Rodney King Dies, the Myths Live On

By | June 18, 2012 | 3 Comments

On the morning of Father’s Day, Rodney King was found dead at the bottom of his pool in the Los Angeles-area city of Rialto. An autopsy is pending, but as yet there is no evidence of foul play. Toxicology will reveal whether alcohol or drugs were involved. He reportedly had been drinking and smoking marijuana. King was 47 and a grandfather.

My object here is not to dwell on the death of King, but to focus on the myths that live on, and probably will continue to live for all time, perpetuated in the media and even in history books.

Rodney King was a “motorist.” This term dates from the 1920s and 1930s, when most people could not afford cars. It was obsolescent by 1991, when the King incident occurred. It was used by the media to obscure what King actually was – a convicted strong-arm robber on parole, who led police on a chase at speeds exceeding 115 miles per hour, across freeways and residential streets, in order to avoid arrest for drunk driving.

King’s Hyundai couldn’t go that fast. That claim was made repeatedly in the media. But as soon as I heard it, I pulled out an old issue of Car and Driver and found that the car could top 115 miles per hour. Were reporters unable to access automotive magazines or contact experts, or were they unwilling to be politically incorrect?

King had a clean record before the beating. King had two convictions, one for domestic violence, and one for robbery of a convenience store using a tire iron. King was charged with robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. In a plea bargain, the assault charge was dropped. King served two years in prison for robbery and remained on parole. Had he been convicted of drunk driving, he probably would have been sent back to prison to serve out the robbery sentence, in addition to a sentence for drunk driving. That is, King had reason to flee from police. In fact, all charges against him were dropped after the beating.

The police were racist. Only God can see our hearts. We can observe what people do. King had two passengers in his car, also African American males. Neither of them did anything wrong that night, and the police didn’t harm them in any way. From this, one might logically conclude that the police were reacting to what King was doing, not to his race – that is, if one is trying to be logical.

The videotape shows what happened that night. No, it shows what happened after the tape began. According to testimony at the trial of the four officers, King exited his car, wiggled his rear at the female Highway Patrol officer who was pointing her pistol at him, refused orders to lie prone, and was advancing on her when the Los Angeles Police arrived to back up the Highway Patrol. Had the LAPD arrived a few seconds later, the CHP officer would have had to shoot King, and the beating and subsequent riot would never have occurred.

We all saw the videotape of the beating. No, we all saw part of the videotape. We saw it literally hundreds of times on TV. But that wasn’t the whole tape. That tape was sold by the man who made it to Los Angeles TV station KTLA, where it was edited. The later part showing the beating was put on TV and given to media outlets across the world. But the first part of the tape was never shown on TV until the trial of the four officers. I happened to be off work that day and watched the trial on live TV. If I had not been home, I would remain unaware that there was more of the tape that had been concealed by the media. Even well-informed people are unaware of this fact.

The police beat King for no reason. Testimony at the trial of the four officers revealed that King was “swarmed” by the four officers, but he threw them off. King was over six feet tall and “buffed” from his time in prison. Then police tased King twice. There was a suggestion that in their excitement, the officers forgot to trigger the Taser, but audio recordings revealed the characteristic clicking sounds of a Taser in use. Nevertheless, King didn’t react to the Taser.

King was not aggressive, merely uncooperative. The part of the videotape shown only at the trial revealed that King charged full-speed at Officer Powell, who skillfully struck King across the shoulder and knocked him down. If Powell had not done so, he would have been flattened by the much larger King, and his baton or his pistol might have been taken – at which point the other officers would have had to shoot King.

The police beat King after he was subdued. Even years later, “news” papers claimed that King was beaten while handcuffed. At the trial, the full videotape was shown in slow motion, while a use-of-force expert analyzed every action of the police. King repeatedly stopped struggling and started to put his hands behind him, so he could be handcuffed. And each time, the beating stopped. But each time until the last, King resumed struggling, and the baton strikes resumed. Though I am not an expert, I could not be sure King was hit even once without reason.

The police could have subdued King without a prolonged beating. This is true, but not in the way critics mean. The police “swarmed” King, but he threw them off. They tased him twice, but without effect. King could have been subdued quickly with a choke hold or a baton blow to the head, but these were forbidden by police regulations. The only option left was repeated baton strikes to the legs. The use-of-force expert confirmed this, and the prosecution did not refute it effectively. This explained the jury’s verdict to me, but only because I had the luxury of watching the trial on live TV. The vast majority of people, including journalists and pundits, did not watch the trial, and thus found the verdict inexplicable.

The four police officers were all white. Sergeant Koon, Officer Powell, and Probationary Officer Wind were “white,” that is, “Anglo.” But the fourth was Officer Theodore Briseno, which was always pronounced “Brisenyo” and now would be written “Briseño.” He had black hair, a thick mustache, looked Latino, and had a Latino name. But the media persistently called him “white.” I pointed this out to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He retorted that in the past, Briseno had not always identified himself as Latino. I suggested that this was irrelevant to whether he was Latino, and might have been a result of his trying to avoid ethnic bias. But the reporter was unmoved, illustrating the old saying that a lie goes halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

The jury that tried the four officers was all white. In fact, several black prospective jurors were excused when they said they had already made up their minds. The actual jury included 10 whites, one Asian American, and one Latino.

The jury acquitted the four officers. The jury acquitted three. It “hung” (failed to reach a verdict) on Officer Powell, who struck the most blows. He would have been retried in state court if the federal trial had not intervened. In that trial, Sergeant Koon and Officer Powell were convicted and served prison terms. The sentence “The all-white jury acquitted the four white officers” thus contains three errors. But what would you bet that this sentence will find its way into history books? I would bet serious money.

As a result of smoldering racial tensions, aggravated by the edited videotape, and inflamed by the slanted reporting, a riot broke out when the original verdict was announced. Late that afternoon, rioting began, and trucker Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck at Florence and Normandy and hit in the head with a concrete block, as well as punched and kicked. He suffered permanent brain damage but survived.

Not so lucky were 53 other people who were killed in the rioting. The riot lasted six days, and was quelled only when active-duty Marines from Camp Pendleton and active-duty Army troops from Fort Ord arrived to assist the National Guard. At least a billion dollars of damage was done by the looting and fires that were set. Korean American merchants were particularly hard-hit. Many lost their businesses and everything they owned. They felt abandoned by the police.

When the riot broke out, King appealed for calm. We all remember him asking, “Can we all get along?” But most people forget that he added, “We’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.” Indeed, we’re all stuck here for a while. Rodney King’s time here has ended. But we’re still stuck with the bitterness and the lies. Let’s try to work it out.

The entire affair was tragic for all concerned. But equally tragic is the fact that the myths about the beating of Rodney King will long outlive King himself. We can only regret the fact that lies are often longer-lived than human beings.

That the human soul is immortal is a matter of faith. But that disinformation can persist indefinitely is an incontrovertible fact.

Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.


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