Rodney King, key figure in LA riots, dies at 47

Two police officers stand in front of Rodney King's home in Rialto, Calif., Sunday, June 17, 2012. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in U.S. history, died Sunday. He was 47. King's fiancee called police at 5:25 a.m. to report that she found him at the bottom of the swimming pool at their home in Rialto, California, police Lt. Dean Hardin said.
Jae C. Hong | AP
Two police officers stand in front of Rodney King's home in Rialto, Calif., Sunday, June 17, 2012. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in U.S. history, died Sunday. He was 47. King's fiancee called police at 5:25 a.m. to report that she found him at the bottom of the swimming pool at their home in Rialto, California, police Lt. Dean Hardin said.
Posted June 17, 2012, at 2:50 p.m.
Last modified June 17, 2012, at 4:33 p.m.
Rodney King speaks at a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif. along with his attorney Milton Grimes (left) in June 1994. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, has died, his publicist said Sunday, June 17, 2012. He was 47.
Chris Martinez | AP
Rodney King speaks at a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif. along with his attorney Milton Grimes (left) in June 1994. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, has died, his publicist said Sunday, June 17, 2012. He was 47.

LOS ANGELES — Rodney King, whose beating by Los Angeles police helped spark the 1992 L.A. riots, died Sunday at his home in Rialto, Calif. He was 47.

King became a symbol for police brutality and the troubled relations between the Los Angeles Police Department and minority residents. He was eventually awarded a $3.8 million settlement, but the money and fame brought him little solace. He had repeated run-ins with the law and recently said he was broke.

“I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a vise. Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero,” he said in an interview with The Times this year. “Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I’m a fool for believing in peace.”

King’s fiancee called 911 about 5:25 a.m. and said she had found King at the bottom of his pool, Sgt. Paul Stella said. Officers pulled him from the pool and began CPR until paramedics arrived and took King to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m., Stella said.

Preliminary information indicated that King drowned and there were no signs of foul play, Stella said. An autopsy will be conducted.

During a public appearance for a memoir published this year, King seemed in good spirits and said he was trying to turn a corner in his life. The book’s title is “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption.”

King had long struggled with drugs and alcohol. He called himself a recovering addict but had not stopped drinking, and possessed a doctor’s clearance for medical marijuana. King last year appeared on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab,” trying to tackle his fight with alcoholism.

King was drunk and unarmed on March 3, 1991,when he was pulled over for speeding by Los Angeles Police Department officers and beaten.

The incident was captured on video by a civilian bystander, and the recording became an instant international sensation. Four of the officers were tried for excessive force. Their acquittal on April 29, 1992, touched off one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history.

“It felt like I was an inch from death,” he said, describing what it was like to be struck by batons, stung by Tasers.

A jury acquitted the four police officers in the beating of King, unleashing an onslaught of pent-up anger. There were 54 riot-related deaths and nearly $1 billion in property damage as the seams of the city blew apart.

King this year said he was at peace with what happened to him.

“I would change a few things, but not that much,” he said. “Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn’t, but that’s not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place.”

King lived in Southern California much of his life.

When he was 2, King’s family moved from Sacramento to Altadena.

King’s parents cleaned offices and homes for a living. His father, Ronald, known in the neighborhood as “Kingfish,” died in his early 40s from pneumonia.

In junior high school, King said, he began drinking. In 1989, he pleaded guilty to robbing a market in Monterey Park; the owner accused King of attacking him with a tire iron. King was given a two-year sentence.

Two years later, the videotaped beating occurred.

King said he was shocked to see the destruction of the riots that followed the not-guilty verdicts.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he says. “Mayhem, people everywhere … looting, burning. Gunshots. I turned back and went home. I looked at all of that and I thought to the way I was raised, with good morals from my mother, even though I didn’t always follow them.

“I said to myself, ‘That is not who I am, all this hate. I am not that guy. This does not represent me or my family, killing people over this. No, sir, that is not the way I was raised by my mother.’ I began to realize that I had to say something to the people, had to try to get them to stop.”

So, on the third day of the rioting, he pleaded on television: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”

During the first decade after the riots, King started an unsuccessful hip-hop recording company.

Over the last 20 years, he had had repeated contact with law enforcement. He long ago stopped keeping track of his arrests for crimes such as driving under the influence and domestic assault. “Eleven times?” he said this year. “Twelve?”

“For a long time, sure, I was letting the pressure of being Rodney King get to me. It ain’t easy. Even now, I walk into a place wondering what people are thinking. Do they know who I am? What do they think about what happened? Do they blame me for the all those people who died?”

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©2012 Los Angeles Times

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