His beating by four Los Angeles police officers once placed him, infamously,
at the center of the most visible spasm of racial violence in America since
the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. But when Rodney King died early
Sunday morning, he was all alone, seen by no one as he slipped quietly to the
bottom of the swimming pool in his back yard. Police, who formed a circle
around his lifeless body, said King, 47, drowned.
Long before YouTube existed, the 1991 video of King being kicked, beaten and shot with a stun gun by LAPD officers who pulled him over following a high-speed chase, became one of the most-watched pieces of footage ever recorded. A man who lived nearby stepped outside his home, videotaped what he saw and turned the tape over to a TV station. King suffered several skull fractures, a broken eye socket and facial nerve damage.
The video seemed to leave little doubt among African Americans that police misconduct had occurred. So when a jury that included no blacks acquitted three of the officers on charges of felony assault a year later, rioting immediately erupted in South Central L.A. The violence left 55 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and large swaths of the city on fire, or smoldering in anger. At the height of the violence, King went on television to plead, "Can we all get along?"
King later won a $3.8 million judgment against the police department in a civil
trial, in which he was represented by John Burris, the Oakland civil rights attorney. On Sunday, the lawyer who has been pressing police misconduct cases for a quarter-century, reflected on his former client who never seemed comfortable in the spotlight.
"He became the face of police brutality that everyone could see and no one could deny," Burris said. "King is a symbolic figure because the images of his beating were really the first opportunity for the general white population to see this kind of brutality against an African American by the police."
Black Americans had been complaining about being singled out for harsh treatment by police for years, but the King case turned the tables in the court of public opinion. The searing video footage showed police raining blow after blow on a man lying on the ground. "This was the first case in which there was a video camera," Burris recalled. "Now, video cameras are an expected aspect of a police case, whether the police have it or the victims have it." Many police departments use video cameras in patrol cars or on officers' lapels, and few confrontations these days are not recorded by someone with a cellphone.
Some critics of the case against the cops said the constant
replaying of the video incited the violence that erupted following the acquittals in the criminal trial, but Burris remembers it differently. "It didn't incite racial tensions, it exposed them, and police brutality, in ways people had never seen before," he said. "When you have a case that kicks dirt in your face like that one did, that's where the racial tension comes from. I can remember how hurtful it was to see those guys be found not guilty."
As Burris prepared for the civil trial -- during which he made an impassioned closing argument on King's behalf -- he was surprised at the backlash in some parts of the city against his client, a parolee who had been drinking when he was arrested. "The reaction to his beating by a large segment of the white population," Burris said, "was that he must have done something to deserve it. Not all, of course, but I was dumbfounded by the viciousness that people felt toward him. There was this willingness to turn the victim upside down in a public way, so that he became the villain and the cops became the victims."
Uncomfortable with fame
King's drowning was reported to police in Rialto -- a working class city 50 miles from Los Angeles -- by Cynthia Kelley, one of the jurors in the civil rights case that awarded King $3.8 million in damages. The two were engaged to be married. In an interview earlier this year with the Associated Press, King insisted he was a happy man. "America's been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all," he said. "This part of my life is the easy part now."
A next door neighbor in Rialto said that about 3 a.m., she heard music, people talking and also someone talking very emotionally. "It seemed like someone was really crying, like really deep emotions," said Sandra Gardea, 31. "And it just got louder and louder. Everybody woke up. Even the kids woke up."
Gardea said this went on for some time, then it was quiet for several minutes. "After that, we heard a splash in the back," she said. Shortly after 5 a.m., King's fiancee called police to say she had found his body in the pool.
Burris said King was never comfortable with the curious fame that followed him through subsequent arrests and appearances on reality TV shows. "This was an example of a very common person being thrust into martyrdom unwittingly," said Burris, who later went on to represent Oscar Grant's family in a civil rights trial against BART.
"This was a guy who was not emotionally or mentally equipped to be a public figure," Burris said. "It's not anything he wanted, and it was a challenge for him to handle it. He became sort of a trophy, who was passed around and placed in situations that he really wasn't equipped to handle."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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