Rodney King was an unlikely ‘centerpiece in history’

This July 20, 1993 file photo shows Rodney King speaking during an appearance on KFI-AM radio's
This July 20, 1993 file photo shows Rodney King speaking during an appearance on KFI-AM radio's "Bill Handel and Mark Whitlock" show in Los Angeles. 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.
Nick Ut/AP

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It was easy to mock Rodney King, the famous alcoholic police beating victim who almost childishly asked during the 1992 L.A. Riots “Can we all get along?”

TMZ posted a clip this spring during the 20th anniversary of the riots that had an announcer praising King’s performance in a non-existent movie called “So You Want to Start A Race Riot.”

Despite the treatment, King, who died Sunday, appeared to be gracious when people approached him on the street, as they often did two decades after his beating. In a YouTube video posted last year, someone approached him to talk about boxing, a sport King loved.

“I’m here with Rodney King, one of the most famous people in America,” the man said. “First of all, what’s it like to be Rodney King?”

“Hey man, it’s like ‘Can’t we all just get along’,” King said with a smile. “It’s a nice feeling now. It’s a blessing to be Rodney King these days.”

Over the years, King struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, was arrested several times and went to prison for robbery once. He ended up on the reality TV show "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew." Police are investigating his death in Rialto, where his fiancée found him submerged in their pool around 5 a.m. Sunday. A friend told the Associated Press King had seemed to be getting his life together.

People who knew King described a “jovial” and easygoing man.

“Very unassuming, very modest,” said L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable President Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who’d met King several times, said. “You know, we used to say the accidental president. He was almost the accidental centerpiece in history.”

King was born in Sacramento, and he was a 25-year-old construction worker in 1991 when LAPD officers left him with 11 skull fractures and a broken eye socket after a traffic stop. Angelenos rioted after a jury in Simi Valley acquitted the officers. The city of L.A. eventually agreed to pay King close to $3.8 million.

He told CNN he still occasionally suffered nightmares about the beating. For a long time, he could not watch the videotape.

“It used to be very hard to watch,” King told KPCC’s Patt Morrison recently. “But now, I look at it with a smile because I made it alive through it.”

When the videotaped police assault first happened, he was known as “black motorist Rodney King.” Over the years, it was just "Rodney King." His beating confirmed many people's worst suspicions about law enforcement. For others, King never represented more than a big black man with a criminal record who ran from police.

“It’s almost like, ‘you see, police have to be tough, they have to crack down because you have so many people like Rodney King that are lawless and lawbreakers,’” Hutchinson said. “So in a sense King actually was a symbol not only of police violence and police abuse but he was also a symbol of racial polarization.”

Hutchinson said King’s personal troubles enhanced his reputation as a tragic figure, and that his early death will do the same.

Earlier this year, King released a book, "The Riot Within, My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.” He also issued a statement condemning the shooting death of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, a situation many people compared with his beating. He expressed a new comfort with his role as someone who helped spur police reform.

“I’ll take that position in my life and I will try and live up to it,” he told KPCC. Then he added “I’m only human, you know.”

King married and divorced more than once. Two years ago, he got engaged to Cynthia Kelley, a juror who served in the civil suit he brought against the city.

If Rodney King was ever bitter about his police beating, he’d let go of it. He said he’d made his peace with the officers who nearly killed him, even if he'd never met them again.

“People have forgiven me over the years. And so why wouldn’t I forgive them?”