitor in a Simi Valley courtroom. Credit: Joe Kennedy/Los Angeles Times