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Rodney King dies at 47; victim of brutal beating became reluctant symbol of race relations

He is found dead in his swimming pool in Rialto. The tape of his 1991 beating and the upheaval that followed in 1992 opened the door to widespread police reform. But he struggled with the expectations placed upon him.

June 17, 2012|By Joe Mozingo and Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Rodney King meets the media on May 1, 1992, during the L.A. riots, his first public appearance. He asked "Can we all get along?"
Rodney King meets the media on May 1, 1992, during the L.A. riots, his first… (Los Angeles Times )

Rodney King never set out to be a James Meredith or Rosa Parks.

He was a drunk, unemployed construction worker on parole when he careened into the city's consciousness in a white Hyundai early one Sunday morning in 1991.

While he was enduring the videotaped blows that would reverberate around the world, he wanted to escape to a nearby park where his father used to take him. He simply wanted to survive.

PHOTOS: Rodney King | 1965- 2012

He did survive, but the brutal beating transformed the troubled man into an icon of the civil rights movement. His very name became a symbol of police abuse and racial tensions, of one of the worst urban riots in American history.

More tangibly, the tape of his beating and the upheaval that followed in 1992 brought about the resignation of the long-reigning Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates, and opened the door to widespread police reform in the city and beyond.

But King struggled with the expectations freighted upon him, with addictions, legal problems and financial woes, with the name that transcended the man himself and the ragged reality he lived.

VIDEOS: Rodney King and the L.A. riots

Early Sunday morning, at age 47, King was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool in Rialto. Authorities say there was no evidence of foul play and are investigating his death as an accidental drowning.

King's fiancee, Cynthia Kelley, discovered him around 5 in the morning, authorities said. She told investigators that she had been talking to him intermittently through a sliding glass door. At some point she heard a splash, and ran out to find King submerged at the deep end.

Kelley said she could not swim well, so she called 911. When police pulled King out of the water, King showed no signs of life.

From the beginning, King had faltered in his role as a symbol and was tormented by his failings. His stuttering plea for everyone to "get along" during the riots was praised for its earnest intent, yet ridiculed as feckless and naive in relation to such searing, deep-seated anger.

"I never went to school to be 'Rodney King,'" he told The Times two months ago on the 20th anniversary of the riots.

He didn't even use that name much; his family called him by his middle name, Glen.

But whatever the transgressions of his life, he caused, however inadvertently, profound change.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A. riots, 20 years later

"Rodney King has a unique spot in both the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD," Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement. "What happened on that cool March night over two decades ago forever changed me and the organization I love. His legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence wrought on this city and its Police Department."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said King's life exposed the nation to racial profiling and police brutality.

"We thank God for the use of Rodney King's life to lift us to a higher degree of consciousness. Let the burden upon the living be to continue the struggle so that the days of racial injustice will end. Let us answer Rodney's pressing question: Yes, we all can get along."

King's family moved from Sacramento to the foothills of Altadena when he was 2. His parents cleaned offices for a living. His father, Ronald, was a hard-fisted drinker who took his anger out on his son. The boy began drinking in junior high school and often got into trouble with authorities.

In 1989, King was accused of attacking the owner of a market in Monterey Park with a tire iron. He pleaded guilty to robbery and received a two-year sentence.

He had just been released when the California Highway Patrol clocked him going west on the 210 Freeway on March 3, 1991, at speeds over 100 mph. It was just after midnight. He saw the flashing lights in his mirror and raced to get away. He had been drinking with friends and knew he'd be back in custody for violating his parole if he was caught. Los Angeles officers quickly joined the pursuit. He stopped eight miles later on a darkened stretch of Foothill Boulevard.

His two friends obeyed orders and got out of the car without incident. King delayed, then got out and acted erratically. He did a little dance, waved to a helicopter whirring overhead and blew a kiss. The cops later said they thought he was on PCP, though he was not.

What happened next was debated and analyzed in granular detail in courts, investigative panels and living rooms for years to come. LAPD officers swarmed King, shot him with Tasers and rained some 50 blows upon him with batons and boots.

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2012

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