Rodney King ponders the question in silence while absentmindedly rubbing the scar on his left hand, a big, black weal that spreads across the knuckles towards his wrist. “No,” he says. “It’s not painful to relive it. I’m comfortable with my position in American history.” Then, the interview barely begun, he appears to correct himself and without warning reaches into his memory’s darkest recess. “It was like being raped, stripped of everything, being beaten near to death there on the concrete, on the asphalt. I just knew how it felt to be a slave. I felt like I was in another world.”
The words hover, incongruous, because it is a bright afternoon, in a chic restaurant and a jarring change of tone. King gazes at nothing in particular. The moment passes. In a lighter voice, he reverts to his original train of thought. “I know and value what it means to wake up and be alive and to share my story. I’m so blessed to be here and to be able to talk about it.” He smiles uncertainly.
“It,” of course, refers to the night of March 3, 1991 when four members of the Los Angeles police department surrounded and repeatedly beat the prostrate King by the side of a highway. Fifty-six baton blows and six kicks, it was later established in frame-by-frame analysis. This was before mobile phones with cameras, but from his balcony George Holliday, a plumber woken up by sirens, recorded it all on video camera. He passed the grainy, amateur footage to a local TV network, KTLA, setting in train a series of events that gave King, as he puts it, a position in American history.
Last week, two decades later, finishing a risotto and sipping tea on a deserted restaurant terrace in west LA, King insists he is reconciled to the role. In reality, he and the US are both still grappling with it. Too much has happened since — or too little, you could argue — for it to be otherwise. A black man is president but black men are still disproportionately likely to end up jailed. Or, like Trayvon Martin, the teenager gunned down in Florida, dead. “When I see him scream, I hear the same scream I gave on 3-3-91,” says King. “It’s the scream of death.”
SHAKEN AND STIRRED
The 47-year-old former laborer is an elusive mix. Physically imposing, 190.5cm and with a powerful torso, he is nonetheless timid and walks with a limp. In his white shirt, snazzy tie and dark trousers he could pass for a businessman, save for the necklace of red and black beads. He made it himself. “It helped pass the time.” He makes dramatic declarations and shows flashes of insight and humour amid half-sentences whose meanings shimmer and scatter like fish in cloudy water. Patchy concentration is the result of brain damage from the beating, he says. Decades of alcohol abuse and numerous car accidents have not helped. “Um, where was I?” he asks, losing the thread at one point.
We had been discussing the riots that bear his name. Sunday last week was the 20th anniversary of the explosion of rage that destroyed much of Los Angeles and shook the US after a near all-white jury acquitted King’s uniformed assailants. Resentment in LA’s black community had built for years over poverty, unemployment and police brutality. The acquittals on 29 April 1992 ignited a weeklong, apocalyptic bonfire. “I put on my reggae hat with braids so nobody would recognise me and drove into the city to see what was going on,” recalls King. “It was just ...” the voice trails off, defeated by the magnitude of what happened. By the time the riot ended, 53 people were dead, thousands injured and US$1 billion worth of property smouldered in what could have passed for Bosnia.