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Remembering the Complicated Life Story of Rodney King

June 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Rodney King, whose video-taped beating by Los Angeles police in 1991 launched a public dialogue about race relations in the United States, died Sunday at age 47. Jeffrey Brown, Patt Morrison of The Los Angeles Times and Darnell Hunt of the University of California, Los Angeles discuss his complicated life.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: remembering Rodney King.

This grainy video catapulted 25-year-old Rodney King into the national spotlight in 1991. A bystander taped Los Angeles police beating King, who had led them on a high-speed chase after a night of heavy drinking. He was kicked, struck with batons more than 50 times, and shot with stun guns.

In an interview this past spring, King remembered.

RODNEY KING, Police Beating Victim: When I saw the tape, it was — I was so happy to that it was on tape. And then I was looking at it, it was like me being in another body. I felt like I was — I had died in that one and just watching it.

JEFFREY BROWN: When it was over, King had 11 skull fractures, a broken eye socket and nerve damage. Four white officers were charged with felony assault ,but their trial was moved to Simi Valley, a predominantly white suburb.

And on April 29, 1992, a jury with no black members acquitted three of the officers. The case against the fourth ended in a mistrial. Los Angeles erupted into three days of rioting that killed 55 people and injured more than 2,000. Large swathes of the city burned. It led a still recovering King to utter this now famous plea.

RODNEY KING: Can we all get along? Can we get along?

JEFFREY BROWN: Later, King sued the city of Los Angeles and won a judgment of nearly $4 million.

But his life continued to be marked by alcohol and drug abuse, as well as multiple arrests for driving under the influence, as recently as last year. In 2008, he appeared on a reality TV show about celebrities seeking addiction treatment.

In a memoir, “The Riot Within,” released in April, King wrote that he felt burdened by his notoriety. “I wanted no part of it,” he wrote, “just wanted to stay home, drink and watch TV. The fact that this footage was sent out to be viewed by the entire world certainly didn’t help my recovery.”

Early yesterday, his fiancee found him at the bottom of a swimming pool at his home in Rialto, California. Police said it appeared to be an accidental drowning, but an autopsy was scheduled for today. Rodney King was 47 years old.

More now from Patt Morrison, a longtime reporter and columnist for The Los Angeles Times. She met with and profiled Rodney King a number of times. And Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA, who has written on race relations in Los Angeles.

Well, Patt Morrison, start with you. You wrote a piece today titled “The Burden of Being Rodney King.” Explain that. How did he see that burden?

PATT MORRISON, The Los Angeles Times: It was a burden that he didn’t seek. People wanted in him Martin Luther King in a sweater.

But here’s a flawed man. And if he hadn’t been flawed, he wouldn’t have been stopped on that freeway. We wouldn’t have seen those 81 seconds of videotape that changed Los Angeles, that changed the Los Angeles Police Department. It was a big burden for him that he carried so many expectations with him.

For example, his family only called him Glen King. That’s the name they knew him by. Rodney King was a different personage altogether and a very hard one for him to live up to.

 

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re saying he was aware of the flaws? He knew that he had been put in history in a strange and unexpected way?

PATT MORRISON: Oh, he said over and over again — he said, “I’m only human. I’m not a perfect man.”

But he kept trying. I think that’s the most telling thing about him. He kept trying to come back. This book was one of his efforts to come back. He was so proud of it. There was a co-author. Rodney King had a hard time sometimes writing his name, but he was very proud that his story got to be told.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Darnell Hunt, a symbol of what? When you look back now, what was the role of the man Rodney King set within this much larger scope of history, of what happened?

DARNELL HUNT, Director, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies, UCLA: Well, I think within the African-American community, he’s a symbol of the stories that people have been telling for generations about police brutality that no one really believed, no one could really prove.

And then, of course, there was that fateful evening when George Holliday happened to catch it all on video. And of course everyone felt that what they had been saying for years would finally come to light. So I think he symbolizes that. And in that sense, his name is truly iconic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Patt Morrison, the investigation into his death is still going on. But you mentioned he had written this memoir recently. He was newly engaged to a woman, in fact, who had been a juror in the civil suit, I gather, against the city.

You talked to him fairly recently when the memoir came out. What was he like at that point?

PATT MORRISON: He was very upbeat. He was very hopeful. He believed in God. And he believed that God could help him through a lot of these problems. And he was happy that his story was out there and he was able to tell it after 20 years’ reflection.

He was also a very good swimmer because he loved to swim. That’s why he had a house with a pool. It was therapeutic for him to do so. He was an avid fisherman. He liked nothing better than sitting out there with a fishing pole, even if he didn’t catch anything.

And so I think he thought things were on the upswing, which is why it was a little puzzling that this should happen when it did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it your sense, staying with you, Patt Morrison, that he — you were talking about the flaws and you’re talking about the burden. But was it also your sense that he was aware that some important things had changed precisely because of him, because of what he went through?

PATT MORRISON: Oh, absolutely.

That 81 seconds of videotape did more than studies and speeches and panels and conferences could ever have done. The LAPD is different. The city is different. And I asked him if he would rather not have been that man. And he said, no, because of what happened to him, big things happened, important things happened, that people would come up to him and say, I got a job because of you. I got justice because of you.

That really meant a lot to him. I was at a lunch event with him not long ago where Sugar Ray Leonard walked by. And Rodney got up from the table and ran over to Sugar Ray Leonard to get his picture taken and came back shaking his head, saying, Sugar Ray Leonard wanted his picture taken with me.

 

He could never get over that sense of awe that people respected him as a figure, a flawed figure, as even the police chief of Los Angeles said, but a seminal figure in the history of L.A.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Darnell Hunt, you chronicled some of that history. So, what did change because of what happened to Rodney King?

DARNELL HUNT: Well, I think Patt hit the nail on the head.

Clearly, the LAPD is not your LAPD from 1992. I think there was a real effort to move toward community policing. We’re not all the way there, obviously. But the statements that police chiefs like Daryl Gates could make about African-Americans not being normal people because they were dying of choke-holds, that’s not the LAPD that we have today.

So there’s been a lot of change there on that front. I think the police commission has been a lot more active in making sure that the LAPD of old is not the LAPD today. I think people take the allegations of police brutality a lot more seriously now that certainly that particular incident gained worldwide notoriety.

JEFFREY BROWN: And race relations, generally? It’s a big subject, of course, but when you look then to today?

DARNELL HUNT: Yes. Well, clearly Rodney King, in those immortal words, “Can we all just get along?” I mean, I think that he’s a symbol of reconciliation.

I think that many groups in L.A. learned a lot from what happened in 1992 and the real efforts for dialogue across racial lines. But there are lots of problems yet to be solved. There’s quite a bit of inequality in L.A. There’s still concerns that different communities have with access to jobs and to a decent standard of living.

And, certainly, those pressures all contributed to people participating in 1992. So, I think we have a long way to go to solve those problems. But, certainly, the dialogue that began in 1992, largely because Rodney King happened to be in the wrong place at the right time, is something that we have all benefited from.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Patt Morrison, just briefly, that famous line, “Can we all get along?” how did that — what did that mean to him later on in life?

PATT MORRISON: It was a very artless thing to say. His lawyers had given him a script. And he just — he didn’t even pay attention to that. That was the way he felt.

He had gone to Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall with his mother when he was a boy, worshipped with Latinos, worshipped with Asians. It seemed fine there. And he was really puzzled that in Los Angeles we could not all get along. And he was picked up so often by the cops. As you know, they would take him back to the police station. And one of them said to him, because of those words, because of, “Can we all get along?” he said, man, you’re going to be remembered 100 years after the rest of us are dead and gone.

That’s a pretty big burden.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Patt Morrison, Darnell Hunt, thank you both so much.

DARNELL HUNT: Thank you.

PATT MORRISON: Pleasure.