Looking Back at Rodney King and the L.A. Uprising

Symbols of the Troubled Relationship Between Police and the Black Community

A view of businesses beginning to burn on Pico Boulevard near Hayworth Avenue, onlookers gathering, a young man dressed in black pausing on bicycle watching fire during the Rodney King Riots, and the sky black with smoke in daylight on April 30, 1992 in Los Angeles, California.
Lindsay Price / Getty Images

Rodney King became a household name after images surfaced of him taking a life-threatening beating by four White police officers from the Los Angeles police department in 1992. After the four police officers were acquitted by a jury, a violent uprising broke out in Los Angeles, lasting over five days, and leaving more than 50 people dead and thousands injured.

A Brutal beating 

On March 3, 1991, 25-year-old Rodney King was leaving an event by car with his friends when a police car on his tail motivated him to attempt to flee at 100 miles per hour. According to King's account, he kept driving instead of pulling over because he was violating the terms of his parole—from a prior robbery—by drinking and he wanted to avoid trouble with the police. Instead, he kept driving and triggered a high-speed chase that ended when he pulled over.

As King stepped out of the vehicle with his hands up police instructed him to get on the ground and they began beating him with their batons. Between four officers, King was struck at least 50 times and received at least 11 fractures. Nearly beaten to death, King was rushed to the nearest hospital where doctors operated on him for five hours.  

Thankfully for King, a bystander named George Holiday had been overlooking the balcony during the brutal beating and recorded the incident. The next day, Holiday took the footage to the local television station.

The outrage and backlash from the officers actions was so significant that Rodney King was released from the hospital four days later with no official charges filed against him.


On March 15, 1991, Sergeant Stacey Koon and officers Laurence Michael Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno were indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury in connection with the beating.

A little more than two months later, the grand jury decided not to indict the 17 officers who were there at the time of King’s beating but did nothing.

The four officers accused of beating King were acquitted on April 29,1992. A violent uprising began in South Central Los Angeles. An truck driver, uninvolved in King’s case, was beaten and the footage was caught on videotape by a passing helicopter. The mayor declared a state of emergency and the governor made a request for the National Guard to assist law enforcement officials. During that time 1,100 Marines, 600 Army soldiers, and 6,500 National Guard troops patrolled the streets of Los Angeles.

Heartbroken and feeling responsible for the surrounding chaos, Rodney King, fighting back tears, made a public statement and recited the following famous lines: "People, I just want to say, can we all get along?” on May 1, 1992.

Small Victories

The nation waited in fear of future riots as the trial for the four officers began. Less than two months later, two of the officers—Koon and Powell—were found guilty by a federal jury for having violated King’s civil rights.

According to news reports, “U.S. District Court Judge John Davies sentences both Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell to 30 months in prison for violating King's civil rights. Powell is found guilty of violating King's constitutional right to be free from an arrest made with ‘unreasonable force.’ Ranking officer Koon is convicted of permitting the civil rights violation to occur.”

Sadly for King, struggles with alcoholism and drug use led to further negative interactions with the law. In 2004, was arrested after a domestic dispute and later plead guilty to driving under the influence. In 2007 he was found drunk with non-threatening gunshot wounds.

In recent years, Rodney King has given several personal interviews including with CNN and Oprah. On June 18, 2012, his fiancee Cynthia Kelley, a juror in his trial many years prior, found him at the bottom of his swimming pool. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

A Catalyst for Change

Rodney King's horrific experience with the Los Angeles Police Department was horrific helped to illuminate some of the myriad problems with police brutality. Images of the beating and the uprising that followed live on in infamy as a symbol of the troubled relationship between police and the Black community. 

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Meadow-Fernandez, A. Rochaun. "Looking Back at Rodney King and the L.A. Uprising." ThoughtCo, Feb. 24, 2021, thoughtco.com/rodney-king-4154686. Meadow-Fernandez, A. Rochaun. (2021, February 24). Looking Back at Rodney King and the L.A. Uprising. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rodney-king-4154686 Meadow-Fernandez, A. Rochaun. "Looking Back at Rodney King and the L.A. Uprising." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rodney-king-4154686 (accessed June 16, 2021).