It was partly thanks to King that the rioting did end. On the third day, he made a famous, tearful plea to a forest of microphones: “Can we all get along?” It was a challenge to two centuries of fraught race relations — still resonant in the Obama era — that established King as more than just a victim. Until then, he said, he had felt humiliated. “For a man to beat you so badly, till you’re near dead, takes everything from you.” He did not get to testify at the officers’ trial. “It was like the lawyers wanted all the attention.” It all changed, he says, when he intervened during the riots. “When I said ‘Let’s all get along,’ that was the start of my redemption right there. All the butterflies came out of my stomach.”
The son of a violent, alcoholic father, King drank too much from a young age and had been jailed for threatening a shopkeeper with an iron bar. On the night of the beating, he was drunk at the wheel of his car and speeding. The police officers who cornered him after a dramatic chase said he resisted arrest and appeared dangerous. In a second trial after the riots, two officers, Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon, were convicted of civil rights offences. In a civil suit against the city of Los Angeles, King was awarded US$3.8 million, offering hope of a new start. Instead, his drinking grew worse, he was convicted of spousal abuse and repeatedly crashed his car, breaking his pelvis and giving him a limp.
Detailing this grim catalog King, for a moment, turns mischievous. “When I see a uniform, I still get nervous, but you know, when the police [he pronounces this ‘poh-lees’] pull me over and see it’s me, they get even more nervous. They shake like this” — he trembles a hand. He grins, and this time the smile reaches his eyes.
When not watching television — the Discovery and History channels and cartoons are his favorites — King found himself on it. He participated in a celebrity boxing match and two celebrity rehab programs, each time claiming victory, only to lapse back into the alcoholism that ruined relationships and turned his Rialto home, on the outskirts of LA, into a tip.
‘Action and reaction’
Now he is proclaiming deliverance in a book, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, ghosted by Lawrence Spagnola, which was published to coincide with the anniversary. The last three chapter titles are: A new man; Clean and sober; Live, learn, love. King, in other words, has finally found peace. “This book is my testimony,” he says. “I tell myself time heals. It really does.” He places his case, which prompted a clean-up of the LAPD, in a continuum of racial landmarks from the abolition of slavery through to civil rights and US President Barack Obama’s election. “They all built on each other. Action and reaction.”
As he sips tea and reflects on those who beat him, a happy ending seems to glimmer. “I had to learn to forgive. I couldn’t sleep at night. I got ulcers. I had to let go, to let God deal with it. No one wants to be mad in their own house. I didn’t want to be angry my whole life. It takes so much energy out of you to be mean.” He relaxes by fishing, a passion imparted by his father. “Dropping that pole in the water and just waiting for that bite ... ahh.” There is even romance. King is engaged to Cynthia Kelley, a juror from the civil trial.