Rodney King's daughter remembers a human being, not a symbol

For as long as Lora King could remember, she had to share her father with the world.

Everywhere Rodney King went, people swarmed him for autographs or asked to take pictures with him. They offered words of encouragement at the local pharmacy. As he shared meals with his three daughters, others heckled him.

All of them, it seemed, wanted to know one thing: What did you do with the money?

“You don't have to talk to them,” she told her dad once when he was confronted in his sport utility vehicle. “Just roll the window up.”

But it was hard to roll the window up on Rodney King's notoriety, which was based on one of the most searing images in Los Angeles history.

Twenty-five years ago this week, he became the public face of police brutality when his beating by three baton-wielding LAPD officers was broadcast in living rooms across America.

The videotape of the beating transformed the unemployed construction worker into a symbol. To some, he was a criminal who deserved the beating. To others, King was a “black everyman” who epitomized the brutality that police visited on the African American community.

Who he was as a flesh and blood human being almost didn't matter — unless you were his child.

“Rodney King as an individual was never really the point,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State L.A. “People were angry for him and identify with him, but with that they are uplifting their own brutality stories. People rose up not for Rodney King. It was more than him. It was us seeing ourselves in him.”

Kerman Maddox, a public affairs consultant who launched a recall effort against then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates after the beating, said that at best King “became a figure that people felt sorry for.”

“He was not a person like Rosa Parks.... She was the perfect symbol for the civil rights movement,” Maddox said. “Rodney King was not without flaws. He just happened to be the right guy at the wrong time and wrong place — a perfect symbol to highlight the issue of police brutality.”

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Lora King was 7 years old on March 3, 1991, when her dad, on parole and drunk, was infamously beaten in Lakeview Terrace.

Days later, King limped toward his daughter. His face was still swollen. One eye was protruding out of its socket. He talked from the side of his mouth like Popeye.

“I was terrified,” she recalled. “He looked like a monster, but he had a big smile on his face like it was no big deal.”

She had seen George Holliday's grainy video of baton blows raining down on her father on the evening news. He told her he was fine.

Many years would go by before father and daughter truly reckoned with the emotional scars left by the beating.

“I purposely never brought it up because I always felt that he couldn't escape it,” said Lora King, 32, an administrative assistant at a Glendale accounting firm. “I tried to stay in a happy place.”

She remembered a father who spent Fridays crisscrossing Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties to pick up his three daughters.

On the long ride, he would map out the plans for the weekend. Sometimes, it was skiing at Mt. Baldy, surfing in Venice, a day at Raging Waters. He also liked to go to places where famous people, including black celebrities and artists, would draw attention away from him.

In school, she tried to keep her father's identity secret. But he would show up during “Back to School” nights or cheer her from the audience during school plays. Then everybody would know that she was Rodney King's daughter.

One time, he used his celebrity to charm his way into a school camping trip with his daughter.

“I can't be a normal kid,” she remembered saying with a hint of annoyance.

Now she's a parent. She understands why her father wanted to spend time with her.

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She stopped looking at her father through the eyes of a child years ago.

In the years after the beating, Rodney King continued to have trouble with the law. In 1993, he crashed into a wall while driving drunk. Two years later, he served 90 days in jail after being charged with a hit-and-run for knocking his wife down with his car. He was hooked on PCP.

Lora King saw a broken man who carried the guilt for the lives lost during the riot that broke out after a jury in Simi Valley cleared the LAPD officers charged in his beating.

He faced real demons, she said.

His frequent run-ins with the law after the beating continued to make him a divisive figure — and a less-than-perfect role model.

In 1996, the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church told The Times that he prayed with Rodney King about what role he could play in the world given his fame.

“When we get higher visibility, then we have a double obligation to put our best foot forward, because we represent not only ourselves but a larger cause,” Murray said.

Rodney King had been drinking the night that officers pulled him over on a darkened stretch of Foothill Boulevard. He was acting erratically when he stepped out of the car. LAPD officers surrounded him, shot him with Tasers and struck him more than 50 times in the head and body with 2-foot long, solid pieces of aluminum. They stomped on him with the soles of their boots.

Holliday, a neighbor rousted from sleep by the whir of helicopters overhead, captured the scene.

Four officers faced trial for the beating. A jury with no black people on it acquitted all of them April 29, 1992. Anger spilled out into the streets, and people set fire to entire blocks, stormed police headquarters and looted businesses.

There were 54 riot-related deaths and nearly $1billion in property damage.

In the mayhem, Rodney King made an emotional plea before television cameras: “Can we all get along? Can we get along?”

Over the years, King's words famously turned into something he never said: “Can't we all just get along?”

The next year, the four officers were tried in federal court on charges of violating King's civil rights. Two were convicted and went to jail. Gates stepped down as LAPD chief. Over the generation that followed, the LAPD began to implement reforms recommended by the Christopher Commission.

Rodney King sued the city and was awarded $3.8 million in damages. He told The Times that half went to lawyers. He bought a house for himself and his mother, then started a now-defunct hip-hop label.

“I sometimes feel like I'm caught in a vise,” he said. “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.”

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On Father's Day in 2012, Rodney King was found dead at the bottom of his backyard pool in Rialto. He was 47. On the pool tile, he had inscribed the dates of both the beating, 3/3/91, and the start of the riots, 4/29/92. He had mulled over marking the wall with another number, of those who died during the riot.

“Rodney King has a unique spot in both the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD,” Police Chief Charlie Beck said after King's death. “What happened on that cool March night over two decades ago forever changed me and the organization I love. His legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence wrought on this city and its Police Department.”

Lora King takes solace in that. Her daughter, Jailyn, is just two years older than Lora was when her father was beaten. The little girl shared the story of her family, and of her grandfather, with her class.

Lora King keeps reminders of her father throughout the home in San Pedro she shares with her mother and her child — including a painting with the words he uttered during the riot near the entrance.

A life-size childhood photo of Rodney King hangs in the dining room. A gold mirror that adorned his living-room wall is perched atop the fireplace.

“There are a lot of positives and negatives that come with the ring of my dad's name,” Lora said.

She said she feels blessed that her daughter got to know her grandfather “at his core before the world told her who they think he was.” 

Twitter: @AngelJennings

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

4:47 p.m.: This article was updated with minor editing.

This article was originally posted at 11:16 a.m.

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