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The past still grips Rodney King

The beating victim says he's at peace with all that's happened to him and that he'd go through the night of March 3, 1991, again. Now out of work and nearly poor, he wears the physical and emotional scars of his ordeal.

April 23, 2012|By Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times

"There was the time my car went off the road and came to a stop on a tree," he says, referring to a 2003 crash. Blood tests revealed PCP in his system.

"PCP ain't no joke," says King, who was ordered to rehab and spent a few weeks in jail. "That stuff really got its hooks into me for, oh, I think about a year."

Some things unfailingly hold his attention. One is a large photograph above his fireplace. It is King, in a blue suit and a paisley tie, looking out at a pack of reporters.

"That's me saying those words people still talk about," he mutters. He says them, under his breath. "Can we all get along?"

Looking at these artifacts, he says, gives him an oddly detached sensation. A part of him cannot believe he is that man.

Yet he hangs on to all of it.

"That is my history, part of my history, part of me surviving," he says.

As to why he wouldn't change what happened that night, he has a theory. True, the beating and the first trial led to deadly violence. It fills him with guilt. How can he not feel responsible for what some still call "the Rodney King riots"? Yet good came of it. The convictions of Koon and Powell, he says, the moral weight that pushed his call to "get along" deep into the public consciousness — these things helped change the world.

"A lot of people would have never had [a chance to succeed] if I had not survived that beating," he says.

"Obama? Obama, he wouldn't have been in office without what happened to me and a lot of black people before me. He would never have been in that situation, no doubt in my mind. He would get there eventually, but it would have been a lot longer. So I am glad for what I went through. It opened the doors for a lot of people...."

When he was 2, King's family moved from Sacramento to Altadena, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Los Angeles, particularly South L.A., tough and dangerous, seemed a world away.

"He's not now and never has been a real city guy, with that kind of sophistication," says his cousin, Ontresicia Averette.

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.

"Maybe those whuppings prepared me for Koon," King says.

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?"

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