Rodney King signs an autograph for a fan at the Los Angeles Times Festival… (Christina House, For The…)
It has been 20 years, and Rodney King finds himself in what must be an awkward position: He is an elder statesman of victimhood. Instead of asking questions — "Can we all just get along?"— he is now being asked to answer them.
Can we all just get along? What about Trayvon Martin? How does it feel to be a symbol?
King, 47, tried to answer those questions Saturday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, appearing as the co-author of a new memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption." What emerges from both the book and his appearance is a man who has spent two decades coping, not always very well, with the blows that police inflicted on the night of March 3, 1991, and with the notoriety that came, a year later, with being the fuse that sparked the riots that shattered Los Angeles.
What also stands out is a Christian ethos that manifests itself in King's insistence on forgiveness toward those who hurt him.
"That's how I was raised, to be in a forgiving state of mind," he said during an interview with Times columnist and KPCC-FM (89.3) radio host Patt Morrison. "Because I've been forgiven many times, and I'm only human, so who am I not to forgive someone? … I wouldn't be able to grow as a person inside if I was too angry and unforgiving."
King was drunk and unarmed when he was pulled over for speeding by Los Angeles Police Department officers, who responded to his erratic behavior by kicking him and striking him dozens of times with their batons. The incident was captured on video by a civilian bystander, and the tape became an instant international sensation.
Four of the officers were tried for excessive force. Their acquittal on April 29, 1992, touched off one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history.
With the 20th anniversary just over a week away, several hundred people packed an auditorium at USC to hear King at the book festival. Patience was required: He arrived 40 minutes late for the hourlong appearance, saying he was stuck in traffic.
In the interim, Morrison conducted a sort of town hall meeting, asking members of the audience to reflect on their experiences in the riots and to consider whether the city, and country, have changed for the better in the ensuing two decades.
Opinions were mixed. Some said there had been progress in race relations, and several said the LAPD had changed dramatically for the better. Others were less sanguine.
"I believe things have not changed," said 61-year-old Nila Ussery, who said that in 1992 she was living at 64th Street and Normandie Avenue, nine blocks from the flash point of the riots at Florence and Normandie. She has since moved to Palmdale but said that in inner city neighborhoods today, "it's even worse."
Others cited the case of Martin, the Florida teen who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, as evidence that American society has not transcended its legacy of racism. One woman, Barbara Bergen, said racism "is still rampant" but fading as young people adopt healthier attitudes.
King expressed optimism that society was changing but offered a mixed message about the Martin case. "Unfortunately, it's a rough road. It's tough being a young black man," he said. "As far as racist profiling just because you're black, we've got to move past that." And yet he added: "It's in our blood, in the world's blood, because we're all sinners."
King said he was newly engaged to be married and insisted that he was at peace. His book reflects that any equanimity was hard won; he recounts years of alcoholism and rage, but says he has gotten over both.
He was asked what he thinks now when he sees the videotape of his beating. "I'm so glad I made it through," he said. "Now I laugh, I smile, when I see it."
He recounted a recent conversation with a police officer, who told him: "Rodney, after we're all dead and gone, your name is still going to be out there." King reflected on that. "That was a deep thought," he said. After a moment, he chuckled. "Six feet deep," he said.