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L.A. riots, 20 years later: Rodney King still gripped by past

April 25, 2012 | 11:47 am

Rodney King

Rodney King is 47 now, jobless and virtually broke. Gone is the settlement money he got after suing the city for violating his civil rights. All $3.8 million of it. Huge chunks went to the lawyers, he says, some to family members, some he simply wasted.

The settlement did provide a down payment on his home in Rialto. He says he cobbles together mortgage payments. Every so often he gets hired to pour concrete at a construction site.

He received an advance of less than six figures, he says, for allowing his story to be told in a book released Tuesday: "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption."

PHOTOS: Rodney King, today

He inhabits a world stocked with heartache and struggle. He calls himself a recovering addict but has not stopped drinking and possesses a doctor's clearance for medical marijuana.

He says he is happy and hopeful, content enough now to forgive the officers who beat him. But he tenses when they are mentioned and admits to being burdened by the weight of his name. He suffers nightmares, flashbacks and raw nerves that echo the symptoms of a shell-shocked survivor of war.

"It felt," he says, "like I was an inch from death," he says, describing what it was like to be struck by batons, stung by Tasers.

It has been 20 years this month since rioting brought Los Angeles to its knees. A jury had acquitted four police officers in the beating of King, unleashing an onslaught of pent-up anger. There were 54 riot-related deaths and nearly $1 billion in property damage as the seams of the city blew apart.

 In an interview with The Times, King confides he is at peace with what happened to him.

"I would change a few things, but not that much," he says. "Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn't, but that's not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place."

PHOTOS: 1992 Los Angeles riots

What emerges from both the book and the man is the picture of someone 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 later.

King was drunk and unarmed when he was pulled over for speeding by Los Angeles Police Department officers and beaten.

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.

L.A. RIOTS: Reader stories | Share your memory

"I'm so glad I made it through," he said during an appearance last weekend at L.A. Times Festival of Books. "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.


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L.A. Riots, 20 years after: Live video discussion Thursday at 11 a.m.

-- Kurt Streeter and Mitchell Landsberg

Photo: Rodney G. King at his home in Rialto last month. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times