Rodney King, just an ordinary guy

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Twenty-one years after video footage of his beating by five Los Angeles police officers went viral and 20 years after huge tracts of the city burned in response to the officers' exoneration, Rodney King is dead. He was found floating in his backyard pool early Sunday morning by his fiancee. He was 47.

There are reports that the reality television regular and recovering alcoholic was smoking pot and drinking in the hours before his death, but there are no signs that his drowning was anything but an accident.

There will be a full audit of every chemical in his body at the time of his death, but even the most thorough toxicology report won't be able to confirm what many suspect -- Rodney King died of a broken heart.

For two decades, Rodney King's name was synonymous with inequality in the justice system. He was the star of the most famous piece of crime footage since the Zapruder film caught the JFK assassination, but even that wasn't enough to convince a Simi Valley jury that there was something horrific about the conduct of the officers who beat him within an inch of his life.

Still, the video from the March 3, 1991, incident provided eloquent testimony we needed to see and hear about the conduct of the minority of officers across the nation who use their authority to oppress those they're sworn to protect. There's no underestimating the importance of the trial of the officers who brutalized Rodney King, despite its sideways verdict.

More than any police brutality case, Rodney King's endlessly televised beating ended the era when juries would automatically believe cops who claimed that savagely beating an unarmed suspect was necessary and legal. The cops' monopoly on truth in the witness stand died every time that video was aired.

After Rodney King, there would be no more benefit of the doubt just because a defendant wore a badge. Police training would have to be improved dramatically. Police chiefs in many cities took advantage of the opportunity generated by the outrage to reform their departments, get rid of bad apples and jettison brutal tactics before a Rodney King incident happened on their watch.

The officers' exoneration on April 29, 1992, by an all-white jury didn't remove the presumption of guilt as far as the country was concerned. A civil jury later awarded Mr. King $3.5 million in damages. Still, he died bankrupt, drained of his wealth by bad investments, exploitative "friends" and greedy lawyers who figured out how to finish what a pack of rogue officers started years earlier.

But the source of Rodney King's broken heart wasn't financial. He was a troubled soul who struggled with what it meant to be the ostensible reason for the death of some 55 people during the days of rioting in his name following the officers' acquittal.

The burden that led to his continuous relapses and scrapes with the law were rooted in something far more haunting and personal than being ripped off by those he trusted to help him manage his money. How does one talk in rehab about guilt for the deaths of 55 people?

Meanwhile, his plaintive appeal for calm at the height of the uprising -- "Can we all get along?" -- became one of that decade's watershed moments. Because it was an appeal to racial understanding during a decade that would also see two bitterly contested O.J. Simpson trials, it was endlessly mocked by Americans of all persuasions who found it utopian, insipid and illogical. "No, we can't all get along" was the implied answer to his question.

So Rodney King was destined to live out the rest of his troubled life as both a punch line and the guy whose brutal beating shook the nation out of denial about the capacity of some cops to be brutal if they think they can get away with it.

He also was making appearances to promote an autobiography, "The Riot Within," that coincided with the 20th anniversary of the riots. His celebrity boxing match against Jose Canseco in August loomed. He was engaged to marry one of the jurors in his civil trial. Life was about as good as it was ever going to get for him before he was dragged from his pool.

Rodney King was an ordinary guy thrust upon the national stage by forces beyond his control. If he's lucky, no one will ever honor him with a statue.


Tony Norman:; 412-263-1631; First Published June 19, 2012 4:00 AM


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