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Rodney King Dies at 47

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Police Beating Victim Who Asked ‘Can We All Get Along?’

Circumstances surrounding his sudden death remain a mystery

Chris Levister

Rodney King, whose 1991 videotaped beating by the Los Angeles police became a symbol of the nation’s continuing racial tensions that subsequently led to a week of deadly race riots after the officers were acquitted, was found dead Sunday in a swimming pool at the home he shared with his fiancée Cynthia Kelly in Rialto. He was 47.

Rialto Police Capt. Randy De Anda said Tuesday that authorities have found no signs of foul play. Coroner's officials completed their autopsy of Mr. King on Monday. An official cause of death was deferred pending toxicological tests, expected within six weeks. The investigation into Mr. King’s sudden and unexpected death continued to raise more questions than answers as Rialto police tried to unravel why the avid swimmer was found lifeless at the bottom of his pool early Sunday.

Investigators remained tight-lipped about statements made by a next-door-neighbor who claimed she heard King “sobbing uncontrollably before hearing a splash.” Police say Ms. Kelly, called 911 at 5:25 a.m. after finding Mr. King at the bottom of the pool. Authorities say Kelly’s description of the incident during a frantic 911 call is consistent with the investigation.

Neighbors say the couple kept a low profile but questioned how King “an avid swimmer” could have drowned in his backyard pool.

“He built that pool himself and inscribed the dates of his beating and the riots on two of the pool tiles,” said a neighbor who asked not to be identified. “He loved the water. He was an accomplished swimmer. Swimming was his way of getting away from it all.” Mr. King was catapulted onto the international stage after his brutal beating by Los Angeles police in 1991 was captured on video tape and broadcast worldwide. The trial of four White officers charged with felony assault in the beating ended after a jury with no Black members acquitted three of the officers on state charges; a mistrial was declared for a fourth. The verdict sparked one of the most costly and deadly race riots in American history.

At a press conference on the third day of the riots King’s magnanimous statement “People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?" helped staunch the violence and sealed his iconic legacy.

“People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” he told the Los Angeles Times in April. “I should have seen life like that and stayed out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations.” Mr. King still walked with a limp and several of his scars were visible. His best outlets for relaxation, he said, were fishing and swimming. He published a memoir in April detailing his struggles, saying in several interviews that he had not been able to find steady work. Mourners gathered at Leimert Park in South Los Angeles Monday evening for a community tribute organized by Project Islamic Hope.

“His life is one for the history books,” said Executive Director, Najee Ali. “He was not the heartless thug portrayed by police and the media,” said his former high school teacher Linda Heeley. Heeley who attended the tribute remembered Mr. King as a ‘kind, humble man who will be remembered for his good and bad’. “He taught a nation to look in the mirror and forgive,” she said.

“I realize I will always be the poster child for police brutality,” Mr. King said, “but I can try to use that as a positive force for healing and restraint.” He said he had once blamed politicians and lawyers “for taking a battered and confused addict and trying to make him into a symbol for civil rights.” But he was unable to escape that role. On Sunday, the Rev. Al Sharpton, said in a statement, “History will record that it was Rodney King’s beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement.” Mr. King said he was essentially broke, though he said he received an advance for his book, “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption,” published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the riots.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, is a nationally acclaimed journalist, media critic and the author of nine books about the African American experience. In his June 17 blog “The Tragedy, Triumph and Tragedy of Rodney King,” Hutchinson wrote: “The tragedy was those few brutal, savage, and violent moments that catapulted King, a marginally employed, poorly educated, ex-con, into a virtual global household name. It cast the spotlight on one of the nation’s deepest sore spots, police abuse, brutality and misconduct against African-Americans, minorities and the poor.”

The triumph Hutchinson wrote was that King lived long enough to see the issue of police misconduct especially that of the LAPD, become the focus of intense discussion, debate, and ultimately reform measures that transformed some police agencies into better models of control, accountability, the reduction of use of force violence, and more emphasis on community partnership. “The recent spate of police shootings of young unarmed Black and Hispanic males in some cities under dubious circumstances shows that the job of full police reform is still very much a work in progress, with room for backsliding.”

The final tragedy Hutchinson said was King's surprising and untimely death. “He was only 47. He had attained a partial rehabilitation in terms of his bad guy image. He was a recognized author. His name was eternally synonymous with a pantheon of transformative figures at the center of the many monumental events in the nation's history. This indeed was the tragedy, triumph and final tragedy of Rodney King.”

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