How Rodney King's five words changed the face of Los Angeles

His videotaped beating sparked three days of riots that defined Los Angeles 20 years ago, but Rodney King -- who was found dead in the swimming pool at his home Sunday -- became an odd and unexpected symbol for much more.

Back in 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the beating, despite graphic videotape shot by a neighbor from out his front window. The riots that followed were a key moment in something I had never experienced before: the nervous breakdown of society. In the early '90s, California went through it all: a massive earthquake, raging wildfires that ripped through Malibu, floods that pushed hillside homes down mountains, and riots that traumatized America's second-largest city.

Through it all, there was an astounding lack of leadership to help the city and state pull together. During the riots, it took Pete Wilson, the governor at the time, days to call in the National Guard. For 72 hours, outnumbered police and firefighters dodged bullets, and shopkeepers kept loaded machine guns at their sides. With the quakes, fires and floods, government and civic leaders seemed overwhelmed -- and there was much talk about the end of the California dream.

There was really only one voice of sanity that people here recall from that era: Rodney King himself. He was no sweetheart, no hero. A young man who had his run-ins with the law before, King was the kind of guy prosecutors could paint as not-really-blameless in his own beating, and large portions of the population accepted that.

But in the middle of the nervous social breakdown, with bullets flying and arson fires spreading, it was King who stepped in front of a phalanx of microphones to simply say: "Can't we all get along?"

We say: Charlottesville reveals the weeping wound of racism. What do we, the American Catholic faith community, do next? Read the editorial.

In the years that followed, King struggled to pull his life together. He battled alcoholism and other demons -- winding up, all too obviously, as a cast member recently on a cable reality show called "Celebrity Rehab."

If he has a legacy, part of it is the way the LAPD was forced to clean up its act after the beating and riots. But a greater part of what he left behind will be those five straightforward words. They ring true today, too, as a nation dealing with tough times seems to have run out of civil responses. Opposing camps glare at one another, and the leadership to push things forward despite the desperation seems very lacking.

Can't we all get along means more today than ever.

Support independent reporting on important issues.

 One family graphic_2016_250x103.jpg

Show comments

NCR Comment code: (Comments can be found below)

Before you can post a comment, you must verify your email address at
Comments from unverified email addresses will be deleted.

  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the original idea will be deleted. NCR reserves the right to close comment threads when discussions are no longer productive.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report abuse" button. Once a comment has been flagged, an NCR staff member will investigate.

For more detailed guidelines, visit our User Guidelines page.

For help on how to post a comment, visit our reference page.

Commenting is available during business hours, Central time, USA. Commenting is not available in the evenings, over weekends and on holidays. More details are available here. Comments are open on NCR's Facebook page.