WASHINGTON, DC, June 17, 2012 - Before there was YouTube, before there was race to get one billion views of a music video, before we had ever heard the words ‘viral video’ there was Rodney King. Americans sat entranced before the evening news and watched as four LA cops beat motorist Rodney King.
It was news footage that everyone was talking about, footage that was shot by chance, and thrust a poor, troubled African-American into the spotlight. He became an unwilling hero to a city that had longed complain of police misconduct, only to have those complaints ignored or scoffed at. As we watched that video, the country was faced with the glaring truth. Things were different for some people, the police weren’t always the good guys, and something was very, very wrong in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Rodney King never claimed to be, and never was, a saint. In the evening of 1991 he was stopped after attempting to outrun a police car. King, 25 at the time and on parole for a robbery, had been drinking and panicked, thinking he would be sent back to prison. Finally, he pulled over in what he hoped was a public place.
That is when an amateur cameraman filmed a scene etched in the country’s memory. Four white police officers hit King more than 50 times with wooden batons and even used a stun gun on him. King reported that the officers said, “We are going to kill you, n***er.” (The officers denied using racial slurs.)
Rodney King, prostrate on the ground, nearly lost his life. Three surgeons operated on him for five hours.
Two days later, that beating was shown to the entire nation.
A trial ensued for the four LAPD officers - Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Sgt. Stacey Koon. They had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer. The trial took place a mostly white suburb of Los Angeles called Simi Valley. At the end of it, three of the officers were acquitted of all charges. The jury, devoid of black members, did not reach a decision on one charge of excessive force against Powell (a mistrial was declared on that charge).
Los Angeles erupted.
Rioters ran through the streets - looting and burning buildings. More than 50 people died, mostly bystanders. Damage reached more than one billion dollars.
There was another trial where convictions of civil rights were handed down to the police officers, and King successfully sued the city. By that time, most of us had stopped paying attention. King went on to become an icon of civil rights, and have more run-ins with the law. He even appeared on ‘Celebrity Rehab’ and wrote a memoir.
However, the changes from that event live on. The LAPD has a more diverse range of police officers, complaints against police officers are handled differently, and, some say, policing in LA itself has changed.
Rodney King was described as a nice guy who battled addiction. He was the first viral video star, showing the power of an unscripted moment. He died today at the age of 47. His death is a tragedy to his friends and family, and let us hope that we never stop asking, “Can’t we all just get along?”
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