The burden of being Rodney King

A lot of people, Rodney King among them, thought Rodney King was an implausible vessel to carry the title that circumstance thrust into his hands -- that of a civil-rights symbol.

What made the difference between an amiable ne’er-do-well who got a police thumping after he’d been drinking and then zipping up the freeway at some hundred miles an hour … and a household name that was chanted as a shorthand for police abuse?

Eighty-one seconds of videotape. That’s it. The Rodney King beating video is second only, perhaps, to the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination in its jolting impact -- the 81 seconds shot from an apartment balcony by a man with a new video camera.


PHOTOS: Rodney King | 1965- 2012

King was born the year of the Watts riots and died Sunday, 20 years and a few weeks after the rioting that is forever linked to his beating, and the court case that followed. Even before that beating, he’d acquired a police record, a felony robbery, and later a domestic-abuse charge, along with a number of driving beefs, many of them compounded by drinking or drugging.

He’d also acquired a symbolic cultural standing of such impact that, as King himself told me, one cop, a few years ago, had told King that he would be remembered a hundred years after the rest of us are dead and gone.

Twenty years on, feelings about him still run high, even venomous; just check out some of the Web comments on The Times’ many stories about his life and death, some of them with links below.

VIDEOS: Rodney King and the L.A. riots

On the day King died, the chief of a police department much changed by the King case said in a statement released to The Times that “Rodney King has a unique spot in both the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD.” Charlie Beck added, “What happened on that cool March night over two decades ago forever changed me and the organization I love. His legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence wrought on this city and its police department.”

King was not one to deny his failings: liquor, drugs, a kind of happy-go-lucky drifting from messed-up moment to messed-up moment. He loved being a construction worker – during my talk with him at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April, he came to life talking animatedly about the work he did on sidewalk curb cuts, how proud he was of it, and how his brother, his fellow worker, had to make sure he didn’t sign his handiwork with initials in the concrete. He had set two dates in black tile in a backyard wall: the date of his beating, and of the riots.

The $1.6 or so million he wound up with from the legal settlement in his case slipped through his fingers. He bought a house for his mother, started an ill-starred hip-hop label, fell spectacularly off the wagon and climbed publicly back on (in at least one rehab reality show). He found himself sometimes unemployed, and sometimes unemployable. He told me that someone had even proposed a boxing match between him and Laurence Powell, one of the four LAPD officers in the videotaped beating, and who served federal prison time for violating King’s civil rights. Nothing ever came of it.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A. riots, 20 years later

In the mid-1990s, King still had the money to be able to become a benefactor to Loma Alta Park in Altadena, which nearly closed. Gilien Silsby at USC’s law school emailed me the story she’d written then as a reporter at the Pasadena Star-News, with King reminiscing about how he had played baseball and learned to swim in that park.

The beating King took left him with scars visible and invisible. When I was talking to him a few months ago, he pointed to a scarred ridge on his head. Go ahead, he said, touch it. It felt like a phrenological ridge canyon in his skull.

He was a big guy, but not always big enough, figuratively, to carry the burden of being “Rodney King” the symbol, instead of just Glen King, the name his family called him. Minority communities pointed to that videotape and said, See? Didn’t we tell you this sort of thing was going on?

As he told me a few months ago in my “Patt Morrison Asks” column, “You don’t want to let anybody’s expectations down. People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks ... it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations, which [I] wasn’t cut out to be. I didn’t go to school to be ‘Rodney King.’ ... It’s taken years to get used to the situation I’m in in life and the weight it holds.’’

The cop was right when he told King that he’ll be remembered long after the rest of us are forgotten. His artless, halting, “Can we all get along?” and the flawed man who said it are engraved in the nation’s and the city’s collective memory, more enduringly than any daubed initials in a concrete sidewalk ever could be.


Reader letters about Rodney King

The Times’ Kurt Streeter on Rodney King

Rodney King and Patt Morrison at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books