Rodney King, 20 years after L.A.’s riots

Rodney King in the Los Angeles Times studio.

Rodney King in the Los Angeles Times studio.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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In 21 years, his name has appeared in the Los Angeles Times on more than 7,000 occasions. Sometimes it’s as himself, Rodney King, the victim of now-fabled LAPD abuse the world got to see, the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, the hapless guy getting stopped yet again on some speeding or DUI beef, the man on the celebrity rehab show. And sometimes it’s as “Rodney King,” the accidental symbol and the rallying cry on police abuse issues. Some of the biggest institutions in Southern California — the Los Angeles Police Department, the city itself — were changed because of the beating King took in 1991 and the beating the city took in 1992 in the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers charged in his beating. Has the man himself changed? On the 20th anniversary of the riots, his book, “The Riot Within,”’ written with Lawrence J. Spagnola, is letting us, and King himself, find out.

You dedicate your book to the people of L.A. Why?

Because the people in L.A. went through a lot of hard times. I wanted to stay focused on the people who had been abused, and the people coming together.


Two decades later, what should we think about the beating and the riots?

It was definitely a turning point. Everybody was tired of having these butterflies in their stomach when it comes to the police, so I’m glad what happened to me happened, and that it changed a lot of things. No [police] chief can be guaranteed eight, 15, 20 years no more. Anybody can get bigheaded once they know the seat cannot be pulled out from under them. And it shows people want a change even though some of them may not know how to change. That’s why they resorted to the riots, in frustration, but most people just wanted to be treated fairly. A lot of people have come up to me and said, Thanks to you, man, I got a job.

At the price of a beating.

It was a big price for me, and it was also a big price for the ones who lost their lives.

How different are you from the guy in the news 21 years ago?

I’m very different. Age has helped me see things a lot different — more into thinking about family, about what type of legacy I leave. We’re all human; we’re going to make mistakes, but you’ve got to think about what you leave behind.

A lot of people who sympathized with you were also unhappy that you sued the department and the officers and got $3.8 million in damages, plus another $1.6 million toward legal fees.


I hear that all the time. People can feel sorry for you one moment and hate you the next moment. If you get in trouble a couple of times, and then find yourself a way out of trouble, they’re going to hate that. The criticism gives me strength.

Mayor Tom Bradley called you to offer you a settlement and to pay for your education.

He was just trying to save his city and his job, but there was no way I could [accept]. He said: “Let’s make this thing go away; let me give you $200,000 and send you back to school.” I said no way. Bless his heart, he sounded so stressed out when he called me. I felt sorry for him.

After all your lawyers’ fees and other costs, how much did you wind up with?

I ended up with around $1.6, $1.7 [million]. I did some good things with it. I knew how hard my mom worked so I bought my mom a house. Bought myself a house.

And started a hip-hop label, which didn’t work out.


Yeah, I was trying to bring young and older people together on a record label, but it’s tough to try to come into the music industry, period. Nice guys just don’t finish first in the music industry. There was a lot of rip-off going on. I had to learn for myself how it was.

You used to work construction; are you working now?

I can, but I don’t. One [employer] laughed and said, “Get out of here — too high profile.”

You’ve had run-ins with the law since the beating. If police officers pull you over, do they see who you are and say, “Oh, no, it’s Rodney King”?

Oh yes. Once I was on my way home, and I was speeding and I ran through a yellow light. When the guy pulled me over, he was like, “Rod, just slow down, don’t bring any attention to yourself.”

Most of the time, it’s a warning. So I really learned to be more responsible. I’m tired; they’re tired. I’ve been invited to some parties with them; I went to one — it was cool.


You wrote that you used to hate because the only alternative to hating was being a victim. Why are you now talking about forgiving, including the officers later found guilty of violating your civil rights in the federal case?

Because many people have showed me support over the years — white, black, you name it. I can’t move on if I’m feeling all hard and hateful inside. It just takes up so much energy. It’s hard to walk around all bitter all the time. I don’t see how you can grow as a world without being able to get along with people. So many people is¿ hating out there and it’s not making a difference.

Do you ever watch the video moment of yourself asking people to please just get along?

Sometimes. I said the right thing for what I believe in. [My lawyers] wrote a script for me, but I wasn’t reading that crap. When I was coming up, we went to the Kingdom Hall [of Jehovah’s Witnesses] and we’d be around Indians and Chinese, white people, Mexicans, you name it; we all was working together. So I couldn’t understand why, after church was over, things was so different. That’s where you get that “can we all just get along” speech out of me.

And the video of the beating — does it seem now like watching someone else?

No, because I remember the pain.

Where were you going when you tried to get up and run away?


I was trying to split into the park. My daddy used to take us there when we were kids. I didn’t know my ankle was broke. When I went up, I put my hands up — like this [he raises his hands from his lap] — so I wouldn’t look like I’m a threat. I knew death was going to come. As a black man, you run from the cops. It’s different now, but back when I was coming up, you run.

You were driving drunk and speeding when the Highway Patrol first tried to pull you over, but a lot of people doubted that a Hyundai could go as fast as police said. So, how fast were you going?

It was easy 100, might have been 105.

You testified at the federal civil right trial but not at the Simi Valley Superior Court trial that originally resulted in acquittals. Do you think it would have made a difference in the outcome in Simi Valley if you had testified?

I’m in Orange County, at this hotel where my lawyer put me. It was so frustrating for me to watch her speaking on my case like that. I wanted to be there, but I couldn’t – the lawyers wouldn’t let me. To be honest with you, I don’t really know if I would have made that much of a difference. It was uncharted territory, a case like mine. But I wanted to.

The riots began after the officers’ acquittal. You said in the book that you could understand a couple of hours of protest but not days of violence.

It got so scary. It felt almost like we were headed to Armageddon. Everybody had their own reasons. It wasn’t just police brutality. It was the way people were being treated over the years. People were [telling me to] say nothing, or go out there and say, “Burn it up,” but I was, like, no, that’s not how I was raised. It was a bad time, a combination of everything — race relations, police brutality, poverty. I was born [the year of] the Watts riots. This made me realize what people was going through back in the ‘60s. I thought God had turned his clock back.


You put on a disguise and started to head to Florence and Normandie.

I got halfway there and started seeing the smoke and thought no, I can’t. I saw [Reginald Denny being attacked on television] and said to myself, this man works just as hard as I do. I do construction, and he’s a truck driver.

Your name is recognized around the country. Some people think it symbolizes a ne’er-do-well. Some people think of it as a civil rights rallying cry. Are you up for that role?

You don’t want to let anybody’s expectations down. People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. I should have seen life like that and stay out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations, which [I] wasn’t cut out to be. I didn’t go to school to be “Rodney King” and [be] beat up by cops and thrust into the limelight. It’s taken years to get used to the situation I’m in in life and the weight it holds. One of the cops in the jail [in a later encounter] said: You know what? People are going to know who you are when you’re dead and gone. A hundred years from now, people still going to be talking about you. It’s scary, but at the same time it’s a blessing.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. Morrison’s conversation with King will continue at the L.A. Times Festival of Books Saturday, 12:30 p.m.