June 18th, 2012
04:46 PM ET

5 ways the Rodney King beating and LA riots changed America

by Alicia W. Stewart, CNN.com Identity editor

Rodney King died Sunday, 21 years after he first became a household name.

But it was the way that he almost died, in a severe beating by Los Angeles police officers, that made him a reluctant symbol of police brutality and spurred a conversation about race, economics and justice in America.  The subsequent riot a year later, after the acquittal and mistrial of the four officers charged in the beating, was the "nation's deadliest urban race riot since the Civil War," according to Lou Cannon in his book "Official Negligence."

Rodney King looks back without anger

What impact did the beating of Rodney King, and the subsequent race riots a year later, have on America?

Here are five ways I have found. Are there other thoughts you have? Please leave them in the comments below.

1) It introduced a reluctant symbol, rather than a selected civil rights hero: The Rev. Al Sharpton called Rodney King "a symbol of civil rights," but in interviews with CNN, King was hesitant to be a symbol, much less a hero.  In the past, civil rights icons like Rosa Parks, were carefully selected by leaders.  Parks, who famously refused to get out of her seat, and spurred the Montgomery bus boycott, was selected by the NAACP over other women to test civil disobedience laws.  King's legacy is still being debated, and he ushered in an era where more everyday citizens became accidental national figures. Amethyst Ross put it this way on CNN's Facebook page: "Rodney was not a civil rights hero. He made very wrong and stupid mistakes. However, I totally disagree with people calling others 'worthless.' Every human being and livings have some worth because they are God's creations. Rodney's situation gave the world a look into police brutality and cover-ups. Subsequently, the world witnessed the riots as a protest of racial inequality. Say what you want ... he may have been wasteful, but no one is worthless. He will answer to his Maker for being wasteful of his time, fame, and money...not us."

Overheard on cnn.com: Rodney King had demons. But called them his own

2) Captured on video by a citizen: King was a reluctant symbol in part because the videotape that thrust him into the limelight came from an unexpected source: a citizen journalist.  George Holliday videotaped the footage of Rodney King that was broadcast to the world.  Long before smartphones with video cameras, this submission in 1991 was still a novelty to newsrooms, and now common practice.

3) 'The problem of excessive force in American policing is real': After the beating was televised, the Christopher Commission, an independent group, was established to conduct an unprecedented investigation and examination of the Los Angeles Police Department. In the report, the commission notes that 10 police chiefs from large cities met, and concluded that police violence was not unique to Los Angeles.

In "Black in America: The Black Male," CNN's 2008 documentary, Soleded O' Brien pointed out a unique conversation most black parents have with their black sons, regardless of class, is what to do if are ever stopped by police. For decades, the conversation primarily happened within communities of color.  But with visceral images of a beaten Rodney King being played on television screens, it became a national conversation.

4) Composition of police department and jurors:  In a statement, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck remarked "[Rodney King's] legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence brought on this city and it's police department." Changes in police hires and a focus on the police department’s community relationships became a key result of the Rodney King beating, and the riots.  It also elevated the discussion of the racial composition of juries and the location of trials. It was not the first time these considerations were discussed, but the case became a benchmark for teaching best practices both in police departments and jury selection.

5)  Race conversation moves beyond black and white: "People, I just want to say, can we all get along?" King's famous utterance became a shorthand for peace after fires and fighting erupted in Los Angeles in 1992.  But is also added another layer to discussions about race in America. In Los Angeles, a multi-cultural community, the riots transformed our conversations about race beyond just black and white to include Latinos, and Asian-Americans.  An initial analysis after the riots showed that half of the arrests made were of Latino young men.  In addition, images of Korean-American store owners armed with guns to protect their businesses, added another element to the conversation about long-held economic challenges and tension within the community. Hyepin Im, the founder and president of Korean Churches for Community Development, was a graduate student at the time and recalled how the Korean community felt a sense of abandonment.  It inspired Im to later start KCCD, and ensure Korean-Americans had a voice at the table in future discussions. "The Korean community refuses to dwell in our pain, but will move forward and extend a hand across cultures, and engage civically," she said.

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. The Social Preacher

    #6 – It made it very difficult for me to get to school while I was getting bottles thrown at my head simply because I was white.

    #7 – It made it very difficult for me to get back home from school while I was getting shot at simply because I was white.

    June 20, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Princess Celestia

    If you see police lights in your mirror, stop immediately.
    Chris Rock.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. EKIA

    It made drug addicts think twice before running from the cops.

    "If the cops have to come and get you , they're binging a butt whupping with them."
    Chris Rock

    June 20, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  4. Emma Jo

    It only proved, racism was alive and kicking. What those cops did was wrong, and they knew it.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tesla

    See... I don't get it.

    If this man would have hit a four year old while on his drug and alcohol induced high speed joyride, he'd be treated like the worst person ever. And resisting arrest to the extent he did, he's lucky he didn't get shot. The beating WAS excessive; but that doesn't make him a hero.

    I've heard people honestly say that they believe drunk driving should carry a mandatory 10 year sentence. People have no sympathy for a drunk driver if he crashes and dies. So why is this guy treated like a hero when he engaged in an extremely reckless act that endangered many innocent lives, was caught by the police, then tried to resist to avoid his just punishment? And a civil rights hero? You really want to hitch a racial wagon to a guy who did all of this?

    I guess I just don't get it. I look at Rodney King and I see a mess of bad choices. Not mistakes, BAD CHOICES. Can someone enlighten me as to why he's a civil rights hero?

    June 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tiffani

      He's not really a herop but a symbol. His beating just highlighted what most African American males (wether under the influence or not) go through when they're pulled over. Even today my little brother knows that if he gets pulled over 9 times out of 10 his trunk is going to be searched as well...while he stands on the side of the road in his hospital scrubs

      June 20, 2012 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. panorain

    While we are thanking Rodney King for taking a beating to further the cause of social justice we should also thank the 52 people who were murdered in the Rodney King Riots for dying so that Rodney King could obtain justice. They are martyrs in the full sense of the word. Right up there with Medgar Evers and all the other victims who inspired the civil rights movement.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:39 am | Report abuse |
  7. CaliJo

    I lived in California when Rodney King was beaten, and it was just a local story on the news. I am white, and was in my 30's at the time. 1st, the local news channels showed just a clip, but then the FULL video taken by a man in an
    apartment close to the parking lot was shown on TV (unheard of at the time, as no one had video cameras). I burst into tears.......and was haunted by his beating for many years afterward, especially when the white officers' were acquitted by an all white jury, far from the location of the beating. I know that he had a drug & alcohol problem, but if he were a dog, these officers' would have spent more time in jail than they did for this brutal & barbarian act.
    God Rest Your Soul, Rodney. You brought peace back to Los Angeles. You did. We can all get along...........
    If people will just have the heart to forgive that YOU did.

    June 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. a slozomby

    shortly after this the rash of hyphenated americans began springing up.

    June 18, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. southernwonder

    america did get along a better after rodney king went public.

    June 18, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Worktolive

      Please, please, please, PLEASE-Rodney King did nothing to promote race relations.

      June 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  10. steve

    while this type of poor police behavior has greatly been reduced, it still happens on occasion. Just glad we have police, that's all I can say. If we have to protect ourselves, you can imagine what would go on!

    June 18, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  11. splasher6

    nail on head! true

    June 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tee

    Anthony supports the murderers.

    June 18, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Anthony

    The civil wasn't fought to end slavery. It was fought to preserve the Union and to take the power of the confederate states. The real reason The LA riots happened was because a Korean store owner shot & killed an unarmed girl in the back of the head and was only sentenced to probation of five years, four hundred hours of community service, and a $500.00 fine. Rodney King was just the spark that lit the fuse.

    June 18, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. The Man in the Mirror

    You got it Sherlock!

    June 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Cullen Powell

    I've got five more for you: It also caused 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.

    June 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • candice

      how sad that you blame a victim

      June 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  16. selachos

    On the night of March 2, 1991, Rodney King got off easy.

    Around midnight, after speeding through suburban neighborhoods at 105 m.p.h, his car was stopped by the police. Rodney King later said that he tried to outrun the police because he was drunk.

    His 2 passengers, Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, behaved in a civilized manner, and acceded to police requests to remain compliant. On the other hand, Rodney King (as we know from the rarely shown FULL video tape made by George Holliday) was not compliant. He was aggressive toward and defiant of the request of the police. Rodney King NEVER DENIED that he defied the police who were making a proper arrest of a drunken driver propelling a speeding car.

    May the Lord smile down upon Rodney Glen King and grant him forgiveness. But, for those left here on earth, King’s passing is good riddance of bad rubbish.

    June 18, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Man in the Mirror

      To state that he was, "bad rubbish", is classless! He made mistakes like all of us.

      June 18, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
      • Tee

        We don't resort to crime, animals do.

        June 18, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
      • tat

        I am glad, Chris that you are just so perfect. Most of us are not. Poor choices can still be called mistakes.

        June 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
      • Brutus

        I never made a mistake THAT bad. Without the police, we would all be at the mercy of the Rodney Kings of the world. Who would want that?

        June 2, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • duh

      its not about any of that..its about excessive force. no one under arrest regardless of the crime should be beat with battons nearly to death. thats not the police force's job. its to detain and to bring to the court.

      June 18, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Peter

    What makes the Rodney King video culturally important is that it’s the first people’s video,..... not the states, not the authorites, not the new's medias reporting and not the police, that had a massive distribution under a new cultural dynamic. It was the first time video technology was reversed.... the people were "watching" and recording the police with instant media distribution.........it was a new kind of story telling. To be sure there have always been massive distribution of images with television and film. The majority produced by the news media, filmmakers, and surveillance in 1991 (now it's completly different....everybody is shooting someting all the time). The whole idea up to the Rodney King episode was that you are being watched by this watchman who makes you feel like you were being watched. That’s control. Now everything has turned around and the prisoner can watch the watchman/guard. And this is heavily evident in Rodney King beating because the authorities were being watched doing something wrong and recorded. So now even the authorities are afraid, that’s what’s so important. Its hard to understand this now because of the ease of creating images and sharing them today. But it was revolutionary then.... and even caused the massive LA riots one year later because of the aquital of the police involved..... but its was the video itself that was for me the main historical event.

    June 18, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |