Near midnight in early March 1991, a California Highway Patrol team spotted a white Hyundai sedan speeding on the Foothill Freeway in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Inside were a jobless construction worker named Rodney King and two friends, just closing out an evening of drinking. The police switched on the lights. King, who was 25, took off. Barely three months out of prison on a robbery conviction, he was violating parole by driving while intoxicated, and with several patrol cars and a chopper in pursuit, he sped onto residential streets. He went through a stop sign, a red light, then another. Finally, with one companion screaming at him to stop, King pulled over in a suburb called Lake View Terrace.
Police ordered King and his friends out of the sedan. In a flurry, four officers struck King with their aluminum batons. They Tazered him twice, stomped and kicked him. By the time they stopped, they had hit him at least 53 times, inflicting nine fractures to his skull, a shattered eye socket and cheekbone, and a broken leg.
What no one involved knew was that, in probably the first such viral incident in the then new age of home video, a bystander had captured a seven-minute film of King’s ordeal on his Sony Handycam. A few days later, when it aired on TV news shows, Americans were jolted. Never before had the country been exposed to the sustained police beating of an unarmed fellow citizen, an assault carried out with seeming normality before gathered onlookers. The Soviet Union was breaking apart, the Cold War screeching to an end, and President George H.W. Bush basking in the glow of the just-finished first Gulf War, but the United States and the world were suddenly transfixed by a case of police abuse in Los Angeles.
Given the video, the outcome of the trial of the four officers seemed preordained. All was quiet in South Central Los Angeles, the majority Black district of the city, where, as in the rest of the world watching the trial, people assumed the officers would be spending the next several years in prison. The only remaining…