The Rodney King incident took place 20 years ago last week. What kind of progress has been made?
The beating of Rodney King 20 years ago marked the end of a 100-mph car chase and the beginning of a chain of events that would forever change Los Angeles, its police department and the racial conversation in the United States.
King, then a 25-year-old convicted robber on parole, admittedly had a few drinks under his belt as he headed home from a friend’s house.
When he spotted a police car following him, he panicked, thinking he would be sent back to prison.
So he took off.
“I had a job to go to that Monday, and I knew I was on parole, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be drinking, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” King told CNN in a recent interview.
Realizing he couldn’t outrun police but knowing what they were likely to do to him when they caught him, King said he looked for a public place to stop.
“I saw all those apartments over there, so I said, ‘I’m gonna stop right there. If it goes down, somebody will see it.’ ”
It did go down.
Four police officers, all of them white, struck King more than 50 times with their wood batons and shocked him with an electric stun gun.
” ‘We are going to kill you, n****r,’ ” King said police shouted as they beat him. The officers denied using racial slurs.
King was right in his expectation of a beating, but his hope of having a witness was fulfilled in a big way.
Not only did somebody see it, somebody videotaped it — still a novelty in 1991, before people had cell phone cameras.
The video showed a large lump of a man floundering on the ground, surrounded by a dozen or more police officers, four of whom were beating him relentlessly with nightsticks.
One officer’s swings slow down as he appears worn out by his nonstop flailing. King was beaten nearly to death. Three surgeons operated on him for five hours that morning.
The dramatic video of the episode appeared on national TV two days later. At last, blacks in L.A. — and no doubt in other parts of the country — had evidence to document the police brutality many had known but most of America had always denied or tolerated.
“We finally caught the Loch Ness Monster with a camcorder,” King attorney Milton Grimes said.
Four LAPD officers — Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Sgt. Stacey Koon — were indicted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer.
In April 1992, after a three-month trial in the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, three of the officers were acquitted of all charges. But the jury, which had no black members, was deadlocked on one charge of excessive force against Powell. A mistrial was declared on that charge.
Powell’s attorney, Michael Stone, said the unedited video worked against King and helped prove the officers’ case.
“Most of the nation only saw a few snippets where it’s the most violent. They didn’t see him get up and run at Powell,” Stone said.
“In a use-of-force case, if the officers do what they’re trained to do, how can you find them guilty of a crime? And the jury understood that.”
Still, black Los Angeles exploded in outrage.
Rioters rampaged through the streets, looting businesses, torching buildings and attacking people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On the third day of rioting, King emerged from seclusion to make a plea that echoes to this day: “People, I just want to say, can we all get along?” he said. “Can we get along?”
By the time it was over, 55 people were dead, more than 2,000 were hurt, and property damage exceeded $1 billion.
Nearly a year later, the four officers were tried in federal court on civil rights charges. This trial would be very different from the first: It took place in Los Angeles, two African-Americans were picked for the jury and King actually testified this time.
“There was no way in the world that any jury would acquit all of the defendants again,” Stone, the defense attorney, told CNN.
King’s own testimony may have hurt the federal case, as he hedged on whether police had used racial slurs during the beating. King recently told CNN that slurs definitely were uttered, but he said he vacillated on the stand because his mother had advised him to avoid talking about race.
Ultimately, Koon and Powell were found guilty, while Briseno and Wind were acquitted.
“It was like, … I just hope we just get one. I hope we just get one on that,” King said. “If we get one, we’re good. So to get the two, I was really happy.”
“We got half-justice,” his attorney, Grimes, growled, but the verdicts and the 30-month sentences seemed to satisfy the community. There was no unrest.
One more trial awaited: Rodney King’s lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles.
This time, there was only one African-American on the jury, and she was a force to be reckoned with.
“Half of them had no sympathy whatsoever,” Cynthia Kelly told CNN, referring to her fellow jurors. “They did not care at all. They just didn’t care. Like, ‘He broke the law. He deserved what he got.’ ”
“I told them they were crazy!” she recalled. “It was about justice for what happened to him. No one deserves to get beat like that.”
Eventually, the other jurors came around, and King was awarded $3.8 million in damages.
It was finally over. But the aftereffects continue to this day.
King sometimes still wears a protective vest in response to a fear of reprisal and some genuine threats. And he’s had several more run-ins with the law, including a 90-day jail stint in 1996 for a hit-and-run involving his wife at the time.
Even on Thursday, 20 years to the day after the beating, King had a minor run-in with police.
People wonder why he kept getting into trouble.
“The trouble that they see me in is a part of my life that I’m working on,” he said, acknowledging a long-standing problem with alcohol. In 2008, he appeared on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab” reality show.
But despite those troubles — not to mention frequent nightmares and the fact that he’s spent virtually all of his share of the $3.8 million — King says he is happy. He’s a grandfather now, and he’s engaged to marry a special woman who has returned from his past — Cynthia Kelly.
“She’s a nice, friendly person,” he said.
Things have changed at the LAPD, too. The upper ranks are much more diverse. Changes also have been made — sometimes under court order — in the way certain neighborhoods are patrolled and in how complaints are handled.
“The main impact that the Rodney King case had is that it accelerated change,” journalist Lou Cannon said. “It’s not tenable any longer in the United States of America for a police force of a major city to govern without having the community being a part of that governance.”
Whether society itself has sufficiently changed is a question for every generation to consider.
Thanks for your attention.