Rodney King, whose 1991 videotaped beating at the hands of Los Angeles police set off a chain of events that, a year later, turned into one of the most devastating riots in U.S. history, was found dead at his Rialto, Calif., home Sunday morning. Police said he was found by his fiancée at the bottom of a swimming pool, but an official cause of death has not been released.
King, 47, became the focal point of the Los Angeles riots in 1992 after he was stopped in his car by police on a Los Angeles expressway and severely beaten by four police officers, who later stood trial. It was their acquittal in the case that caused the city to erupt in an orgy of violence that killed over 50 people and caused $1 billion in damage. In the midst of the turmoil, King appeared on television to nervously utter what became his iconic plea: “Can we all get along?” His ordeal, the riot and its aftermath became an international symbol of racial division and tension between Los Angeles police and the African-American community during those days.
But his life afterward was a struggle to heal from the physical and psychological wounds that lingered long after his trial; he experienced several run-ins with the law, trouble with drug and alcohol abuse and continued domestic-violence issues, as well as financial difficulties, despite what he has always maintained were his best efforts.
“Getting past the beating, making it through that alive means better to me,” he told TIME earlier this year on the 20th anniversary of the riots. He explained that as he has traveled the path of healing, so has Los Angeles. Both imperfect, but both trying to be better. “It’s slowly getting better, but it is getting better.”
Born in Sacramento in 1965, the year of the Watts riot, King moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was a child. He worked in the construction industry much of his life. After being convicted of a 1989 convenience-store robbery and being paroled, he was preparing to begin a new job when, on March 3, 1991, he was riding with friends on Los Angeles’ Foothill Freeway, when the California Highway Patrol and the LAPD began tailing him after tracking him speeding.
Police, believing King was driving under the influence, tried to subdue him, and at some point during the arrest, they later testified, felt he had become dangerous and began striking him with their batons and shocking him with a Taser. After the beating was over, King had suffered a cracked eye socket and cheekbone (both of which needed a metal plate), a broken leg, fractured ribs and several abrasions and contusions. He suffered from migraine headaches for the rest of his life. He said over the years that he believed he would die from the beating.
Throughout the entire incident, George Holliday, who lived near the scene, took a nine-minute video that went on to become infamous. It not only showed the severity of the beating but also further exacerbated tensions between Los Angeles police and African Americans, who had long complained of police brutality at the hands of officers. The video was played in the media hundreds of times and set the stage for the trial of the cops accused of beating King.
The officers — Stacey Koon, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Laurence Powell — were charged with felony assault and each pleaded not guilty. Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’ mayor at the time, echoed the community’s anger over the incident and its sentiment toward the officers: “The jury’s verdict will never blind us to what we saw on that videotape,” he said. “The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.”
On April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted the four officers, believing that since King did not take the stand in the trial, the video was not strong enough evidence to convict. Los Angeles reacted first, outraged, but not violently. But before the afternoon was over, crowds gathered in several spots in South Central Los Angeles, and soon the looting began. It spread throughout the town and caught the police force completely by surprise, then police chief Daryl Gates later told TIME. “We thought we were reasonably prepared — we were not,” he said.
The riots left the community with years of rebuilding, much of which has been accomplished over the years, leaving behind few physical scars. King, however, struggled to heal.
He was awarded $3.8 million by Los Angeles in a later civil trial, but much of that went to legal and medical bills. Later, he opened a small rap label but didn’t see much success with it, and it soon folded. Through the 1990s, he was arrested several times on DUI charges and on domestic-abuse charges. His wife Crystal divorced him in 1995. His most recent arrest was in July 2011 on a DUI charge.
King spent much of his time in rehabilitation programs and even was cast on the second season of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab, which he completed successfully. He had gone back to working in the construction business with his family members and recently said he was in a good place, much of his trouble with drinking behind him. In April, he released an autobiography, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, which entails his own view of his experiences and how he survived.
“I waited 20 years, including two years writing this, and I’m able to tell my story,” he said in an interview. “I call that better in my life.”