It has been 20 years this month since rioting brought Los Angeles to its knees. A jury had acquitted four police officers in the beating of [Rodney] King, unleashing an onslaught of pent-up anger. There were 54 riot-related deaths and nearly $1 billion in property damage as the seams of the city blew apart.
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 says, “like I was an inch from death.”
Later he confides that he is at peace with what happened to him.
“I would change a few things, but not that much,” he says. “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.”
He is 47 now—jobless and virtually broke. Gone is the settlement money he got after suing the city for violating his civil rights. All $3.8 million of it. Huge chunks went to the 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 Rialto. He says he cobbles together mortgage payments. Every so often he gets hired to pour 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 set to go on sale Tuesday: “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.”
He 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 now 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.
“I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a vise. Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero,” he says of the beating. “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.”
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. Sometimes he is insightful, other times boastful, but there are moments when he appears to drift.
That’s from the beating, he says. Brain damage.
His drinking and drugging and a few jarring traffic accidents hardly helped.
“There was the time my car went off the road and came to a stop on a tree,” he says, referring to a 2003 crash. Blood tests revealed PCP in his system.
“PCP ain’t no joke,” says King, who was ordered to rehab and spent 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 mutters. He says them, under his breath. “Can we all get along?”
As to why he wouldn’t change what happened that night, 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 convictions of Koon and Powell, he says, the moral weight that pushed his call to “get along” deep into the public consciousness—these things helped change the world.
“A lot of people would have never had [a chance to succeed] if I had not survived that beating,” he says.
“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 . . . .”
In junior high, King began drinking. As an adult, he was no angel. In 1989, he pleaded guilty to robbing a market in Monterey Park; the owner accused King of attacking him with a tire iron. King was given a two-year sentence.
The night of the beating, he hadn’t been out of jail very long. He had spent the evening drinking and watching TV with friends. Around midnight, he was caught speeding and led police on a chase that ended in Lake View Terrace. A test showed that King’s blood-alcohol level was slightly below the legal limit. The test was taken five hours after he’d been in custody, however, warranting estimates that it had been well above the legal limit while he was at the wheel.
During the first decade after the riots, King started an unsuccessful hip-hop recording company, had a series of tempestuous romances and steadily ran into trouble.
Over the last 20 years, he has had repeated contact with law enforcement. He long ago stopped keeping track of his arrests for crimes such as driving under the influence and domestic assault.
“Eleven times?” he wonders. “Twelve?”
“Man, all this crap I put myself through, yeah it’s embarrassing,” says King, who pushed back into public view in 2008, when he joined the reality show “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.”
His latest trouble came last summer. He was driving his beaten 1994 Mitsubishi Eclipse in Moreno Valley when a pair of Riverside County sheriff’s deputies pulled him over. They said he was swerving and had nearly hit another car. According to the official report, King was compliant and repeatedly replied, “Yes, Sarge” to one of the deputies.
Still, King’s rapid speech and a white paste on his mouth and tongue were noted. He was sweating heavily, his pulse raced, his hands shook and his eyes were bloodshot. He performed poorly in a series of sobriety tests. In his pocket, the report states, was a bottle filled with marijuana for which King had a medical license. Suspecting he was high, the deputies took him into custody.
Tests showed that his alcohol level was nearly at the legal limit and that he had traces of marijuana in his blood. After pleading guilty to a “wet reckless” driving charge, he was put under house arrest and ordered to enroll in a drunk-driving program.
By his own account, his drinking continues, as does his pot smoking—medical marijuana offering physical relief from the headaches and pain he says he has suffered since the beating.