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COVER STORY

Rodney's Rap

The Beating and Riots Are Fading Into History, but Rodney King's Life Remains a Series of Trials.

March 28, 1999|ED LEIBOWITZ | Ed Leibowitz's last wrote for the magazine about architect Wayne McAllister

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."

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