Rodney King: an imperfect hero

Gregg Reese | 6/20/2012, 5 p.m.

"People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" --Rodney King, May 1, 1992

The image of the Los Angeles Police Department got a dramatic makeover on March 2, 1992. Previously heralded as the paragon of police professionalism, its persona was regularly burnished by a succession of crime dramas, starting with the "Dragnet" television series. But the LAPD's real face was permanently revealed courtesy of an amateur videographer who in turn spawned a new era in which the man on the street became an active participant in the newsmaking process.

On the surface, the tape looked like a cut and dried scenario culled from one of the myriad unscripted reality TV shows. A large, 20-something Black man who later turned out to have an extensive criminal record, including one conviction for second degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon (a tire iron)--was apprehended after a car chase allegedly at speeds reaching 110 plus miles per hour. He was then subdued via a Taser electroshock weapon and a combination of baton blows and kicks after failing to comply with the instructions of the California Highway Patrol and LAPD officers who arrested him.

Officer-in-charge Sgt. Stacey Koon later recorded his recollections in an unpublished memoir, recounting the moment when the female CHP officer Melanie Singer approached the intoxicated King, handgun drawn. "He grabbed his butt with both hands and began to shake and gyrate his fanny in a sexually suggestive fashion. As King sexually gyrated, a mixture of fear and offense overcame Melanie. The fear was of a Mandingo sexual encounter."

"I started practicing in 1974. I noticed that there was a certain 'us versus them' attitude about the police. It's almost a Gestapo kind of approach--something totally different from the Midwest, where I went to school and was raised. That was the first thing that caught my attention about the LAPD. . . ." --Civil Rights Attorney Gregory Yates

To scores of Southern Californians of color, however, this episode struck a chord of remembrance regarding their own previous interactions with law enforcement. The cops claimed that the behavior of the subject, later known to the world as Rodney Glen King, led them to believe that the 6-foot-3 Pasadena native might be under the influence of phencyclidine (PCP). This anesthetic, known to imbue in users an aura of strength, power, and invulnerability, in the officers' view made him an eminent threat, and thus deserving of the methods utilized to suppress him. (King, on parole at the time, had consumed copious amounts of Olde English 880 malt liquor, but came up negative for traces of PCP).

For the uninitiated outside the confines of the inner city, the recorded approach they took served as an eye-opener on how the other side lived, and perhaps forced them to accept that an uneven playing field did exist.

The focal point of all this attention, King, was no holier-than-thou beacon of virtue on the order of, say, Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks. Before being thrust into the spotlight he'd led a checkered life of substance abuse and domestic violence. Assuming the mantle of public figure only exacerbated his involvement with the criminal justice system. To his credit, King never presumed to be anything other than what he was, as evidenced by the documentation of his many flaws in his recently published and aptly titled autobiography, "The Riot Within."