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Rodney King, dead at 47: ‘A symbol of civil rights’

Rodney King / COURTESY PHOTO

By Hazel Trice Edney
Trice Edney News Wire

The death of 47-year-old Rodney King, the man whose name has become synonymous with police brutality and excessive force, has shocked the nation.

Twenty years after the vicious beating of King by Los Angeles police officers, his sudden death by apparent drowning June 17 shines a new spotlight on injustices that continue against African Americans and recalls his resounding question, “Can we all get along?”

“Rodney King had become such a fixture in our lives, both the tragedy and the triumphs of his life,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. in a telephone interview shortly after the announcement of King’s death.

Jackson drew a parallel between the March 2, 1991 beating of King and the Feb. 26, 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. He reminded that what triggered national outrage in both cases was the fact that in both instances the killers were initially allowed to walk free — let off the hook by the criminal justice system.

“Rodney King would not have been believed without the film. And even with the film, those who beat him walked free. And that’s what created the corruption. And that’s what created the connection between Rodney King and Trayvon Martin because all these years later, Trayvon Martin was killed, but the killer walked away free. So, the blatant racial injustice continues.”

Rialto Police reported that King’s fiancée, Cynthia Kelly, called 911 after hearing a splash in the pool around 5:25 a.m. and finding King at the bottom of his swimming pool. She said they had been talking throughout the morning. Police said they tried to revive him after removing him from the pool, but were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead around 6:11 a.m. according to reports. The Rialto Police Department had begun an investigation and said there would be an autopsy, but said there was no initial evidence of foul play and no trauma to King’s body.

This was one of the houses that King bought with his share of a $3.8 million settlement from a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the four officers who beat him viciously with batons after a high-speed chase that ensued when police observed him speeding and intoxicated. He bought a second house for his mother.

In the state criminal case, a jury acquitted three of the officers and was hung on the forth. The acquittals on April 29, 1992, sparked violent rioting resulting in the deaths of 55 people, the injuries of 2,000 and more than a billion dollars in damages to homes and businesses, mostly by fire. It was King’s televised plea, “Can we all get along?” that was largely credited for ending the riots.

In the civil case, brought by the U. S. Department of Justice, two of the officers were convicted of violating King’s civil rights. Officers Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon were found guilty, and sentenced to 32 months in prison. Officers Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseño were acquitted of all charges. Cynthia Kelly, the lone Black juror in the civil case, befriended King after the trial and became his fiancé after 16 years.

Just over a month since the 20th anniversary of the beating, civil rights leaders this week find themselves revisiting the significance of the case and the legacy of King.

“His life was a reminder of how voiceless, powerless and often nameless people can rise above their weakest moments,” said Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Center for Race and Justice. “When King was beaten by Los Angeles police, it was a wakeup call to many. He made us focus on the role of police in powerless communities and push for reforms. He made us think about the ills of racial profiling and to seek an end to racial profiling. Rodney King will be sorely missed but his plea for peace will forever be remembered.”

Rev. Al Sharpton says King had become “a symbol of civil rights.”

Sharpton stated in a release: “He represented the anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling movement of our time. It was his beating that made America focus on the presence of profiling and police misconduct. I recently spent time with him on the release of his new book just a couple of months ago and he did my radio and TV show. Through all that he had gone through with his beating and his personal demons he was never one to not call for reconciliation and for people to overcome and forgive. History will record that it was Rodney King’s beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement.”

Rev. Jackson says he believes King’s death will heighten attention to all areas of racial profiling in America — including that exposed in the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was shot dead by a neighborhood watch captain Feb. 26. The shooter, George Zimmerman, walked free with no police charges until protests erupted across the nation. After an investigation by a special prosecutor, he was arrested April 11 and charged with second degree murder.

“It can only compound the Trayvon Martin season. We have to deal with the growth of racial profiling and violence upon Black people,” Jackson said. “Racial profiling by banks, home foreclosures, racial profiling in the judicial system — more time for the crime, the racial profiling and attacks on the president. There’s a strong undercurrent of racism that simply cannot be denied … So, the lesson to be learned and not ignored is that Blacks remain the weak link in the justice chain.”

National Urban League President/CEO Marc Morial agrees: “The beating captured on videotape and the subsequent acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers exemplified criminal justice system inequities that continue to plague this nation. His words following the Los Angeles riots captured the sentiments of a nation and continue call to question: ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’”

 

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