Media's Romance with Rodney King Continues In Death

Yesterday, Rodney King was found dead at the bottom of his pool at the age of 47. King’s fiancée reported that he had been drinking heavily and smoking pot prior to his death; he apparently banged on her window, fully nude, then somehow ended up in the swimming pool. King’s friends say that King wouldn’t have drowned – he was reportedly a good swimmer. They question his fiancee’s story.

King was a national figure thanks to his beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991. He was caught driving 115 in a residential zone. He attempted to evade the cops because he was on parole, then resisted arrest (two of his companions in the car were not beaten because they didn’t resist arrest). When he was hit with a malfunctioning taser and continued to resist arrest, he was beaten excessively; the cops thought he was on PCP, since a normal person goes down after being hit with a taser. That event resulted in the Los Angeles riots when the officers who beat him were acquitted in Simi Valley.

King was certainly a troubled character. Or, more precisely, he was a bad guy. His arrest record was extraordinarily long:

  • In July 1987, King beat up his wife while she was sleeping, then pulled her out of the house and proceeded to go another round with her. He pled “no contest” to battery.
  • In November 1989, he robbed a store with a tire iron, swung a pie rack at a clerk, and was booked for assault with a deadly weapon, second-degree robbery, and intent to commit great bodily injury.
  • In March 1991, King had his famous incident with the LAPD.
  • In May 1991, King was pulled over for an excessively tinted windshield. He wasn’t charged.
  • In May 1991, King picked up a transvestite prostitute. He wasn’t charged.
  • In June 1992, King beat up his wife, but she didn’t press charges.
  • In July 1992, King drove intoxicated. No charges.
  • In July 1992, he drove drunk again. He was convicted of DIU.

The rap sheet goes on and on. He was not a good guy.

According to the media, however, he was merely a troubled guy rather than a career criminal. The Los Angeles Times devoted 17 pieces to it on their website, as opposed to one piece for San Diego’s Sgt. Nicholas Fredsti, 30, killed in Afghanistan on Friday. Those pieces completely rewrote what happened on the night he was beaten, and rewrote his personal history, too. The Times said that his behavior was “erratic” as opposed to violent; the Rev. Al Sharpton called him a “symbol of civil rights.”

Even the LAPD Chief Charlie Beck paid homage to a man who did nothing but violate the law most of his adult life, then make millions on a civil suit after getting beaten excessively while resisting arrest. “Rodney King has a unique spot in both the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD. 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 facts are somewhat different. It wasn’t the King beating, but the riots that followed that truly changed Los Angeles law enforcement. It was no coincidence that the murder rate skyrocketed the year after the riots, and after Chief Daryl Gates stepped down. For years, the LAPD underwent brutal castration at the hands of the justice system. In the late 1990s, the real event that changed the LAPD – the RAMPART scandal – came to public knowledge. 

Did the King event drive home to the public that the police could often act out of control? Absolutely. Was that a good thing? In many ways, yes – the police began to monitor themselves more closely (late in life, Daryl Gates started a company advocating for cameras to be placed inside all police cars). But it’s impossible to assess King’s legacy without assessing the riots that resulted from the media’s blowup over the beating, which caused rioting that ended in more than 50 dead and more than $1 billion in property damage, as well as continuing racial tensions that plague South Los Angeles.

Rodney King may have served a larger purpose in the history of Los Angeles. But his portrayal as a civil rights figure is massively overblown, and wildly unjustified.


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