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Rodney King's death: The end of an era

He was one of four iconic figures in the violent chapter that changed Los Angeles. He may have done the least, yet he symbolized the most.

June 19, 2012
  • Larry Davis / Los Angeles Times
Larry Davis / Los Angeles Times (m2tbzwpd20120617091002.2/600 )

The death of Rodney Glen King this weekend brought to an end an era that defined modern Los Angeles and affected any person who lived through it. It was, of course, King's beating at the hands of four Los Angeles police officers in 1991 that plunged the city into a wrenching debate over police brutality and racism. When the officers who pummeled King were acquitted on all but one charge the following year, the city responded with devastating riots, and King memorably pleaded for calm, begging residents to "get along."

King was one of four iconic figures from that episode, and all four are now dead. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley were twin towers of the era, their distaste for each other helping to shape its politics. In the year between King's beating and the riots, the two barely spoke, and their alienation helped ensure that the city was not ready for the violence that erupted on April 29, 1992. Subsequent chiefs and mayors have learned the lesson of that feud. Though they have not always appreciated each other, no mayor or chief since has put the city at risk the way those two stubborn leaders — the irascible Gates and the by-then-fading Bradley — did.

Warren Christopher was the epoch's other lasting figure, but his contribution was, by contrast, vital and positive. Christopher, who later served as President Clinton's secretary of State, chaired the commission that studied the LAPD in the aftermath of the beating. That commission's reforms — it created a five-year term of office for the chief and instituted a number of programs for monitoring the behavior and performance of police officers — along with the subsequent Justice Department consent decree revamped policing at the department. The LAPD's turn away from hostility and toward professionalism began with the commission and continues today.

PHOTOS: Rodney King | 1965- 2012

Christopher died in 2011, Bradley in 1998 and Gates in 2010. Now King too is gone. Of the four, he did the least and symbolized the most. King never quite knew how to take advantage of the celebrity that was thrust on him; he was arrested again and again, and never grew much beyond his famous plea for peace during the riots. Gates, Bradley and Christopher made this city's history; it merely happened to King. He died at age 47, his body recovered early Sunday morning from the bottom of his swimming pool.

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