The military helicopter crept up softly on the coast of San Onofre. Not until it scudded past the beach did its rotors start drowning out the crash of the waves. Belly and legs flattened against his longboard, arms wheeling through the calm water, the beginner surfer barely slowed his forward motion; not a shudder could be detected through his oil-smooth wetsuit. Which was an improvement, for there had been a time when the surfer would have jumped out of his bed screaming, hands flailing, helicopter rotors drumming in his head, echoing a horror that neither sleep nor therapy nor medication has completely quelled.
The swell on this afternoon was minuscule, as weak as the winter sun. Waiting for his wave, Rodney Glen King expounded on surfing’s good vibrations. “I don’t care what’s happening in your life, man,” he said. “You just forget about it, and if you are thinking about it, it’s in a good way, a positive way.” Without the exercise, he said, “I’d be all torn up right now.”
Torn up is the only condition in which most have encountered Rodney King. He is the cowering, howling, blurry silhouette in the distance, shocked and bludgeoned over and over again on the evening news. He is the face in the evidentiary photo, grotesquely swollen, throbbing purple, damaged eyes staring half-dead through the broken bone and bruised flesh. He is the “PCP-crazed giant” with “superhuman strength,” “impervious to pain"--that cartoon African American menace drawn so convincingly in his absence for the jurors of Simi Valley, and less convincingly for the federal panel that convicted Officer Laurence Powell and Sgt. Stacey Koon of violating King’s civil rights. He is the shaken client trundled out before the cameras, who somehow lifted the media event beyond the platitudes, cynicism and terror with his plea of “Can we all get along?”
Millions of strangers have spoken for or against him since then, their minds made up. They have lionized him as a hero, or condemned him as a repeat troublemaker bound to justify a cop’s worst conclusions. Earlier this month King turned himself in to San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies on a misdemeanor warrant alleging that in January he assaulted his daughter and his girlfriend. He pleaded not guilty. Again reporters circled and his troubled profile filled television screens.
But on that November afternoon, as he floated and bobbed upon the Pacific Ocean, in another calm before another storm, King’s physical appearance, at least, confounded the familiar image. He had grown his hair long enough to cinch back in a tight ponytail; he smiled within the confines of a neat goatee. His eager brown eyes absorbed sunlight as he chased a wave powerful enough to support his 210-pound, 6-foot-3 bulk. Drawing himself up on uncertain legs, he rolled toward the sand bluffs, sea grass and fattened gulls--his silhouette wobbly, but for the moment, upright.
Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness, Rodney King always had an ear pricked for the rumble of Armageddon. He didn’t know that he would be the catalyst: that the harm done against him could help topple a mayor and police chief; that his own ordeal might spark a conflagration that killed 54, wounded thousands and damaged or destroyed 15,000 homes or businesses. Nearly seven years after the riots, Rodney King is still not about to rule out doomsday.
“I believe that we’ll see what God’s going to do in our lifetime on earth, because it’s real bad,” King said last fall. “Don’t get me wrong. The United States is one of the best countries to be in, but compared to what it could be, it’s sick . . . .We are starting to feed on what sells, and what sells is hate and violence. It’s cold man; it’s real cold. We’ve got to take our families and run for a piece of safe ground and a safe haven.”
Like so many other refugees from the Rodney King riots, Rodney King has escaped Los Angeles for the exurbs, where there is so much new construction and few memories, painful or otherwise. For the last three years, the Inland Empire has served as Rodney King’s safe haven--at first, a temporary retreat after his bitter divorce from his second wife, Crystal. Soon, King found other charms to the area, including the fact that it is a short drive to the slopes of Mt. Baldy, so he can strap his skis to the roof of his Chevy Suburban and steal away for a few hours. Besides, he said, he couldn’t move too far away from Los Angeles, since that would mean moving away from his three daughters: Candace, 16, from a teenage relationship and whom he’s accused of assaulting; Dena, 15, from his first marriage; and Uniqua, 5, from his marriage to Crystal. “The world’s so vicious, man,” he said. “I had no idea the world was so full of sharks. I see the real importance of surrounding yourself with good people.”
At age 33, it seems King has found some. There is a private tutor, Judy Sampson, to help prepare the high school dropout for his GED. There is Cal Poly Pomona political science professor Renford Reese, a mentor who sought him out, counsels him and has brought him on campus to address his students. And, especially, there is Ontrescia “Terese” Avarette, who took on her cousin as a full-time job, has shared his home, cooked many of his meals, managed his business affairs and protected him with the determination of a Hollywood publicist. “Terese is like a walking angel, side-by-side with me,” King said. “I probably would have signed my darned life away if I hadn’t had her.”
He has already signed plenty away, to that battery of former attorneys who have driven him to surf, and he spends many of his days now preparing for a lawsuit to recover what he hopes will be a multimillion-dollar figure from three of his former lawyers. Since the beating in 1991, not a year has passed that he has not been an interested party in a civil or criminal courtroom.
Some of his money problems are the kind many people might envy. King’s hip-hop enthusiasm dates as far back as the night of the beating, when he and his two passengers were rapping along to De La Soul in King’s white Hyundai. Now he has his own hip-hop record label, Straight Al-Ta-Pazz Records (a fusion of Altadena and Pasadena, where he spent his youth). King presides as talent seeker, executive producer and a ready inspiration for his artists’ raps. Last year, he got to cruise around the South with his label’s band, Stranded, an act he signed based on criteria that ring familiar. “I like how they get along with other people,” King said. “So many rappers have this hard-core attitude, like they’re just the s- - -, and that’s not the way entertainment is supposed to be.” King himself has promised to demonstrate how entertainment is supposed to be later this year with his own rap CD.
“He’s rapping all day--all day,” his daughter Candace said last fall while attending an anti-police abuse rally with her father in Leimert Park. “I’ll be like, ‘Be quiet! If you rap one more time . . . . ‘ “
But don’t be expecting a hip-hop alias like Notorious R.O.D. “I’m going to use my own name,” King said. “I’m stuck with it. It’s a household name.” In another nod to market realities, he penned a signature song called “Can We All Get Along?” In a voice as husky and shy as it was on the witness stand, he offers a few bars:
I’ve said it once before,
now I’m going to say it again
Why make enemies
when you can be friends?
Nevah, evah, forget where ya come from
We all came to chill, and just to have fun . . .
Along with aspirations have come good intentions. He plans to launch a summer surfing youth foundation “for the kids to co-mingle with each other, all different races, to learn different sports and get along and make this world a better place to live.”
His generosity also extends to family. He’s an investor in his brother Paul’s construction firm, and occasionally he’ll pitch in. Seeing him on the seat of a flatroller or backhoe, the workers tease him: “What the hell are you doing out here? What did you do with all your money?”
Before plumber George Holliday aimed his new Sony Handycam at that prone figure on the corner of Foothill and Osborne, King’s existence, if not altogether sad, had been aimless: The events of his first 25 years had passed by too rapidly for him to get much of a hold on them. Events are still rushing past him, only now they have taken on such huge cultural dimensions that even a shrewd and self-assured personality would be hard-pressed to grab the reins. And Rodney Glen King is not that personality. “He didn’t want to be the center of attention,” his mentor Reese said. “He didn’t have the temperament to be that change agent.”
Professional athletes and film actors are surrounded by teammates or co-stars. They rely on managers and publicists. But a PR agent would find a singular challenge in Rodney King, so hermetically sealed within his strange fame. “Because what happened to him is so unique,” Reese said, “he’s uniquely isolated.”
Taking “a mind, body and soul approach,” Reese, 31, said he has turned King toward such empowering books as Arthur Ashe’s autobiography, has lifted weights and swung tennis rackets and golf clubs with him, and recommended meditation. He has helped King “incrementally develop his speaking skills and his confidence.” Reese even helped launch King’s Web page, www.rodney-king.com, which promotes the Al-Ta-Pazz record label and presents a capsule biography of its namesake. Still, there remains a tremendous imbalance between King’s private and public selves, which appears to destabilize him to this day, deepening his sense of himself as a prone figure, still being beaten in courtrooms, in newspapers and on television and police reports.
As much as any modern figure, perhaps, King has had his words scrutinized, contradicted and challenged. His own recollections of the night that changed his life have been fragmented, blurry and--in the matter of whether officers taunted him with racial slurs--mutable. He still struggles to bring into focus that night, when a drunk man named Rodney King was pounded with clubs and shot with electrified darts.
How do you feel?
“They had already beat me up real bad; I felt like half my face was torn off. I didn’t want to live no more at that point, all f - - - ed up like that. So I told him: ‘I feel fine.’ Then they started beating me up some more, Tased me a little more and said, ‘How do you feel now?’ I just went puhhh-huh, because I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t say nothing. My jaw was broke. So I was just bluhhuhhuhh, just laughing, like, ‘Is that your best shot?’ And they started up again . . .
“I was laying down flat on the ground. When you see me getting up running . . . . I didn’t try to run at any of the cops. I’m running away from them. I got my hands in the air and [the police] chocked me across the forehead, here.”
“Man, I’m like, ‘Play the tape, you can hear it on the tape.’ And they’re like, ‘No, that’s not what they’re saying. That’s something else.’ It don’t take a college degree to figure it out. Come on, man!
“It was a miracle, man, that this guy was out with his camera! I’m glad I didn’t stop! I’m glad I didn’t stop! I’m glad I stopped where I stopped and nowhere else, because it wouldn’t have been on tape, and nobody would have believed me!”
Eight years after the beating, King puts more faith in 81 seconds of videotape than all the civilian safeguards placed on the LAPD. “Any time somebody gets beat up,” he said, “they call me up and they ask is there anything I can do for them. And first I ask them, ‘Is there a videotape?’ And if they say ‘no,’ I already know there’s no chance you are going to win . . . . When you go up against the cops and you win, don’t expect it to be over. It’s never going to be over.”
No one ever called Glen King by his first name, except his mother Odessa, and only when he was about to get in trouble. When he’d hear her yell “Rodney Glen!” that meant she had found some dust on a tabletop he was supposed to have cleaned spotless. It was time to hide.
Home for Glen King and his three brothers and two sisters was a raggedy mansion in Altadena, an ancient gray Victorian with a busted fence and cracked gingerbread. The kitchen cabinets were likely to be bare, and when the kids came back from school, they made a mad dash for the morning’s leftovers. “The first one there gets whatever is left of the bread. You’d get the last pieces or you’d get nothing at all.”
As a Witness, Odessa didn’t stress education so much as faith and hard work, which was good for her husband Ronald’s janitorial business, King’s Maintenance. From age 7, Glen and his brother Ron Jr. worked alongside their father until 2 in the morning, buffing, scrubbing and mopping hospital floors. Bowing out on King’s father was not an option. “He’d give you that eye,” King said. “And that certain look, ‘Are you coming with me to work today? Are you?’ What he’s really saying is, ‘You know your ass better go.’ ” Five hours after the shift ended, the brothers stumbled to school, “sleepwalking, with the hair all wet.”
King’s father had a long struggle with alcoholism, and in 1984 he died of pneumonia. King and his brother Paul couldn’t keep the family business afloat, so Rodney got a union card and moved into construction. His legal troubles had already begun.
At 18, King was charged with petty theft. His first wife, Denetta, twice accused him of attacking her, though she refused to press charges in both incidents. King was convicted of reckless driving in 1983 (he had allegedly attempted to run her down with his car) and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery in 1987. On Nov. 3, 1989, he walked into Tae Suck Baik’s Monterey Park market and tried to make a purchase with his wife’s food stamps. The ensuing scene, like so many that would follow in King’s life, was part chaos, part dark comedy (King said he threw pies at the shopkeeper) and subject to conflicting points of view. Although King denied stealing from Baik, he pleaded guilty to second-degree robbery. During his 10 months of incarceration, he was transferred from a minimum-security prison to a work camp in the shadow of Mt. Shasta, where he was reportedly a model prisoner who fought a fire and cleared rocks and storm debris from the roads.
Off Manhattan Beach, dolphins sometimes ride the waves, leaping out on either side of his surfboard. The surfers are just as welcoming. They’re close-knit, and when they can get past the wetsuit and the goatee and the deep blue longboard emblazoned with the credo “Can We All Get Along,” they’ll yell, “Hey, this is Rodney over here!” Paddling through the swells, a surfer once struck up a conversation: “Rod, when the riots were going on, we came out here, man. We had to get away, and we got into the surf and just looked over the hill, just looking out at the city and watching it burn. It was a trip, being out here surfing and knowing that the city was just being burnt down.”
On the afternoon of the Simi Valley acquittal, King had a less-commanding view. Tucked away in a Studio City apartment, he watched television. The verdict hadn’t surprised him much. “I knew when they took it out to Simi Valley, there was no way anybody would have a feel for me up there,” he said. He cut off the lights, watched the fires and mayhem. And he murmured to himself, with a pang of satisfaction: Yeah, it’s about time.
“You just kind of lose it for a minute,” King recalled. “Then you come back to your senses and say, ‘It’s not right. It’s not cool. We’ve got to work out race relations. Killing and hating, that’s not the way we want our country to look.’ I had a lot going through my mind. I don’t know what people think of me, but I was thinking of my country. It’s an old plea that I’ve been asking for so many years. ‘Peace. What does it take to talk peace?’ ”
Avarette remembered her cousin being less collected when she finally reached him from a hotel room in New York, where he had dispatched her to do “The Montel Williams Show.” “He saw a security guard get shot,” Avarette said over lunch last year, “and he was crying: ‘People are getting hurt! I never wanted anyone to get hurt. Terese, I’m not like this! You know I’m not like this! And they want me to say something, but I don’t know what to say!’ ”
As conceived by King’s then-attorney, Steven Lerman--who had warned the public on the day of the verdict to “get the heck out of Dodge"--King’s plea for peace was less than spontaneous. “I purposely created a symbol that people can respect, that people can look up to,” Lerman said. He even doubled as fashion consultant. “First,” he told his nervous client, “you wear a tie, because you always wear a tie for respect. And a sweater. Just look at Mr. Rogers.”
With Lerman at his side, the omnipresent LAPD chopper hovering above, King made his way toward the jammed parking lot behind his lawyer’s office, in a paisley tie and royal blue cardigan. King said Lerman gave him some notes, which he balled up and threw away. His cheekbones and mouth still seemed bruised and swollen, his brown eyes pained and lost. But in the mysterious alchemy of that moment, the voiceless symbol and hapless janitor’s son coalesced, speaking words so cogent that they have embedded themselves in the American vernacular: “People, I just want to say--can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? We’ve got enough smog here in Los Angeles, let alone to deal with the setting of these fires and things. It’s just not right. It’s not right, and it’s not going to change anything . . . . We’ve got to quit. We’ve got to quit. I can understand the first upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on like this, and to see this security guard shot on the ground, it’s just not right. It’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. And I mean, please, we can get along here. We can all get along. We’ve just got to, just got to. We’re all stuck here for a while. . . .”
Many still hold King responsible for the riots, following the same logic that sees street punishment as just desserts for drunk and reckless driving and failure to obey police commands. But his plea for peace has won these detractors some unlikely company.
He was on a radio show in Atlanta to promote Stranded, and a man called in, initially to say how much he admired King. “Then he goes off and starts cussing me for no reason,” King remembered. “For saying, ‘Can we get along?’ He said, ‘I’m going to ask you something right now, Rodney. If we was leaving right now to go off on a riot, would you be down?’ He just kept asking me that over the air.”
At a Lakers game, King got worse treatment. A black fan came up to him and said: “I ought to finish you off! I ought to kill you because the police didn’t do it!”
If he has reaped hatred from his bid for reconciliation, he can also rest easier knowing that the Rodney King riots weren’t committed entirely for his sake. “People have told me, ‘I don’t care what happened to you. We were doing it for ourselves,’ ” King said. “When they looted, they didn’t do it for me. That was candy in their hands.”
King views his legal ordeals as a kind of continuation of the police beating, with stenographers replacing videographer George Holliday: “It’s like going into a losing fight, and you know you’re going to get beat up.”
He was still in the jail infirmary when KTLA reporter Warren Wilson interviewed his mother. Afterward, Wilson offered her a list of attorneys. Johnnie Cochran’s office initially passed on the case, so King’s family hired Beverly Hills personal injury attorney Steven Lerman, who represented King in the state and federal cases against his police attackers, and in settlement negotiations in his civil case against the city. After the riots, Lerman negotiated a $5.95-million deal with the city attorney. In September 1992, however, the L.A. City Council emerged from a closed-door session with an offer of at least $1.75 million, to be paid out over his lifetime.
A losing fight.
As King watched passively, the negotiations became a clash of colossal egos.
“We weren’t going to break the bank for [Rodney King],” said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who chaired the council’s finance and revenue committee.
“Zev Yaroslavsky single-handedly kiboshed my settlement,” rued Lerman, who had reservations for a victory party at the Four Seasons when the deal collapsed.
“We can’t change lawyers,” Odessa King told her son. “Jehovah sent me this attorney to work with you.” Disappointed with the low offer, King dumped Lerman and switched to criminal defense lawyer Milton Grimes, who added civil litigation attorneys to his team as he prepared to take King’s case to court. Ultimately, King was awarded $3.8 million and an additional $1.5 million in statutory attorney’s fees.
You know you’re going to get beat.
Early in his grueling legal education, King believed he could fire one lawyer and hire the next, and that all of them would, with no hard feelings, split up their due--which he says he believed would be limited to 25% of the entire judgment. Instead, two dozen lawyers who had worked on the case quickly laid claim to the $1.4 million in statutory fees. Then Grimes persuaded an arbitration judge to award him alone $1.192 million--25% of the judgement as well as a portion of the fees to which the others had already laid claim.
King’s pending lawsuit, which may go to court this fall, targets several of his former lawyers, including Lerman, whom he had temporarily rehired after parting company with Grimes. Lerman, in turn, cranked out a counter-complaint against King which, while never filed, remains in the court docket, alleging breach of contract and demanding more than half a million dollars. The lawyer’s attached time sheet provides a bravura account of his billable hours: a $650 charge for attending King’s April 2, 1991 birthday party at Park La Brea; $812.50 for a May, 20, 1992 interview with Vanity Fair; and $975 for a May 4, 1992 appearance on “Oprah.”
You know the kind of people who spend their lifetime trying to do good, and it just doesn’t happen when they want it to happen? Well, Avarette said, her cousin is that type of person. If King had a drinking problem on March 3, 1991--as his father had before him--if he had a history of surrendering to frustrations and anger in times of crisis, the months following his beating could not have been less conducive to a cure. At the federal trial, a physician testified that King had lingering brain damage from the blows. The millions that would surely stem from the beating, meanwhile, sowed tension among King’s in-laws and family, who had, until then, lived without much hope of transcending the working class. And King could only look on as this person with his name grew into a citywide, then national, then worldwide icon for all who had suffered police abuse.
No sooner was that icon forged then it began to tarnish. Absent from the state trial, sequestered from the public, King himself surfaced only in ugly allegations and misadventures, which the media inflated to epic dimensions. Two months after the beating, King was behind the wheel again when he was stopped by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies for having illegally tinted windows. Seventeen days later, parked in a Hollywood back alley with a transvestite prostitute, he was surprised by two undercover LAPD vice officers (he wasn’t prosecuted). Orange County authorities arrested him for a DUI in a parking lot, but didn’t charge him. Then he smashed his car into a wall in Los Angeles and received a $1,500 fine and probation, and agreed to undergo treatment for alcoholism.
To some, the fact that King got off lightly or altogether after such mishaps was evidence that the beating had made him untouchable. To others, that such incidents ever came to light suggested that law officers were stalking him, or that the media were too willing to jump on his every stumble, or, perhaps, that he was simply jinxed. “I just saw a young black man running down Brand Boulevard with a lady’s purse,” a pedestrian alerted Glendale police in 1995. It was King, running to an L.A. Cellular office before closing time to pay his pager bill, toting his own leather pouch.
Most troubling were the further allegations of domestic violence. Two months after the riots, King’s wife Crystal called police saying that her husband had hit her, but she refused to press charges. She later filed a written statement concerning a July 1995 confrontation with King in the couple’s Ford Explorer. She said that she and King “were arguing and he made me get out of the car. I reached in the car to get my wallet. Can’t remember if the car was moving but he drove off with me on it.” Her injuries included a head cut requiring seven stitches. A jury convicted King of misdemeanor hit-and-run, and he served 20 days in L.A. County Jail.
“I was just trying to get out of there,” King said. “I didn’t care--I mean I did care if she was OK, but I’d seen that she was OK. She was getting up. I didn’t try to do nothing to hurt her. But it gave me a bad rap. It messed me up. That hurt me more than anything that I ever did.”
On last year’s anniversary of the riots, King threw a record release party at a Sunset Boulevard nightclub to celebrate Stranded’s debut album. Sporting crisp brown corduroys and Italian tassled loafers, his hair a constellation of Coolio-style braids, he smiled and joked, but still seemed overwhelmed. Stranded was starting to get some serious air time. For once, the media were on King’s side.
Hey, they’re finally covering me for something that isn’t negative.
At a quarter to 2 in the morning, however, King found himself climbing the club’s front steps to a familiar thrumming. A police chopper hovered, busy working crowd dispersal. Again, King was the blurry figure in the searchlight, trying to flee calamity and running right into it. The searchlight swept across Sunset, illuminating the scattered guests he had been hoping so much to impress.
The LAPD are still working me! People in their cars will pass by me and say to to themselves, “There’s that Rodney King again.”
“Rodney King is a wanted man tonight!”
So KNBC anchor Paul Moyer teased viewers in advance of the March 4 edition of the 11 o'clock news.
Indeed, “King at large!” led the newscast. Talking over bits of the Holliday video, shots of the riots, and old images of King looking surly or beleaguered, broadcasters intoned: “A warrant has been issued for Rodney King . . . . He’s accused of, among other things, beating his own daughter.”
A San Bernardino County sheriff’s news release the next morning stated the case: “During the early morning hours on Sunday, January 31, 1999, Rodney King was involved in a domestic violence situation. The case was submitted to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office for review. A misdemeanor warrant was issued on March 3, 1999 for Spousal Battery, Child Abuse and Vandalism.” King turned himself in and was released on $6,850 bail.
Carmen Simpson, mother of King’s daughter Candace, declined to talk about the incident in detail, but said her teenager had sought hospital treatment. King, emerging from the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga with his defense lawyer, Edi M.O. Faal, at his side, offered a halting explanation: “Basically, it was a family misunderstanding . . . it was blown way out of proportion . . . . “
King’s mentor, Renford Reese, recalled an emotional jog the two took on Martin Luther King Day. Reese warned him: “You can’t mess up again. The public won’t forgive you.”
“Because of who I am, people have got their own motives to perceive me as a horrible person,” King said in his lawyer’s downtown L.A. office several days after turning himself in. “I’m not. I’m just a parent and I’m trying to do what a parent has to do . . . . It’s hectical. I’ve got three girls. I have to go to three different places to be a dad. I have to go round them all up and teach them all the same morals that I grew up with. It’s work being a single dad.”
On the advice of his attorneys, King would not discuss the charges, other than to iterate that they stemmed from a family dispute. He said, vaguely, that in the future, “I’m going to have to let things happen and remove myself and leave.” King smiled and added that sometimes when he challenges his teenage daughters’ behavior, they come back at him with his own famous quotation: “Dad, can we all just get along?”
No one was smiling, however, three weeks ago, as King again stood behind a podium, tongue-tied and awkward, trying to explain himself to another media swarm. With some of the same news stations that broadcast his “Can we all get along?” speech watching, King’s eyes showed pain--not for a burning city this time, but for the isolated, wounded and uncomprehending self that Holliday’s video was still, would always be, in the midst of helping to shape.