Rodney King: 'Two Wrongs Don't Make A Right'

The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers sparked the chain of events that led to the deadly L.A. riots 20 years ago this weekend. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rodney King about his memories of the riots, the beating, and his new book, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today we want to spend the first part of the program reflecting on a troubling episode in this country's history. Twenty years ago this weekend, the streets of Los Angeles erupted in riots that would last six days. Buildings were burned, the city suffered an estimated billion dollars in damage, and more than 50 people lost their lives.

The riots were sparked after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of all charges in the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED JUROR: We, the jury, find the defendant, Lawrence M. Powell, not guilty of the crime of assault.

MARTIN: Because the officers had been captured on video repeatedly hitting and kicking King, the verdict shocked many people around the country. In Los Angeles, disturbances began just hours after the verdict was announced. Later in the program, we'll speak with a Korean-American supermarket owner who survived the riots and actually encouraged his community to defend the businesses even with force.

But first, we are joined by Rodney King. He is the author of a new memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption," and he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RODNEY KING: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I know this is not the only interview you're doing, where I'm assuming that you're being asked to relive many of these moments. Is that hard?

KING: You know, as time goes on, you know, it gets a lot easier. It was very hard for me to watch the video and it still is to this day. You know, it all depends on what kind of mood I'm in.

MARTIN: You talked about how an investigator for one of your attorneys is the person who first shared the news of the acquittal. Can you talk about what was going through your mind when you heard that news?

KING: What went through my mind was I felt like I was in the '40s or the '50s. I was just so hurt and disappointed. But I was also relieved to know that the president had - he had sent down prosecutors to prosecute the guys since they had got away in the first trial.

MARTIN: You write about that in the book. You talk about President - this is President George H. W. Bush, Bush 41, and he'd said a couple of weeks after the beating that it was sickening to see the beating that was rendered, there's no way - no way in my view to explain that away. And you said that you held on to that statement.

KING: Yeah.

MARTIN: Was it comforting to you?

KING: Yeah. Well, it was embracing to me also. Yes, it was.

MARTIN: But what about when the riots started? Do you remember how you heard about that?

KING: Yeah. I was in Studio City in California and we were warned before the riots had even erupted that I would be careful. Whatever you do, stay home. The feds had warned us.

MARTIN: Oh, the feds. I was going to ask you, who was it that warned you. You're saying that there were kind of already rumors afoot that something was going to happen?

KING: Yes. So my attorney, he told me that, you know, he said if it wasn't a guilty verdict, that there could be looting and rioting.

MARTIN: And there was. And there was. And you famously held a press conference and this is what you said. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KING: I just want to say, you know, can we - can we all get along? Can we - can we get along?

MARTIN: You know, you can hear, you know, the emotion in your voice at that time and anybody who saw that could see it. In the book you write that your own mother begged you not to say anything publicly. Why is that?

KING: Because, you know, my mom, she's a little older than me. Her history in watching, you know, police violence and violence, period, over the years haven't been a pleasant one and so she thought that maybe I'd get shot or beat to death out there on the podium, you know. But, you know, I'm from a new generation from hers, and her generation set the footwork.

All the civil rights leaders and people who died, black and white, you know, Mexican, Chinese, black, you name it, all the ones who died for me and for civil rights in this country, you know, I owe that to them, you know, after thinking about it now. And so it was a good thing for me to get out there and put some water on the fire instead of throwing gasoline in it.

You don't need to threaten the city to get your point across. That's the way I felt. That's not the way I was raised.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Rodney King. He was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers. Their acquittal after a trial sparked riots 20 years ago this weekend. And you told NPR's Karen Grisgby Bates that thinking back that you wish you had been more cooperative and actually pulled over for the police back in 1991.

I mean, you talk about the fact that you actually had a problem with alcohol, something you have struggled with since then. And of course you certainly say, and I think most people would agree, that didn't excuse, you know, what the officers did. But when you look back at the whole thing and, you know, all that, you know, that transpired, how do you think about all that happened?

KING: I know drinking and driving is not OK, and I shouldn't have been back then, and there's no excuse for it. But I had a job to go to that Monday and so I went over to a friend's house and popped a couple of beers and we were just sitting around a while and I decided to go to a spot where my dad used to take us fishing called Hansen Dam in California.

And on the way over there, you know, I saw the highway patrol behind me and the only thing I could think about was maybe I could lose them. And the only thing I was thinking about was getting to work Monday. And like I say, I know I shouldn't have been drinking and driving. I was on parole. And I knew that I was going to go back to jail and just lose everything.

My family, everything that I had been working hard for since I'd been out of jail, my whole life was like flashed in front of me. I made a bad mistake by running from them. And that's one of the reasons why I drove - once I knew they were behind me, I just drove a little bit further to find a safe spot to pull over at that point, because I knew there was a beating to come afterwards.

MARTIN: Really? Tell me about that. Why is that? You know, I've actually mentioned this to a couple of people I know who are in law enforcement and I actually have a law enforcement family, and they all kind of agree that your analysis is correct. And I wanted to ask you, why is that? Because you ran? Because if you don't pull over immediately you knew? Tell me why you said, you know, you knew you were going to get beat. Why did you feel that way?

KING: You know, when I was young I used to see the cops beat blacks up all the time, especially. There was a spot we used to go up to in Train(ph) Trails in California. Off the trail there's a dirt trail and I'd be out there riding my mini bike. I'd see the cop car come up the hill and sometimes they would come up there and park, take the guy out of the back seat, handcuff him to the door and just beat the crap out of him.

And then there's numerous times I've seen people run from the cop and then they get caught and almost get beat to where they don't even know what they did. And my thing was, is that I came up in that time where we respect the law but if you're getting harassed by them, run. If you can run, get away. Because you're going to get beat up. That's just how it is.

I had one cop show me: You see this dent on this hood right here? This came from John's head. You see this dent over here? That's Chris' head right there. And he was just naming off names with the dents in his car and then told me: You going to tell me what I need to know or what?

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, what about now? I mean in the book - and I just want to emphasize for people, your book talks a lot about your own personal journey, your own personal efforts to kind of deal with your issues, including your alcohol and other stuff. So I don't want people to think that all it's about is, you know, looking out. You're doing a lot of looking in.

But I did want to ask whether you think 20 years later, is anything better?

KING: Yeah. There is - change is slow, you know? The justice system worked for me. You know, it's a slow system, but it works. It worked in my case and, you know, you've got to look back 30 years, look back 50 years. I sure wouldn't want to be living back in them days.

And, you know, the people, the ones that have died over the years, the civil rights movement, all the Martin Luther King, the Al Sharpton, all of them people, if they didn't go through what they went through, there wouldn't be no Rodney King. I probably would've been dead, killed, shot, finished off a long time ago. And I definitely wouldn't have a book.

MARTIN: I just want to ask you one more thing. There's another story that's been in the news lately, and some have raised parallels with what happened to you, and that is the shooting death of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. It has brought up a lot of conversations about, you know, race and about, you know, assumptions and about what people tolerate or are willing to tolerate and so forth.

And I just wanted to ask, what do you make of the Trayvon case, and do you see any parallel to your story?

KING: Well, yeah. For a long time, blacks - and especially young black males - have been getting bullied by the police, especially, and we've been treated real bad in the past. You know, we've always wanted to help and be a part of - at least, for the most of - I speak for myself, now - always wanted to be a part of my house, which is America, you know, go to work and do my job good and feel a part of something. You know, you do it and you try to be good, and you get pulled over and you get treated like crap by the cops, you know, and somebody else see, or they hear about the cops treating you bad.

It's nothing for them to come along and just shoot you, put a bullet in you because they know that, hey, this black guy, he's a black guy. Not too much is going to come out of it. And when you got somebody who's a citizen - another citizen who wants to be liked and wants to be accepted by - especially by law enforcement, they think of nothing now. They think about it like it's nothing when a citizen go out there and kill an innocent child, like in this case of Trayvon Martin.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask, though, based on your experience...

KING: The screaming that - I heard that kid scream. It just sound like me screaming 20 years ago.

MARTIN: Based on your experience, though, do you feel confident, optimistic about a fair resolution in this case?

KING: Oh, yeah. I know that they'll get to the bottom of it and that they'll make a sound, right decision for this poor little kid, Trayvon Martin. He's no longer here. He's gone, but his parents is here, still suffering, you know. And I'm just hoping that he receives justice. The family needs justice.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask - obviously, you have many more years with us, one hopes, and you've written this book to kind of reflect upon these last 20 years. How would you want people to think of you? When they hear the name Rodney King, how do you want people to think of you?

KING: I've always - in my heart and soul, you know, I'll always tried to say something or do something to make it a lot more pleasant for the next generation behind us. When you speak and say something, if you can't say something pleasant and make somebody's day easier, just keep it shut. That's how my mom and my pop raised me, you know, and that's how things get better.

So I want to be remembered by: Can't we all just get along? You know? And like I say, I know I shouldn't have been drinking and driving, but two wrongs don't make a right.

MARTIN: Rodney King was the victim of a brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. That incident was caught on videotape. The acquittal of the officers involved sparked six days of violent riots in Los Angeles.

He's now the author of a memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption," and he was kind enough to join us from Philadelphia, where he is traveling.

Mr. King, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KING: Oh, thanks for having me.

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