Rodney King’s Finest Hour

At a fraught moment, he urged his fellow Angelenos to think of the common good.

Collage of the L.A. riots and Rodney King.
Ted Soqui / Corbis Getty; Lindsay Brice / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

Thirty years ago this week, Los Angeles was burning amid riots that ultimately killed 63 people, injured 2,383, and destroyed hundreds of businesses. And perhaps the last person in the city that anyone could reasonably expect to call for calm, comity, and forbearance—the person with more fresh cause than anyone else to be furious at the city—was Rodney Glen King.

Yet on May 1, 1992, King called a press conference in hopes of stopping the death and destruction. “I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” he implored everyone watching. “Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”

Little more than a year prior, after fleeing a traffic stop at high speeds to avoid a drunk-driving charge that would have violated his parole, King had been savagely kicked and clubbed by four Los Angeles Police Department officers who inflicted skull fractures, broken bones, and shattered teeth––a beating that a man in a nearby apartment happened to capture on his camcorder. Today, cellphone videos of police killings are common, so it is hard to convey the sensation caused by footage of the King beating being shown on television. But watching it at age 11, I knew I had seen real-life evil for the first time, and would never again presume that the cops in any given encounter were the good guys.

King was still suffering more than a year later, on April 29, 1992, when a Simi Valley jury failed to convict any of the police officers who’d beaten him. Outrage at the verdict was immediate and widespread; many Angelenos could not abide that the beating caught on camera might go unpunished. As Reverend Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church put it, “Depravity and insanity always stun you. You just think that rational beings would at least be semi-rational.” He added, “To come back whitewashing something that the whole world witnessed, telling us that we in fact did not see brutalizing—this is a brutalization of truth.”

Within hours, the riots began. There was looting, vandalism, and assaults, with some civilians pulled from their cars and trucks by crowds that beat them as savagely as the LAPD had beaten King. By day two, arson was widespread, Koreatown was under attack, and a curfew had been imposed.

Despite having as much reason as any of the rioters to feel angry at and betrayed by his city, King came forward to urge an end to the violence. “This is just not right,” he said at his press conference. “It’s not right. And it’s not gonna change anything.” Almost immediately, local television and radio stations were broadcasting his plea of “Can we all get along?” over and over. City residents could not only quote it, but hear King’s anguished tone in their mind. And if that were the whole story, we would still find his statement extraordinary, even all these years later, for the way it elevated the common interest and the well-being of innocent Angelenos—a duty we once expected of our elected leaders, but that King took on voluntarily.

A fuller version of King’s backstory, as told in his 2012 autobiography, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, renders that stirring call for peace even more impressive.

King was born on April 2, 1965, in Sacramento, California. At age 7, while swimming in a reservoir with his two brothers, he was called the N-word for the first time by older white boys who surrounded them, threatened to hang them, and drove them from the water by throwing rocks at their heads.

His family soon moved to L.A. County, settling east of downtown, near Altadena. His troubles were just beginning. Over the years, King writes, he was sexually abused by a female relative and a male coach. One of his classmates at school murdered a teacher and another of King’s classmates. He narrowly escaped beatings from the Crips and Bloods who lived in his neighborhood. And every evening around seven, as King’s classmates were preparing for bed, his alcoholic father would bring his sons to his janitorial job at a medical center, where he drank, listened to country music, and supervised his boys as they polished the floors. The work would keep them up until 2 a.m., so every morning in class, King had trouble concentrating, wanting only to put his head down to sleep––and those were the good mornings, when all had been well the night before.

On the bad nights, the ones that contributed to the alcohol and marijuana habits King started at 11, in part to self-medicate, King’s father would get drunk and tell his son to soak himself in the bath, then come downstairs without dressing or drying himself off. As King wrote in his memoir:

That thin extension cord on my wet skin was just the worst. Pain like you just want to die and get it over with … He’d always swing harder when he was drunk. Well that extension cord came across the back of my thigh and I’d scream, almost passing out from pain. I’d get the worst damn welts on my legs, arms, and back. Big-ass raised marks, a quarter-inch high.

That, King speculates, is “why all the kicking, Taser zaps, and baton blows didn’t really keep me down when the cops were beating me in 1991. It was a tolerable level of pain that I had felt plenty of times before.” What galled him was being publicly smeared in the aftermath of the beating.

He declares:

The worst was when [my mother] heard the cops saying that I had to be on PCP and I wasn’t. It really bothered me when they told the press that I must have been doing angel dust to act the way I did. I had never touched the stuff, and the doctors didn’t find a damn trace of it in my body. But the damage had been done. Once they uttered those words, people were going to think that, no matter what. But I try not to waste my time hating anymore.

That took years. In an interview just before his 2012 death, at age 47, King told Oprah Winfrey that he couldn’t have written his autobiography in the period immediately after the beating and riots. “I had to let some of the fire and smoke clear,” he said. Yet this man, who suffered so often in life, found the strength to stand up, amid pain and anger, the air still thick with fire and smoke, to urge peace.

“We’ll get our justice,” he said in his press conference three decades ago. “They won the battle but they haven’t won the war. We’ll have our day in court, and that’s all we want.” (Later, in a federal civil-rights trial, two of the cops were convicted.) King continued, “I could understand the upset for the first two hours after the verdict.” But he deplored the continuing violence against people. “It’s not right, it’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. Please, we can get along here. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”

Los Angeles healed slowly after the riots. Yet King lived to see falling rates of murders, gang violence, hate crimes, and police shootings––and on many bygone anniversaries of the Los Angeles riots, I’ve taken heart in the trend lines of a city and country where people were brutalizing one another far less than they did in the early 1990s. (In recent years, some of those trends have tragically reversed.)

“Can we all get along?” remains King’s legacy. Just before his death he said, remarkably, “I wouldn’t change the beating, because if it didn’t happen to me, it would be a slower process of people trying to get along.” His foundation describes its mission this way: “We are dedicated to honoring Rodney King’s message and legacy of bringing people together. #GetAlong.” At Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in the Hollywood Hills, his gravestone says “CAN WE ALL GET ALONG.”

When a man harmed as badly by the world as King was leaves it with that insistent, hopeful message, surely all of us with less trying lives can honor his legacy and summon more goodwill than we’re now managing. He was right: We’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.