Rodney Glen King (b. 1965), US beating victim

Rodney King, a 6’3” man whom friends called a “gentle giant”, enjoyed hanging with his homies drinking 40s when he wasn’t working construction part-time, the best work he could get. He was the second of five children of a drunk. He was left back in high school and stuck in special ed classes before he dropped out in 1984. He fathered two children with two different women and married a third woman, Crystal Waters, with two children of her own. Perhaps inevitably, he turned to crime, getting stuck with an attempted robbery conviction in 1989. He was out on parole in a year.

On March 3, 1991, he was still on parole when he was driving around with an open 40 in his car. He knew when he saw the flashing lights of the California Highway Patrol behind him that a DUI would send him back to prison, so he made a run for it. By the time he pulled off the freeway in Lake View Terrace, LAPD squad cars and helicopters were in pursuit as well.

Were it not for George Holliday, a local resident who was awakened by the ruckus, King probably be another grim anonymous statistic of the police brutality generally ignored by Americans. Instead, Holliday captured 9 minutes of videotape with an 81 second beating which became a symbol of that brutality. Four LAPD officers, Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Timothy Wind, viciously beat King while 21 other officers and a small crowd of onlookers watched. He was repeatedly tasered and beat 56 times with steel batons, fracturing his eye socket and his skull 11 times, causing facial nerve damage and a concussion. King now walks with a permanent limp, has suffered permanent brain damage, and is prone to headaches, numbness, and crippling pain. It was later discovered that one of the quartet had previously been suspended for attacking a man in handcuffs and a computer message was found reading “I haven’t beaten anyone this bad for a long time.”

Holliday took his videotape to Los Angeles station KTLA, which broadcast the tape, followed by damn near every news station in the world. Without the tape, King’s complaints would have probably been brushed off, and he might even have been charged with assault himself. Instead, international outrage meant the four officers were hit with charges of excessive force. However, the trial was held in lily-white Simi Valley, and the jury was somehow convinced that 25 officers were in danger from a single man. When they delivered their verdict of not guilty on April 29, 1992, rioting engulfed the city Los Angeles, causing $550 million in damage and leaving dozens dead. King himself went on camera and delivered his poignant and often parodied plea to stop the violence: “Can’t we all just get along?”

A second trial was hastily arranged, this time at the federal level, and the four were charged with violating King’s civil rights. Many complained that this act violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy, but others welcomed a chance to put right what went wrong with the first trial. Koon and Powell were found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in prison each.

King sued the city and eventually won $3.8 million. “When they gave me the money, they thought I would be broke right away, spending it on stupid stuff.” Instead, he started a small construction company and a rap label, Straight Alta-Pazz. But the media has spotlighted his tumultuous personal life, including a pair of arrests, one for drunk driving in Pennsylvania and another for attempting to run over Waters, whom he would later divorce. Most recently, on April 13, 2003, he was arrested for driving his SUV into a house under the influence of PCP and he broke his pelvis in the crash.

Sources:
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Gale Biography Resource Center database
The Economist, March 23. 1991
People Weekly, March 15, 1999

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