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 (12 Responses)
  1. 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 |
  2. splasher6

    nail on head! true

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

    Anthony supports the murderers.

    June 18, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. 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 |
  5. The Man in the Mirror

    You got it Sherlock!

    June 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. 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 |