Rodney King: 17 Years After The Riots

Rodney King: 17 Years After The Riots by Caleb Bacon
Dr. Drew, Rodney King, Steven Adler and Jeff Conaway (L-R) | VH1's "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew" | Photo by Beatrice Neumann, VH1 / used with permission

Today marks the seventeenth anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots. In recognition of Wednesday April 29, 1992, LAist presents a special feature with one the era's most recognizable figures.

Rodney King’s near-death plunge to infamy began with a twelve-pack of malt liquor. King’s intoxicated, high-speed driving on March 3, 1991 united him a group of Los Angeles Police Department officers. Their boots, billy clubs, and Taser, would beat the 25 year-old King into the history books.

Thirteen months later, on April 29, 1992, LAPD officers, Stacy Koon, Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind, were acquitted of assaulting King. The city’s mounting racial unrest ignited. That was the first day of the Los Angeles Riots. More than fifty people would lose their lives, and damages would exceed hundreds of millions of dollars.

King, 44, no longer drinks alcohol or uses drugs. He’s ten months sober, and has recently found peace with the LAPD officers who scarred both his life and the LAPD.

On a recent Friday night King could be found sharing the strength and hope of his journey with a Multiple Sclerosis recovery group. “I spoke and I sung a little song for them, just something off the top of my head,” King told LAist. Though King grew up singing, he admitted it had been a while since his last performance. “It was real therapeutic for me. It’s been cool getting out there, supporting other people.”

While not afflicted with M.S., King had spent decades battling another chronic, debilitating disease. King’s alcoholism, his incessant drinking despite the cost, had given him a life he didn’t want.

Celebrity Rehab

Struggling to get on the wagon, King jumped at the chance to appear on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.” In doing so he received televised treatment under the care of Dr. Drew Pinsky, a board certified M.D. with an addiction medicine specialty.

The first episode showed King days prior to admittance at the Pasadena Recovery Center. He was heavily intoxicated and working as a tow truck operator. He nearly crushed himself attempting to tow a vehicle. “I couldn’t believe it,” King said of the incident he didn’t remember.

Working on the tow truck alongside King were his drinking buddies also hailing from the Pasadena area. “Those were the kind of guys I hang around when I’m drinking,” he said. “They don’t look after nobody’s safety, they just sit out and drink all day and tell lies.”

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Rodney King, Today

Despite previous stints at rehab centers, King would consistently return to drinking. Throughout these stays he was filled with shame. He believed the stigma of calling oneself an “alcoholic” was worse than the disease itself. King hoped appearing on “Celebrity Rehab” would show the still-suffering this wasn't how he felt anymore.

“People can look at it like they need to go in and get a tune-up, and not feel so embarrassed,” he said of treatment centers. “If someone gets that message, then it has been really worth it.” King hoped someone might watch the show and say “’with that person going in there, let me try and find me a place I can go in.’”

All In the Family

“I watched people die over alcoholism in my family on almost a yearly basis,” said King of a childhood where alcoholism was visible on both sides of his family. At age five, King’s hard-drinking aunt nearly killed King and his brother.

Forbidden from attending a party at his grandmother’s house, King’s resentful aunt “took a [molotov] cocktail, and threw it up under the house,” he recalled. He and his brother were in the basement playing with his grandmother’s old metal soldiers and army cars when the “the cocktail hit -- poof, flamed up, went bust.” Somehow no one was injured in the blaze.

March 1992

King had been laid off from his union construction job with C.C. Myers. To make ends meet he had been working as an usher at Dodgers Stadium. While King loved the Dodgers, the work wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as union construction .

After six months away, C.C. Myers offered King bridge construction work on the 101 freeway. Full of joy, King, bought a night’s worth of booze for himself and friends. He had a twelve-pack all to himself. “I was supposed to go back that Monday,” he said.

The Beating

King’s Hyundai was speeding west on the 210 freeway north of Los Angeles. His intoxicated mind swam with childhood memories of his father getting “stomped and kicked on by the police,” he said. “I never thought I’d get caught up in one of those kind of beatings.”

“I knew what kind of dudes followed a police chase,” said King. He finally stopped on Foothill Boulevard in Lake View Terrace near Sylmar. Multiple police cars surrounded him. “I knew it wasn’t going to be nothing nice.”

King was first met by Officer Melanie Singer. Behind her, King could see the other officers readying their billy clubs. “I told her 'tell them they don’t have to do this.'" Non-responsive, she walked away as the other officers charged King.

Despite the presence of African-American officers, the words of the charging officers was “straight racist,” he said. Standing aside, the African-American officers did not participate in The Beating. "Whoever black that was standing around was probably scared for their job. It was like a routine that you just know goes on.”

Wrapping his arms around his head, King knew to protect his brain. He told himself “you better live through it.” King recalled being Tasered. “It heated my body so hot to where... I can’t explain it.” As the blows from the officers’ black boots and clubs persisted, King thought he had died.

“I woke up halfway-dead a couple days later,” he said. “It was like dying and coming back.”

April 29, 1992

For King, the LA Riots were both horrific and surreal. “It was scary because people were dying,” he said. “It was like I could see the world right there in front of me, from my TV. The world had gotten so close -- it was all about me, running from those cops, and being drunk that night.”

King’s drinking worsened. “I had to have something to drink,” he said of the time. “It was really wild.” On the third day of the LA Riots, full of emotion and fighting a hangover, King issued his famed plea for peace.

“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?...It's just not right. It's not right.” - Rodney King, May 1, 1992

Legal Woes

In 1993 King’s lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles was settled in civil court. Awarded $3.8 million in damages (King claimed to have walked away with less than half of that after legal fees,) he later found out his payday might have been seven times larger. “’We put $25 million away and you didn’t even come close to it,’” King claimed a Los Angeles city official said before him. “He told my attorney, ‘you didn’t even come close to us.’ Basically, ‘get your scraps off the table and get the hell out of here.’ It was nasty.”

The Road To Forgiveness

On the third episode of “Celebrity Rehab,” Dr. Drew uncovered that King had not therapeutically dealt with his 1991 trauma. King had unsuccessfully tried to bury his strong feelings. That only resulted in more drinking. “There is no point in trying to process much of anything when someone is using,” Dr. Drew told LAist. “Resentment is sometimes the only feeling an alcoholic or addict knows. Trying to get to a place of forgiveness for something like what Rodney had experienced would be essentially impossible.”

Once King had been sober for a few months Dr. Drew felt King was in a headspace where he “could find closure and forgiveness.” The doctor prescribed his patient a large dose of forgiveness. Dr. Drew knew that it would give King a significantly greater chance at sustained sobriety.

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The Spot Today

King had been back to “The Spot” before. “We were working on a job out there, and I walked down near the water just to reminisce, remember when my dad used to take all the kids out there,” he said. The Beating was adjacent to the Hansen Dam, a location where King spent his childhood fishing. "I couldn’t help but think about The Beating. Being out there, it’s so real, I remember it so dang clear. Then, it was kind of like ‘why did this happen to me?’”

Return To The Spot

Dr. Drew and King retraced the 1991 car chase, and visited The Spot for the “Celebrity Rehab” follow-up “Sober House.” King had penned a letter expressing his forgiveness of the officers whom he had spent years resenting. He read it, then deposited flowers and a bible on the roadside.

“This time I was able to focus on how I wound up in a spot like that,” King said. “I thought it was really nice going back to The Spot, and walking away from it with the Doctor. It shows I can put it behind me.”

King knew that anger had fueled his alcoholism for years. “A lot of times when I was angry, I would get myself some booze, not knowing it was only putting a Band-Aid on,” he said. “The only way to resolve things is without anger, that’s what I’m learning. Emotions will kill you if you dwell on them.”

On their visit, both King and Dr. Drew were surprised to note a soon-to-open children’s museum. “They built the L.A. County Children’s Museum on the site of the beating! That’s crazy,” Dr. Drew wrote on his VH1 blog. “We talked to the directors and they were like, ‘Yeah, we heard that happened somewhere around here.’ It happened eight feet from there!”

“I feel very honored to have been there with him for that experience,” said Dr. Drew. “What was surprising to me was the incredible clarity and speed with which Rodney seemed to come to terms with this incident. Speaking to his family, I found that this is not out of character for Rodney.”


"Sober House" Episode 6

Today

King said that he’s constantly approached by people grateful for his public recovery. “It gives me the motivation to want to stay clean, just to hear people say they saw me on the program and they’ve been sober for about three months,” he said. More focused on his recovery than ever, King said “it’s a fight everyday. Your disease will creep on you.”

These days King stays busy, something he considers an asset to his sobriety. He’s writing a book, telling the story he knows best: his own. He also may open a sober living recovery home, and perhaps form a foundation for homeless teens. If you’re ever fishing at Big Bear you may see the 6’3” King spearing carp. “Fishing -- that’s my thing,” he said. “They have some huge, nice carp up there.”

Whether it’s speaking for those battling Multiple Sclerosis, or alcoholism, King wants to be of service. “Our time here on Earth is so short,” he said. “Whatever we become in the next life is from what we did here on Earth.” He said a great way to make an impact is through simple acts of kindness. “It’s no more than shaking a hand, saying hi to a person you probably would’ve never spoke to.”

“I’m happy to have made it through it, shoot, I’m going to tell you,” King said with a laugh and big smile. “It take a minute to lose it all -- life goes so fast. Maybe I’ll sing about it one day.”

Foothill Blvd Photo by Caleb Bacon for LAist | Rodney King Photo courtesy Rodney King / used with permission

Follow Caleb Bacon on Twitter @thecalebbacon.

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