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Rodney King

Survivor of the police beating which sparked the 1991 Los Angeles riots -- and unlikely pacifist

RODNEY King, who was found dead in a swimming pool last Sunday aged 47, was the black man whose brutal beating by white officers of the LAPD sparked race riots across the city and outrage across America and beyond.

It was the night of March 2, 1991, when police spotted a white Hyundai speeding. King, at the wheel, had been drinking, and, fearing the consequences of violating his parole for a previous robbery, led officers on a high-speed chase. When the pursuit ended, King was ordered to lie face down on the ground. After failing to comply, he was given an electric Taser shock, then hit with more than 50 baton strokes -- beaten to what he later said was "an inch from death". As dawn broke, he was operated on for five hours. It is almost certain that there would have been no consequences for the police involved had not an unseen witness, George Holliday, been keen to test out his new video camera. His film aired around the world.

Four LAPD officers were charged. But their trial was held in the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, and ended in April 1992 by convicting none of them. On the day of the verdict, King's lawyer Steven Lerman, sensing the outrage that would greet the verdict, warned Angelenos to "get the heck out of Dodge".

Even US President George Bush Sr seemed appalled. "Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video," he said two days later. By then, however, LA was ablaze. More than 50 people were killed in rioting that caused a billion dollars' worth of damage. As the violence spiralled, King issued what became a celebrated appeal for calm: "People, I just want to say -- can we all get along?"

Glen Rodney King was born on April 2, 1965, in Altadena, Los Angeles. His father, Ronald, was a strict disciplinarian who ran a janitorial business and his mother, Odessa, was a Jehovah's Witness who instilled the virtues of faith and hard work in her children. Rodney and his brother helped their father work, mopping hospital floors, and often got home at 2am. A few hours later they stumbled into school.

Ronald King, an alcoholic, died in 1984, and Rodney became a drinker too. "I loved to drink from the start," he said. He dropped out of school and tried working in construction. He became a father and, aged 18, was charged with petty theft. Then, in November 1989, he pleaded guilty to robbing a convenience store and spent 10 months in jail. It was the terms of his parole from this sentence, he said, that caused him to flee arrest in 1991.

After the riots and recovery from his injuries, King spent much of his life locked in the legal system. He fought cases against the city to claim compensation, then against the lawyers who had acted on his behalf and claimed large slices of the money. But he had enough to set up a hip-hop record label, which later failed. He also had various minor run-ins, usually alcohol-related, with the police. He spent spells in rehab and relaxed by surfing and skiing.

Rodney King had a daughter from a teenage relationship with Carmen Simpson. He married, first, Denetta, with whom he had a second daughter. He married, secondly, Crystal, with whom he had a third daughter. He is survived by his fiancee Cynthia Kelly.

Sunday Independent