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Steve Lopez: Rodney King was tragic figure, unlikely symbol

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It seemed from a distance that Rodney King spent much of his adult life on the edge of death, a tragic and symbolic figure unable to cope with life, adversity and fame.

   Steve LopezBeaten nearly to death by police after being pulled over while driving drunk as a young man, and then fighting the tug of alcohol and drugs into middle age, he ultimately died in a backyard drowning that seemed almost metaphorical -- a man who treaded life's treacherous currents at times but seemed often to be sinking, never free from the clutches of his many demons.

His death comes just two months after the 20th anniversary of what came to be known as the Rodney King riots, a date marked by the release of his book, "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption."

PHOTOS: Rodney King | 1965- 2012

Hearing him talk about the book, it wasn't clear that he had begun to approach any level of stability or peace.

"It made the world a better place," King told The Times in an interview about his beating. What it did was put police on alert.

The savage beating, captured on video, was no doubt a stimulus for change -- change for the better -- in the Los Angeles Police Department.

VIDEOS: Rodney King

And though King never seemed comfortable or capable as a symbol of civil rights, in some ways he always will be, his early death is a reminder that while race relations may have improved somewhat and things may have changed for the better in South Los Angeles -- where dozens died and millions of dollars worth of property were destroyed in the riots that bear King's name -- there's still a ways to go.

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Morrison: Rodney King, 20 years after L.A.'s riots

--Steve Lopez

Photo credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

 
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