20 years later, history haunts Rodney King
It was in April 1991 that rioting brought Los Angeles to its knees, after a jury acquitted four police officers in the beating of a black motorist.
Los Angeles Times
The '92 Riot: Revisiting Dark Days in LA History
LOS ANGELES — It has been 20 years this month since rioting brought Los Angeles to its knees, after a jury had acquitted four police officers in the beating of a black motorist. There were 54 riot-related deaths and nearly $1 billion in property damage as the seams of the city blew apart.
Rodney King remembers. He rubs his right cheek, numb since the beating, and describes what it was like to be struck by batons, stung by Tasers.
"It felt," he said, "like I was an inch from death."
Yet he later says he is at peace with what happened to him.
"I would change a few things, but not that much," he said. "Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn't, but that's not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place."
King is 47 now — jobless and virtually broke. Gone is the $3.8 million in settlement money he received after suing the city for violating his civil rights. Huge chunks went to lawyers, he says, some to family members, some he simply wasted.
The settlement did provide a down payment on the inconspicuous rambler that is his home in suburban Rialto. He says he cobbles together mortgage payments. He occasionally pours concrete at a construction site. He has earned small paydays fighting in celebrity boxing matches.
He received an advance — less than six figures, he says, but significant nonetheless — for allowing his story to be told in a book on sale this week: "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption."
King inhabits a world stocked with heartache and struggle. He calls himself a recovering addict but has not stopped drinking, and possesses a doctor's clearance for medical marijuana.
He says he is happy and hopeful, content enough to forgive the officers who beat him. But he tenses when they are mentioned and admits to being burdened by the weight of his name.
He suffers nightmares, flashbacks and raw nerves that echo the symptoms of a shellshocked survivor of war.
As he fishes on a recent day, he gazes at the smooth water on the suburban lake. Fishing is healing. It calms him. His therapy once was the ocean and surfing, until he was frightened one day by a school of dolphins that he mistook for sharks.
"I sometimes feel like I'm caught in a vise," he said of the beating. "Some people feel like I'm some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it.
"Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I'm a fool for believing in peace."
Rialto is a working-class suburb 50 miles east of the Pasadena foothills where King grew up. His home has a tattered look and, at least temporarily, a blue-green tarp for a back fence.
"The neighbors were looking through the holes in the old fence, so I tore it down," he said. "They were trying to see Rodney King."
Near the tarp is a small pool. Before he became a household name, King was a construction worker with a union card. He set the stone surrounding the pool.
In black tile, he inscribed two dates: 3/3/91, the night he suffered more than 50 blows from police batons, and 4/29/92, the night the rioting began.
King, father of three grown daughters, is engaged to be married a third time. Problem is, he can't let go of the past.
On his walls, or stacked forlornly on the carpet, are photographs, paintings and newspaper and magazine clippings that tell how officers pounded him; how four were acquitted in state court; how the city erupted in rioting; and how two officers, both white, subsequently were convicted in federal court of violating King's civil rights.
King's eyes settle on pictures of those two officers, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell. Each was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
"Man, that's Koon right there," King said with a visible shudder. "I'm just glad I survived what he did to me."
Tall and broad-shouldered, King has a goatee and a short Afro that obscure some of the scars. He walks with a limp.
He is polite but often seems timid and unsure. He can be insightful, other times boastful, but there are moments when he drifts.
That's from the beating, he says. Brain damage.
His drinking and drugging and a few traffic accidents hardly helped.
"There was the time my car went off the road and came to a stop on a tree," he said, referring to a 2003 crash. Blood tests revealed PCP in his system.
"PCP ain't no joke," said King, ordered to rehab and spend a few weeks in jail. "That stuff really got its hooks into me for, oh, I think about a year."
Some things unfailingly hold his attention. One is a large photograph above his fireplace. It is King, in a blue suit and a paisley tie, looking out at a pack of reporters.
"That's me saying those words people still talk about," he muttered. He says them, under his breath. "Can we all get along?"
A part of him cannot believe he is that man. Yet he hangs on to all of it.
"That is my history, part of my history, part of me surviving," he said.
As to why he wouldn't change what happened, he has a theory. True, the beating and the first trial led to deadly violence. It fills him with guilt. How can he not feel responsible for what some still call "the Rodney King riots"?
Yet good came of it. The Koon and Powell convictions, he says, the moral weight that pushed his call to "get along" deep into the public consciousness — these helped change the world.
"A lot of people would have never had (a chance to succeed) if I had not survived that beating," he said.
"Obama? Obama, he wouldn't have been in office without what happened to me and a lot of black people before me. He would never have been in that situation, no doubt in my mind. He would get there eventually, but it would have been a lot longer. So I am glad for what I went through. It opened the doors for a lot of people."