Rodney King and Black Lives Matter

By Eric Evely, Hope College

The Rodney King incident and the pubic outcry laid the groundwork for how the Black Lives Matter Movement goes their mission. The incident brought the issue of police brutality into the national spotlight, and more importantly to BLM’s mode of operation, showed that sousveillance (the recording of an event by a private citizen involved or near the event) can have a massive impact.

The Rodney King Incident

On March 3rd 1991, a 25 year old Los Angeles taxi driver named Rodney King was driving home with two other passengers in the car. They had spent the night watching sports and drinking at a friends house.[1] California Highway Patrol officers attempted to pull King over for speeding on the highway. Instead King accelerated and led police on a short (approximately eight miles), but high speed chase (estimates go up to 115mph).[2] The police cornered King’s vehicle and ordered the occupants out of the car. His two passengers complied, but both were beaten while lying defenseless on the ground. King refused to exit the car at first, and when he did, according to the police report, he was acting in a manner consistent with someone high on PCP.[3] Considering that the city of Los Angeles had one of the highest rates of PCP use in the country at the time, this was a reasonable assumption.[4] Dealing with a person that is high on PCP is incredibly difficult, and they are often violent, especially when confronted by police. King was swarmed by LAPD officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore

Screenshot from the video of the incident (Image courtesy of Flickr)
Screenshot from the video of the incident (Image courtesy of Flickr)

Briseno and Rolando Solano. The officers tazered him twice. They then began beating him when he shrugged off the electrical charge and was still resisting the four officers trying subdue him. The officers then kicked him and beat him with batons. One of the officers was swinging the baton like a baseball bat, a method that was not allowed by the LAPD. Officer Stacey Koon, the on-scene ranking officer, directed the other Powell, Wind, Briseno and Solano to hit King in his wrists, knees, and ankles to disable him.[5] King was hit over 50 times with the metal batons, and kicked repeatedly. Finally, the beating subsided and he was placed in handcuffs, hogtied, and arrested.[6] A man living across the street, George Holliday, captured the whole incident on video.

King was taken to Pacifica Hospital where he was treated for “11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken (bones and teeth), kidney damage, emotional and physical trauma”[7]

Rodney King post beating (Image curtesy of Photobucket)
Rodney King post beating (Image curtesy of Photobucket)

While at the hospital, King’s blood was tested and it was found that he would have been legally intoxicated at the time of the arrest. Charges against King for evading arrest and driving under the influence were never pursued. King filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles for criminal negligence and won.

On March 14, 1991, officers, Powell, Wind, Briseno and Solano, were charged with excessive force, and officer Koon was charged with failing to stop the use of excessive force. However, the jury acquitted them. The public, in particular the African American community was outraged. People were furious that white police officers had beaten an African American man within an inch of his life, and were not punished at all. The LAPD already had a reputation for racism and heavy handedness in the African American community, and they were sick of it. After the acquittal of the officers, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 began. Protests quickly turned violent, widespread looting and arson consumed South Central LA. The LAPD were unprepared to deal with the riot, and the National Guard was brought in to restore order. Soon after the riots, in August of 1992, the Federal Government indicted Officers Koon, Wind, Powell and Briseno for the same charges they had just been acquitted of, but this time, in Federal Court. Wind and Briseno were acquitted. Koon and Powell were found guilty and sentenced to 32 months in prison.

The Rodney King beating and the video of the incident was one of the most high profile police brutality case in America. It shined a spotlight on the abuse of police powers and led to radical changes in the LAPD and police departments across the country. One of the most important aspects of this incident is that a random citizen filmed it. The Rodney King case was the first high profile case of a citizen filming police misconduct and that video being used to serve justice to the perpetrators. This tactic has provided first hand documentation of incidents that inspired the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. One such incident is the video of the death of Eric Garner. Black Lives Matter uses this tactic frequently to highlight specific instances of brutality at its protests and events.

Importance of Rodney King to BLM

The Rodney King incident had two main impacts on American society and the Black Lives Matter movement. The first was that it propelled the issue of police brutality into the national spotlight. Never before had this topic been so at the forefront of the minds of the American public. However, after the event, police brutality continued. African Americans were still profiled by police, still had force used against them more, and were still incarcerated at a higher rate, and for a longer average time than their white counterparts.[8] The second big impact was the recording of the incident by George Holliday. The video is what convinced the American public that, even though the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was over, police brutality was still alive and well. The greater impact of the video was that people recorded police interactions more. This has led to many videos of police brutality that show the problem is far greater than a couple isolated incidents.[9]

Black Lives Matter continues this fight against police brutality. The group feels that, while process has been made, there is still a long way to go. In the wake of Rodney King, many reforms were made, but then police brutality faded from the public eye. Police brutality continued, but it was not talked about as much as it was. This changed with the killings of Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown. In particular, when Ferguson plunged into anarchy, people took notice. The founders of BLM capitalized on this.

A BLM protestor in Ferguson during the upheaval (Image curtesy of Breitbart)
A BLM protestor in Ferguson during the upheaval (Image curtesy of Breitbart)

They knew that police brutality was alive and well and they decided this was the perfect time to bring it back to the national spotlight.[10] In the last 60 years, America has made huge strides towards racial equality, but problems still persist. BLM reignited the furor felt in the wake of Rodney King. The group is using that anger to force people to address police brutality in a very similar way to how it was addressed in 1992. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots ground the city a halt. BLM did the same in Ferguson. As their chant stated, they “shut sh*t down.” BLM uses social upheaval to force the public to face the problem. BLM is sending a message that police brutality will not be tolerated anymore. The groups efforts towards fixing the problem are a continuation of the protests in the wake of the Rodney King incident.[11]

The other essential aspect of the Black Lives Matter movement that came out of the Rodney King incident is private citizens recording police activities.The riots in LA in 1992 had to grind the city to a halt before people across the country really took notice.  Private citizens re

The 1992 LA Riots (Image curtesy of The Society for U.S. Intellectual History)
The 1992 LA Riots (Image curtesy of The Society for U.S. Intellectual History)

cording interactions with police combined with social media shed light on the magnitude of the police brutality problem in America. These videos are far easier to spread than they were in the time of Rodney King.

There are two major factors in the new ease of spreading these videos. The first is that almost everyone in America carries a smartphone almost everywhere they go. This enables almost anyone to record instances of police brutality. If police brutality is happening and other people are around, it will almost certainly be recorded. The second is the internet and social media. Before, people relied on what the news networks told them. The internet changed this. Now, people can easily share anything, for example, the aforementioned videos of police brutality. with the click of a mouse.  With some keystrokes and another click they can vocalize their displeasure at the situation and even organize protests around the country. The ease of communication that modern technology provides is vital to BLM. 

As seen in Ferguson, BLM has capitalized on this ease of communication. It used its massive social media presence to spread images and stories of what happened there. It used mass communication to direct the people’s anger and encourage them to join the protest. The result was a city that was shut down. Since then, the group has consistently used social media to spread stories and videos of police brutality. These instigate outrage, outrage that BLM can capitalize on to inspire more people to join them. The importance of mass communication and personal videos of police brutality. in the mode of operation of BLM, cannot be understated.


The video taped beating of Rodney King marked a change in attitudes towards police brutality in America. The video of the incident was raw and brutal. It captured the attention of Americans and enraged them. It opened the public’s eyes to the still very real problem of police brutality in America. The public outrage provided the motivation necessary for a change in attitudes to begin to come about. The perpetrators in the beating were charged and convicted by the Federal Government. People began to video tape interactions between members of the public, and police. People became more aware of police brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement pushes this awareness a step farther. BLM uses its social media presence to spread details and enraging videos of police brutality around the country. Adding that to the fact that more videos of police brutality are shot now, due to the widespread use of cell phones, people can no longer ignore the facts of police brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement takes the lessons from the Rodney King beating, the outrage at police and the filming of police misconduct, and uses modern technology to bring it to national attention, and ensure that no one can ignore it.

Image Sources:

Screenshot from Video:

Rodney King Post Beating:

Crouching Protestor:×480.jpg

LA Riots:

[1] David Whitman, “The Untold Story of the LA Riot,” US News & World Report, May 23, 1993, Accessed April 2, 2015.
[2] Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, “Rodney King Police Reports,” University of Missouri-Kansas City, Accessed April 3, 2016.
[3] George F. Will, “‘Official Negligence,’” Newsweek, February 16, 1998.
[4] D L Thombs, “A Review of PCP Abuse Trends and Perceptions.,” Public Health Reports 104, no. 4 (1989): 326.
[5] George Holliday, Rodney King Beating Video Full Length Footage SCREENER, 1991, Accessed April 2nd 2016.
[6] Holliday, Rodney King Beating Video.
[7] Lois Timnick, “King’s Damage Claim Is Rejected : Beating Case: Action by City Clears Way for Lawsuit. Altadena Man and His Wife Sought $83 Million.,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1991, Accessed April 2, 2015.
[8] Christopher Hartney and Linh Vuong, “Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System” (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, March 2009), 2-3.
[9] Dan Gillmor, “Rodney King and the Rise of the Citizen Photojournalist,” Mediactive, March 2, 2011, Accessed April 3, 2016.
[10] “Ferguson, 1 Year Later: Why Protesters Were Right to Fight for Mike Brown Jr.,” Black Lives Matter,” accessed April 3, 2016.
[11] “Two Years Later, Black Lives Matter Faces Critiques, But It Won’t Be Stopped,” Black Lives Matter, Accessed April 3, 2016.