On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, a construction worker, was beaten violently by the Los Angeles Police Department for fleeing and resisting arrest after an attempt to pull him over for speeding.
A civilian, George Holliday, filmed the incident from his balcony and sent it to the local news station, showing King being beaten repeatedly. National attention was paid to the event after the video was shared on stations throughout the country.
All 4 officers were tried on police brutality charges. 3 were acquitted, and a verdict was not reached on the 4th officer.
Within hours of the acquittals, the 1992 LA riots started. African Americans were outraged by the verdict, and the longstanding race issues they had experienced. The riots lasted 6 days, with 63 people dying and more than 2,000 people injured.
The federal government prosecuted a separate civil rights case where 2 of the officers were found guilty and sentenced to jail time, while the other 2 were acquitted.
King became a writer and an activist after the incident, despite continuing to struggle with the law and drugs and alcohol. He died in 2012 after being found in his swimming pool a few months after publishing his memoir. He had alcohol and drugs in his system and a history of heart problems.
Rodney King was born in Sacramento, California in 1965 with 4 siblings and grew up in Altadena, California. His father, a violent alcoholic, died in 1984.
In 1989, King was arrested after robbing a store and threatening the owner with an iron bar. He stole some money from the store, and ended up serving 1 year in prison.
He had a daughter with a girlfriend when he was a teenager. He later married another woman and had a second daughter. They divorced, and his second marriage ended with another daughter and another divorce.
THE 1991 BEATING
Early in the morning of March 3, King and 2 of his friends were driving down interstate 210 in Los Angeles after watching basketball and drinking all night at their friend's house. At 12:30, husband and wife California Highway Patrol noticed their car speeding by, and began pursing with lights and sirens.
King refused to pull over and the ensuring chase reached 117mph. He did not want to get pulled over, because driving under the influence would violate his parole from his previous robbery. Several police cars and helicopters joined the pursuit. After 8 miles, King was cornered.
Officer Tim Singer ordered King and his friends to get out of the car and lie on the ground. One of his friends claimed he was manhandled, kicked, stomped, taunted and threatened. His other friend was treated for a laceration on his head from the police.
King initially stayed in the car, but when he got out, he grabbed down at his pants which was taken by officer Melanie Singer as reaching for a gun, so she drew her weapon and pointed it at him. Officer Koon tasered him twice.
In the video taken, King is on the ground. He gets up to run, but is beaten again with a baton. Allegedly, after being hit a few more times, Koon said "that's enough", but officers Powell and Wind continue to hit him with their batons. King continued to try and stand up, but they continued to hit him.
Then, Koon apparently ordered them to continue to hit him. "Hit his joints, hit his wrists, his his elbows, hit his knees, hit his ankles." The beating ended after 33 blows and 7 kicks.
He was handcuffed and dragged while laying down on his stomach to the side of the road.
The man who recorded the video told the LAPD that he had the video, but nobody seemed interested in the video, so he went to the local TV station, KTLA, where they aired the footage.
King was taken to the hospital where he was found to have a fractured facial bone, a broken right ankle, and multiple bruises. King claimed he also suffered emotional and physical trauma.
Toxicology reports showed that he was over the legal limit at the time of the pursuit and he had marijuana in his system. He was not charged with driving while intoxicated or resisting arrest.
Hospital nurses reported that the officers openly joked and bragged about the beatings when they were there.
The LA county district attorney charged 4 officers, Koon, Wind, Powell and Briseno, who were all acquitted of using excessive force and assault. Only 13 seconds of the videotape were shown in court. After the acquittal, riots broke out in LA and elsewhere in the U.S.
After the riots, another trial was held where officer Laurence Powell and sergeant Stacey Koon were found guilty and given 30 months in prison each. Officers Wind and Briseno were acquitted of all charges.
THE RESULTING RIOTS
Though the case was not originally considered race-focused, the video resonated with African Americans in LA and around the U.S. Within hours of the acquittals, black and Latino LA residents began rioting in the streets, outraged.
The California National Guard, the United States Army and the Marine Corps had to get involved in order to stop the riots, which resulted in 63 deaths, 7,000 fires, and damage to 3,100 businesses, ultimately causing $1 billion in financial losses.
Smaller riots occurred in San Fransisco, Las Vegas, Seattle, Atlanta and NYC.
King made a statement during the riots, asking people to just get along, promising that justice would come, but the fires and violence would not help anything.
LA mayor Tom Bradley offered King $200,000 and a 4-year college tuition, but he refused, and instead sued the city, winning $3.8 million. He tried to open a business to employ minorities, but it went out of business. He wrote a memoir and made a movie about his life.
His run-ins with the police did not end after the 1991 incident. He continued getting arrested for driving violations and struggled with drugs and alcohol. He was caught driving under the influence once and was sent to rehab and was placed on probation. He was also arrested in 1995 for hitting his wife with his car, knocking her over. Another time, he was speeding and ran a red light while drinking. He failed to yield to police another time, slamming his car into a house.
He went to a recovery center in 2008, making appearances on Celebrity Rehab and Sober House.
In 2010, he said he was going to marry Cynthia Kelly, who was a juror on the civil suit against the LAPD.
On the 20th anniversary of the beating, he was stopped for driving erratically.
King died on June 17, 2012 after his fiance found him in his swimming pool. The ultimate cause of death was accidental drowning, likely from a combination of drugs, alcohol and a lifelong heart condition.
King never advocated for violence or hatred and wanted them to get along. His daughter, Lori King, has worked with the LAPD to build a bridge between the police and the black community of LA. She has also set up a non-profit in her father's name.
Though this event occurred 29 years ago today, the frustrations that black Americans feel because of police brutality is still alive and well, with unarmed black men being killed by police all too often, and the officers not being held accountable. Even in King's case, a video clearly showing the terrible violence against him was not enough to find the officers guilty.
This event became, and may still act as, proof of the violence that people, especially black people, at the hands of police is alive and well. The recorded video and the extensive sharing of it brought light to an issue that, unfortunately, we are still working on fixing 29 years later.