Patt Morrison Asks

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

On the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, the victim of now-fabled LAPD abuse talks about life and its lessons.

Rodney King

Rodney King in the Los Angeles Times studio. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times / March 14, 2012)

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."

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