Rodney King holds in his scarred hands a fishhook and a bag full of big white worms. He crouches on a dock at the edge of a lake on the outskirts of Ontario. It is early, and the sun is bright, the air quiet.
"I got these old fatties from my backyard, and they're gonna be good luck," he says, scooping one of the wriggling creatures from the bag. "They actually look like big ol' maggots. Just gotta be careful: They bite."
He spears the worm with the hook. The worm flails and then goes limp. King stands, tension draining from his face. He raises his fishing pole and casts. "I needed this," he says. "I really needed this."
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 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."
Rodney King redeemed?
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.
On the dock, he gazes out at the smooth water. Fishing is healing. It calms him. Once his therapy 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. 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."
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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 says. "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 over 50 blows from police batons, and 4/29/92, the night the rioting began.
King, the 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 the police pounded him; how four officers were charged in state court but not convicted; how the city erupted in rioting, and how two of the officers, both white, were subsequently found guilty 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," he says 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. 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?"
Looking at these artifacts, he says, gives him an oddly detached sensation. A part of him cannot believe he is that man.