King's parents cleaned offices and homes for a living. His father, Ronald, known in the neighborhood as "Kingfish," was a hard-edged alcoholic who, before dying in his early 40s from pneumonia, heaped physical abuse on his son.
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.
Growing up, he had leaned heavily on his mother, Odessa, a devout Jehovah's Witness. Her vision was both idealistic and apocalyptic: Yes, the world would end one day, possibly soon. But it would be replaced by a better one, where people of all races come together, sharing peace. King was never a full follower of his mother's faith; he was too tied to booze and women. But her beliefs contributed to his hopeful — others call it naive — understanding of life.
That could explain why, when the four accused officers were acquitted, King holed up in his bedroom with a bottle of brandy and wept.
Even now, as he remembers, his jaw tightens.
He hasn't talked about this much, but when the rioting began shortly after the verdict, he put on a wig of dreadlocks so he would not be recognized and drove toward the angry heart of the city.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he says. "Mayhem, people everywhere, pissed off, looting, burning. Gunshots. I turned back and went home. I looked at all of that and I thought to the way I was raised, with good morals from my mother, even though I didn't always follow them.
"I said to myself, 'That is not who I am, all this hate. I am not that guy. This does not represent me or my family, killing people over this. No, sir, that is not the way I was raised by my mother.' I began to realize that I had to say something to the people, had to try to get them to stop."
So, on the third day of the rioting, he pleaded on television: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?"
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."
"For a long time, sure, I was letting the pressure of being Rodney King get to me. It ain't easy. Even now, I walk into a place wondering what people are thinking. Do they know who I am? What do they think about what happened? Do they blame me for the all those people who died?"
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.
Within hours, news of the arrest was everywhere.