Some people are born to greatness. Other people have the conditions for greatness thrust upon them. And some people get caught in the crossfire between the two and find themselves in over their head. Such was the sad case of Rodney King, a man who might have lived a relatively mundane life were it not the for the extraordinary events that made him a household name, an icon for modern American race relations and his own worst enemy.
King is synonymous with the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and with racial tensions of that time. He was most famously videotaped in 1991 enduring a horrific beating by uniformed LAPD officers after he was flagged for erratic driving, and rather than pull over, he led the officers on a high-speed chase. The entire beating was videotaped, and footage of the event became one of the most watched pieces of amateur video in history. When the officers who beat King were later acquitted of any wrongdoing, Los Angeles erupted in several days of rioting that left 50 people dead, nearly 3,000 injured, led to more than 9,000 arrests and caused some $1 billion in damage. Smaller riots broke out in other cities as well, and it was on LA’s third day of violence when King emerged, visibly shaken by what was going on, and asked the cameras, “Can’t we all get along?”
King’s sound bite was a MLK moment for the MTV generation, and it probably marked the high point of his life. He later sued Los Angeles for his ordeal and settled for $3.8 million. He invested most of that in a music recording label that soon folded, and had financial problems for the balance of his life. He also had numerous other minor run-ins with the law, mainly for erratic or reckless driving. In one incident, he received a faceful of bird shot after a domestic dispute, though the wounds were not serious.
King abused alcohol for much of his life following his beating and the riots, alienating him from his family members. In a high-profile effort to get sober, he checked into the Pasadena Recovery Center in 2008 and appeared on the reality television shows Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and Sober House.
Afterwards, he published an autobiography, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.
King was found at the bottom of his swimming pool on June 17, 2012 at his home in Rialto, California. King’s fiancee - and a juror on his civil trial - Cynthia Kelly placed a call to 911, and officers on the scene attempted unsuccessfully to revive him. He was pronounced dead at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center shortly afterward. At the time of his death, police said that he appeared to have drowned, and that foul play was not suspected. At the time of this writing, King’s toxicology tests had not yet returned, and a final report on Kings death has not yet been issued.
Almost as soon as King died, however, tabloid newspapers and websites began circulating whispers about his death, how much his fiancee’s story held up under scrutiny, and things King supposedly did in his final hours. From a distance, all of that seems somewhat trivial, however. What matters most is not so much the exact why and how his life ended, but the fact that in some ways, his life ended in 1991.
King would say, during his rehabilitation, that he still felt lingering trauma from his beating. His ordeal became a fulcrum for a long-overdue national discussion about race and institutionalized racism, and for the rest of his days, King could not escape the fact that for the rest of the world, he was not simply a man. He was an icon of something much bigger than himself, whether he wanted the responsibility or not. Fame is a unique burden to carry. Some seek it; others find it, still others inherit it. All that can be said of King was that by the end, he probably did not want it any longer. All it had ever done was complicate his life and bring him pain. And while the violence of his own beating and the larger violence of the riots that followed shocked King and the nation, one might say that in the end, the nation emerged from it stronger, healthier, and better able to face the future. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for King himself. History can be cruel like that.