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Rodney King Remembered

by Lou Cannon
Three myths about the beating that changed the world

After Rodney King drowned in his backyard swimming pool in the quiet suburban city of Rialto, Calif., he was memorialized as a victim of police brutality. Every television viewer who saw the March 3, 1991, videotaped beating of King by LAPD officers has a visual memory of the incident — and memories, also, of Los Angeles burning a year later after the officers were acquitted by a jury in suburban Simi Valley. Few know what really happened.

In reporting King’s death at the age of 47, the New York Times called him a “symbol of the nation’s continuing racial tensions.” The Los Angeles Times, which in the wake of the beating called King an “African-American motorist,” with hindsight described him as a “drunk, unemployed construction worker on parole [who] careened into the city’s consciousness in a white Hyundai.” The Reverend Al Sharpton said King was “a symbol of civil rights [who] represented the anti-police-brutality and anti-racial-profiling movement of our time.” All of these views have something to recommend them. But all of them also ignore — or actually perpetuate — the many myths associated with the beating of King.

The overriding myth is that the officers made no attempt to take King into custody peacefully and beat him with their heavy batons for no reason except that they were white and King was black. But there is no evidence in the audiotape that the officers used any racial slur, and prosecutors acknowledged in two criminal trials that the officers made a considerable attempt — lasting more than eight minutes — to take King into custody without striking a blow.

King was chased down by a husband-and-wife California Highway Patrol team after a 7.8-mile pursuit that reached a speed of 115 mph on the freeway and 85 mph on city streets. When the chase ended, an obviously intoxicated King mocked Officer Melanie Singer and ignored her order to exit his car and put his hands behind his back. Singer advanced on King with pistol drawn — a practice that the LAPD prohibits because of the danger that the weapon could be knocked out of the officer’s hand. LAPD sergeant Stacey Koon waved Singer off and instructed two other LAPD officers to jump on King and handcuff him. King threw them off his back. Koon then fired two electronic darts from his stun gun at King. Each dart delivers 50,000 volts of electricity and immobilizes most people. King fell to the ground after being hit but clambered to his feet immediately and advanced on one of the officers. His behavior convinced Koon that he probably had been using the drug PCP, though he had not been.

Most of what the world knows about the King beating occurred after these events. George Holliday, the manager of a small plumbing company, had been asleep in an apartment across the street from where the officers were trying to arrest King. He was awakened by the noise of sirens and a police helicopter. Holliday was the proud owner of a brand new Sony camcorder. He went to his balcony, saw the police cars across the street, and began videotaping. But he was still learning to use the camcorder, which he steadied just as King, back on his feet, ran toward Officer Laurence Powell, who swung wildly with his baton and struck King in the face. It was the first of 55 baton blows, but the only one before which King appeared to be attacking an officer. Unfortunately, Holliday’s footage of King’s charge was blurry.

Myth No. 2 about the King beating was that it was shown repeatedly on television. In fact, only part of it was shown, and this part omitted the blurred footage.

Holliday, who was not at all political, called a police station to tell them about his tape. The desk officer brushed him off. Holliday took the tape to KTLA, his favorite local station, which accepted it but was in no hurry to air it. The station manager showed it to the LAPD to determine that it was not a hoax. A producer then edited out the blurry footage and aired the remainder of the tape the next day in a news program. An 81-second videotape, the only record of an arrest that had taken more than nine minutes, had become a 68-second videotape. The announcer did not pass judgment on the officers but also did not mention that the tape was partial.

I’m convinced from interviews I conducted that KTLA, which was not hostile to the LAPD, made the edits for technical reasons. The producer abhorred blurry footage — so much, said one technician, that he would probably have resisted showing the first moon landing. KTLA shared the edited tape with other stations. Most of these stations, and their networks, used the tape without even knowing of the cuts.

Myth No. 3 is that the officers were acquitted in police-friendly Simi Valley because of the composition of the jury, which contained no black Americans.

The jury was conservative, to be sure, but my interviews with the jurors suggest that something else was at work. That something was the unedited videotape, which jurors were seeing for the first time. Prosecutors often present evidence that could be damaging to their case before the defense can, so they can put their own spin on it. At Simi Valley, prosecutors showed the unedited videotape in their opening statement and bluntly admitted to the jurors that King had set off the beating by charging an officer. I watched the jurors as they saw the unedited tape. They were aghast. Three jurors told me after the trial that they had suspected there was more to the videotape than they had seen on television.

This isn’t to say there were no problems with holding the trial in Simi Valley, a popular bedroom community for police officers. Legal experts generally agree that the trial should not have been held there. The defense attorneys were pleasantly surprised when an appeals court, defying precedents, granted the change of venue they had sought. The chief judge of this court told me ruefully after the riots that she had feared the trial and its media coverage might fan political passions in Los Angeles, where Mayor Tom Bradley and police chief Daryl Gates were engaged in a feud while the city simmered. Stanley Weisberg, the trial-court judge to whom the case had been assigned, complied with the appellate ruling by deciding to hold the trial in Ventura County, which had a new courthouse in Simi Valley within easy driving distance of his home. Though the appeals court had specifically ordered that the trial be moved outside of the L.A. media market, residents of Simi Valley watch the same television news and read the same newspapers as residents of Los Angeles.

Weisberg did take one action that could have helped the police contain the rioting. He gave the contending attorneys and the LAPD a two-hour warning once the jury had reached its decision before allowing the verdicts to be announced in court. But the LAPD wasted these two hours. The underlying reason for their inaction was that Los Angeles authorities, beginning with Gates and Bradley, were certain that all or some of the four officers would be convicted.

With the police unprepared, the worst elements in South Los Angeles took over, burning and looting to an extent unimagined during the 1965 Watts riots. Swaths of the city were set on fire, with the damage amounting to more than a billion dollars. Worse, 55 people lost their lives and another 2,000 were injured. At the height of the riots, which began on April 29, 1992, and lasted a week, Rodney King made a tearful appearance in which he pleaded: “Can we all get along?” The National Guard was deployed in force.

President George H. W. Bush, trying to calm the mobs, pledged “justice” in Los Angeles. His promise led to a second trial of the officers, on charges of having violated King’s civil rights. Koon and Powell were convicted and sent to prison, and the other two officers were again acquitted.

Looking back on these events, many commentators have criticized the Simi Valley jury and praised the federal jury in Los Angeles. In truth, the context of both trials was disturbing. During the second trial, Southern California feared there would be another riot if the officers were again acquitted. This fear seeped into the jury room. The foreman of this sequestered jury would look out on the city from his hotel room. Once he quipped to a fellow juror that at least the city wasn’t burning yet.

After the federal trial, a third trial was held, this a civil affair that awarded Rodney King $3.8 million in damages while absolving the individual officers of responsibility for his injuries. King was wealthy for the rest of his short life, but he was not a happy man. He was repeatedly arrested, usually for drunk driving but also for domestic violence. Twice he was sent briefly to rehabilitation facilities for parole violations, but he was not charged with crimes. No one in Los Angeles had the stomach for another Rodney King case.

I interviewed King and found him likeable and sympathetic. That’s the way he usually was when he was sober. It was another story when he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as he was much of his life.

King was a human being who had a poor start and did not deal well with his demons. He seemed on the brink of happiness last year, when he became engaged to Cynthia Kelley, the forewoman of the civil jury that awarded him damages. Kelley was skillful in bringing a jury together but an admittedly poor swimmer. When she found King at the bottom of his pool at 5 a.m., she did not dive in but instead called 911. By the time the medics arrived, King was dead.

– Mr. Cannon is the author of Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.

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