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.