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Rodney King and the L.A. riots: When 20 years can seem like yesterday

April 21, 2012 |  2:54 pm

Click to view photos from the Festival of BooksOne aspect of Los Angeles hasn't changed in the 20 years since the 1992 riots: Traffic tie-ups. Rodney King, whose March 1991 beating by L.A. police officers was the first link in the chain of events that culminated in the 1992 riots, was a half-hour late Saturday for his interview with Times columnist Patt Morrison.

So, in a sense, the session ran in reverse. With Morrison, who also anchors a radio show on KPCC, as the moderator, Angelenos spent a half-hour talking about their own experiences during and after the riots as they awaited King's arrival. The general consensus: The LAPD has changed for the better, but the socio-economic conditions that set the stage for the riots have worsened. And the racial divides are still chasms.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

"I'm surprised at how white we are here," said one white woman, looking around at the crowd of more than 500 people in a basement auditorium at USC's Ronald Tutor Campus Center, about four miles north of where the riots began near South Central's Normandie and Florence Avenues. The woman said she lived in South Central, in a neighborhood in which she is the rare white resident. "The riots can certainly start again, until we have socio-economic changes, and in how we view other people."

King, for his part, arrived out of breath, and spoke of forgiveness for the officers involved in his videotaped beating after a high-speed chase. With his history of substance abuse, he said, he has been in need of some forgiveness. "I am a forgiving man," he said. "That's how I was raised, to be in a forgiving state of mind. I have been forgiven many times. I am only human. Who am I not to forgive someone?"

King wrote about his life, and his fight for recovery from addictions, in a memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption," with Lawrence J. Spagnola (Morrison published a Q&A with King in Saturday's paper). King told the audience that he is aware of his role as a symbol for people, though he wears that uniform uncomfortably. But it also has given him a deeper respect for the civil heroes of the past.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

"I'm so glad I wasn't born in the 1930s or the 1940s," he said. "My heart goes out to those who have died for what's right."

And he is thankful, he said, for both surviving the beating, and for the videotape that brought what happened to him to light. Countless other young black men have suffered similarly, he said.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said, drawing a large laugh from the audience. "The camera was a blessing."

And while conditions in L.A., and in the nation, have changed over the last 20 years, he said, they need to change further.

"Every day you have to look at the history of where we come from as a whole in this country," King said. "We have to have more respect for each other, and an appreciation and respect for each other's values. We have come a little ways, and we have  long ways to go." 

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--Scott Martelle is an Irvine-based writer and the author of "Detroit: A Biography."

Photo: Rodney King, top, and audience at the L.A. Festival of Books panel. Credits: Scott Martelle

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