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LA riots 20-year anniversary: Rodney King looks back on beating, civil unrest

On the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, Rodney King, seen here in this photo from April 2012, looks back on the beating and verdict that set off the civil unrest.
April 24, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
He has an unlikely background for a historical figure, a criminal record and substance-abuse problem. But Rodney King will forever be linked with the most destructive riot in American history.

Like other famous people before him, King has written a book that he hopes will set the record straight about a troubled life lived in the spotlight.

King co-wrote a book entitled "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption," with Lawrence Spagnola. It chronicles his life before, during and since the now-infamous videotaped beating in 1991 that cemented his place in history.

King remembers being at the Los Angeles County when he first found out that the beating he barely survived was recorded on videotape.

"I just got lucky that night to have the cameras on me and I was one of the lucky persons to be caught in history with a camera - a video camera - on me at that time," he said. "When I saw the tape, I was so happy that it was on tape and then looking at it, it was like I was in another body. I felt like I had died in that one, and was just watching it."

A year later, like much of Los Angeles, King was watching and waiting for the verdict to be announced, and then devastated when the four officers accused of unlawfully beating him were acquitted.

"It felt like Armageddon. It felt like the end of the world," he said. "I was ? hurt. I was past upset."

In the book, King writes that he put on a disguise and headed for Florence and Normandie avenues, the flashpoint of the riot, to see what was going on. He turned back when he heard gunshots.

"I was raised not to be violent, and not to be rioting and carrying on like a wild man," he said, "but at the same time, there was a side of me saying, 'What else can you do?' I didn't agree with it, but I understood."

My colleagues and I from ABC7 went from one hot spot to the next, documenting the looting and the brutality. On Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, while looters ransacked a shoe store, someone shot at us while our camera rolled.

The L.A. riots, which started April 29, 1992, was the worst riot in U.S history. Fifty-three people died and more than 2,000 were injured. Arsonists set some 7,000 fires and caused $1 billion in damage.

At the center of it all was King, who was still healing from the beating he suffered at the hands of police, and who stepped forward to try to heal a city in agony.

"The lawyers at that time gave me a long script to read off of, and I'm like, 'No, this is not what I would say.' So I had to keep it simple," King recalls.

In his televised speech to the city, King uttered the words: "I just want to say, can we all get along?"

In the years since, King has been arrested or detained by police at least a dozen times on charges ranging from DUI to domestic violence. Most recently, he was arrested in July for DUI, in which he was found not guilty.

King has a problem with alcohol and poor decision-making.

"I have no regrets," King said. "I've made some childish moves and stuff in life, but I've learned from all of them. I've learned from my mistakes."

"I'm a work in process," he added. "I'm constantly working on myself, and knowing what my limits are, and feeling comfortable with me."

I asked him why he ran from police on the night he was beaten. King said that he was on parole and driving under the influence. He said he knew if he was arrested he'd miss out on a job he was to start the following Monday. So when police tried to pull him over, he took off.

As for the other famous beating victim, Reginald Denny, the man who was beaten nearly to death by an angry mob at Florence and Normandie avenues when the riot began, published reports say Denny works as a boat mechanic in Lake Havasu. He suffered permanent speech impairment and has trouble walking. He does not do interviews.


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