My Dad, Rodney King
Trymaine Lee: (SIREN) Thirty years ago, the City of Los Angeles was on fire. Thousands of people flooded the streets, their anger and anguish over the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King, unfurling, and smashed windows, and burning buildings. (MOB SHOUTING)
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 L.A. riots, also known as the L.A. Uprising when years of unchecked police brutality and racial tensions came to a head. (SIREN) For six days L.A. burned and America watched and wondered how and why. But the kindling had long been there.
Archival Recording: Some of the most bitter battles in America these days are between minorities, between Blacks and Koreans, specifically.
Lee: In the decade before the uprising, the Asian population in Los Angeles County had nearly doubled. And the mostly Korean immigrant business community began pushing into poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods in South Los Angeles where years of disinvestment and city neglect left real estate prices low and community needs high.
This dynamic of Korean immigrant entrepreneurs taking advantage of L.A.'s bake-in disparities and a native Black population without an economic foothold of their own created a strained dynamic between Korean shop owners and the Black community.
But then a year before the uprising, a Korean shop keeper named Soon Ja Du shot a 15-year-old Black girl, Latasha Harlins, in the back of the head over a bottle of orange juice. She had accused Harlins of stealing the juice worth $1.79.
Archival Recording: Already there was anger boiling here where many of the stores patronized by Blacks are owned by Koreans. And the resulting cultural and racial tensions have started something deadly more than once. But this was the flash point.
Lee: The Harlins' case also coincided with the King beating, one of the country's most famous incidents of police brutality. On March 3rd, 1991, Rodney King was savagely beaten by four LAPD officers after a high-speed car chase.
Archival Recording: A Black man whose car had been stopped by Los Angeles police officers was in the street. An apartment dweller across the street took the videotape after hearing the fracas going on. The amateur cameraman said it appeared to him the suspect was attempting to cooperate when the beating with night sticks began. Police say the man, 25-year-old Rodney King was involved in a high-speed chase and wanted as a parole violator.
Lee: The officers tased him, kicked him in his head, and struck him with their batons more than 50 times over the course of 15 minutes. The incident was caught on camera by a guy named George Holliday who filmed the beating from his balcony across the street.
Holliday ended up sending the footage to a local news station. It was one of the earliest videos of police violence ever captured. And it outraged us while also providing some hope that with this evidence the officers involved would be held accountable. But then.
Archival Recording: An intense silence shrouded the courtroom as the verdicts were read.
Archival Recording: Not guilty of the crime of assault by force.
Archival Recording: Not guilty (VERDICT BEING READ) over and over again.
Archival Recording: The defendants being congratulated as the verdict "not guilty" rang through the packed courtroom over and over again. The four LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating case found not guilty on all counts except one.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICES) This home video of the police beating of Rodney King was not enough to convince the jury that the officers were guilty of excessive use of force. Verdicts took many people by surprise.
Lee: On April 29th, 1992, a 12-person jury acquitted all four officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Archival Recording: The total incident was vindicated by the verdict of the jury today.
Lee: And anger and frustration boiled over.
Archival Recording: Outside the courthouse angry demonstrators gathered to protest. And some taunted the former defendants as they left to go home and celebrate. (CROWD VOICES)
Lee: The riot began almost immediately after the verdict.
Archival Recording: (CROWD VOICES) Marking the end of an ordeal that began more than a year ago and was captured on home video. It shocked much of the nation then, and so did the verdicts.
Archival Recording: (SIREN) The night was filled with violence nationwide as outrage over the Rodney King verdicts spread from coast to coast.
Lee: For six days (SIREN) from the end of April into early May, people took their outrage to the streets, tearing at symbols of the establishment. Buildings were burned. Stores were looted.
Archival Recording: The city out of control.
Archival Recording: In Los Angeles meanwhile, widespread violence continued (SIREN) even though an overnight curfew was imposed.
Archival Recording: And there's a police car (RIOTING NOISES) (We understand this is a police car. It's hard to tell here.) that has overturned, was overturned by the crowd and set on fire.
Archival Recording: 6,000 California National Guard troops on the streets of Los Angeles, their weapons will be loaded. And they have orders to return fire if fired upon. Additionally, federal regular Army troops have been asked to have been put on standby in case more force is needed. City officials are determined to show a force that will quell the rioting, the looting, and burning which has rocked this city for the last two days.
Lee: And because of racial tensions in the community like those linked to the Latasha Harlins' killing, Korean establishments became primary targets. To protect their stores, Korean shop owners took to their roof tops with guns like snipers, firing shots at anyone who came close.
Archival Recording: Officials are now bracing for what they believe to be the start of a long, hot weekend today. Friday, May the 1st, 1992.
Lee: By the end, according to the Los Angeles Times, more than 60 people were dead, 2,000 injured. And the riots caused nearly $1 billion in property damage. Thirty years later, the City of Los Angeles is still grieving and healing. To commemorate the anniversary of the riots, several Black and Asian community organizations gathered and hosted events. And city leaders reflected on the last 30 years.
Archival Recording: The courage you showed 30 years at this intersection and the hard and sometimes slow but steady work that Angelinos have done over the last three decades to better each other is what we bear witness to today.
Lee: In a way, these efforts mark a key wish from Rodney King himself just a few days into the riots.
Rodney King: People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?
Lora King: And I thought was pretty heroic considering he should have been bitter. He should have been upset. But he chose to speak from his heart.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. As we mark the 30th anniversary of the L.A. Uprisings, I sat down with Rodney King's daughter, Lora King. We talked about her father's legacy, life after the riots, and how she strives to live by her father's words today. Lora king was only seven years old when her father, Rodney King, was violently beaten by four police officers. But before that horrible night, before Rodney King's name was etched into history, he was just Lora's dad.
L. King: My dad was a super, super hard worker. He always worked in construction. And he was really always the hardest working person everywhere he ever worked.
Lee: And what are your favorite memories of your father growin' up?
L. King: I'd have to say-- him bein' spontaneous. Like, "Okay, guys, we're goin' skiin' in the morning." And we'd be like, "What the heck is he talkin' about?" (LAUGH) And literally he would wake up at the crack of dawn and we would go, like, no equipment. And he'd just buy everything while we're there.
And we're like, "Oh, my gosh." He was very fearless. So it was like the way that he motivated us, he talked to us like we were boys. He didn't talk to us like we were girls. So I'd have to say it very much conditioned me to the world we live in today. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I wouldn't. I wouldn't be the woman I am today (LAUGH) had it not been for the way that he was with us.
Lee: Lora had a pretty normal life until it wasn't.
L. King: You know, I was watchin' TV like the rest of the world. And I saw it on the TV. And I thought to myself, "Whoever this person is, they're definitely not gonna live through this." And then I noticed my family's reaction and I heard the name. And then I was like, "That can't be a coincidence." And then it hit me that that was my dad. And I didn't know how to feel. Like, I was very much paralyzed. I felt paralyzed. Like, I didn't know what to do.
Lee: And so how in that moment your family is responding a certain way. And you're just a little girl. What did they tell you about what was goin' on? You kind of knew it. But, like, how did y'all engage with each other? I mean, this was a tough moment obviously for your family.
L. King: You know what? It's crazy. We didn't. 'Cause they were still extremely distraught, you know? So it was just like I had to, like, sit there and, like, watch their reaction. I just remember feeling hopeless. Like, it's not like I can pick up the phone and call him. And I knew for sure that he was dead. Like, watchin' that, I didn't think that anybody could live through that. So that was another thing that was, like, just messin' me up mentally.
Lee: Lora and her family didn't see her father for almost five days. When the family finally got to visit him, Lora remembers seeing her dad in a wheelchair with a broken leg, cuts and bruises all over his body and a badly damaged eye. She says his face was swollen and unrecognizable.
L. King: And everyone was goin' and huggin' him. And I didn't go because I was scared. He looked totally different, you know? And the only reason I knew it was him from his voice and his smile. I was like, "Okay." Otherwise I was like, "Oh, you know."
Lee: It's not my daddy, right?
L. King: Yeah.
Lee: With the video as fuel, Rodney King's beating quickly became one of the biggest news stories in the country. The officers had claimed in their initial report that King had suffered minor cuts and bruises. But the video and his injuries told the truth.
R. King: I'm glad I'm not dead, that's all. 'Cause, you know, they could have very easily killed me when they threw me in the car.
Lee: But even after her dad came home and his bones healed, Lora says there was something inside of him that was still broken.
L. King: He was in pain all the time. You can tell, emotionally, physically. You know, a lot of people don't know, but he had permanent brain damage. So that comes with a lot, meaning you can be in mid-sentence and, like, forget what you were saying.
And sometimes he'd be embarrassed about it. And you could tell. Like, and he'd tried to keep up. But then he's like, "Huh?" And then it'll catch on. And it's like, "Okay." It just used to make me upset because it's like that's out of your control. You know, it's somethin' that you can never recover from. And he wasn't given the proper help. And I think that we failed him in a sense. But I think considering, you know, the hand he was dealt in life, I think he handled it the best way he could.
Lee: The beating also added to the growing pressure on the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Daryl Gates. Gates was a divisive figure. He had already been under fire for racist policing practices. And ten years earlier people protested after he told the L.A. Times that the reason more Black people were hurt and dying in police choke holds was that Black people's veins and arteries, quote, "do not open up as fast as they do in normal people."
The video proof of the officers beating Lora's dad triggered a national debate on police brutality. The four officers in the tape were arrested and charged 12 days later with assault and excessive use of force. But in a controversial move, their trial took place outside of L.A. County. And they faced a nearly all-white jury. Almost a year after they beat Rodney King, all four officers were acquitted. Do you remember, like, the moment you found out no one would be facing any kind of justice for beating your father?
L. King: I do. I do remember. I was over the trial. 'Cause I was, like, you know, we couldn't escape it. Sometimes people shield things from kids. But this particular incident, no one shielded anything from their kids because this was a first for everybody.
So everybody was watchin' this, every house you went in. It wasn't like you can go away. Like, "Let me go to Aunt Jubie's house. She's not watchin' it." No, everybody was watchin' it. So you were forced to watch it. That particular day, my sister and myself were like, "Let's go to the store. Let's go get some candy."
And we had just moved to South Central, 55th and Western, right, shortly before the riot. So my sister and myself were goin' to the liquor store. And on our way, we noticed the smoke. And by the time we got there, well, there was no liquor store. There were people chanting. So we ran back home. And by then, you know, my family was watchin' the news. And I realized what had happened based off of the acquittal of the officers.
Lee: On the third day of the riots, your father said, "You know, can we all get along?"
R. King: People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?
Lee: And so see it in his face that he really meant that, like, he had seen enough of it. Do you remember when you first saw him say that or you first heard him say those words?
L. King: I do. And I thought that was pretty heroic considering he should have been bitter. He should have been upset. But he chose to speak from his heart. I thought that was pretty amazing. And I still think that was pretty amazing, still to this day.
Lee: How did you feel in that moment? Did you feel like you understood? Or were you still, like, in the middle? How'd you feel?
L. King: I think that particular day, I was confused. I was confused still of the verdict. It took me days to process that. And I still have never processed it. And I'm 38 now. It still doesn't make sense. I just knew for sure along with everybody else. I mean, it's obvious. We had never seen anything videotaped. I think that that was the first actual event of police brutality that was world-widely recognized.
Lee: Lora says she understands the outrage over the riots. But sometimes she feels like the riots overshadow what happened to her father and so many others.
L. King: And it's often referred to as, "This is a state of emergency." You know, they sent troops down. They sent all this stuff. But why not have that same energy as to what happened in the first tape as to a man bein' beaten damn near to death, as George Floyd bein' murdered?
You know, it is sad that people's stuff is being burned down. It is sad. But yet, a Black man's life is not a state of emergency? And I'd say the same thing if he was white and the tables were turned. I would feel the same way. But because I am Black, I am affected directly by it.
Lee: LAPD chief, Daryl Gates, was forced to retire in the wake of the riots. And in 1993 an independent report commissioned by the mayor found that there was a significant number of officers who repeatedly used excessive force. That same year, the Justice Department brought a new trial against the four officers alleging they had violated Rodney King's civil rights.
This time a jury found two of the officers guilty, one for using unreasonable force, and the other for failing to stop an unlawful assault. But none of that could give Lora her dad back. What was it like tryin' to be close to your dad after that?
L. King: It was hard. You know, it was hard. And I purposely never talked about the incident. I never talked about the riots. I never talked about things that other people always talked about because he had to deal with that all the time. So I just wanted to talk about things that were happy or things that were beneficial. I think the first time that I can remember that we talked about it was on the Dr. Drew show when he was in Celebrity Rehab.
Lee: In 2008, King opened up about his struggles with addiction on VH1's Celebrity Rehab. The reality show featured groups of famous people seeking help for drug and alcohol issues.
R. King: My oldest daughter, you know, she knows how I get when I'm drinkin' sometimes. And then I don't like havin' my kids around me or them seein' me like that. You know what I'm sayin'? 'Cause it hurt me to see my dad like that. And I don't want them to feel that same hurt that I felt.
Archival Recording: You get that?
Archival Recording: I understand.
Archival Recording: So he hides out. He avoids. He doesn't want--
Archival Recording: But I know, you know? It's not like I don't know. But every time I've seen you, you know that I'm here for you, every time you've ever seen me. If you're feelin' weak, call us. That's what we're here for, you know?
R. King: And I apologize to you guys, you know, for takin' so much time, you know, away from you. You know, I apologize.
L. King: One of the things that he said that he thought that my sisters and myself was embarrassed of him. And that kinda threw me for a loop. 'Cause I was like, "I've never been embarrassed." There's nothin' to be embarrassed about. Because I know you as a human being. And I saw the way you still handle life.
To me, as Rick Ross says, "That's different than rap." Because I wouldn't be able to do it. And again, he's not perfect. Some days he did have those days where he tapped out and did things he doesn't have. So I think it's hard. I think it was realistically hard for him.
Lee: But throughout his life, Rodney King advocated for peace, tried to give back to the community when he could. And two decades later, he even told CNN he forgave the officers.
R. King: Yes. I have forgiven 'em. Because I've been forgiven many times, you know? And I've done some things that wasn't pleasant in my lifetime. And I have been forgiven for that.
Lee: Lora says her dad worked at her uncle's construction business when he could at least. But his pain often prevented him from staying on the job. Rodney King died by drowning in 2012. He was just 47 years old. Ten years later, Lora is still processing her grief.
L. King: I can't even look at my dad's picture for longer than five seconds. Like, I have to turn it over. I can't see him walking, talking--
L. King: --like, engagin' in anything. I can't. Like, this year will be ten years. And I've watched three interviews. And it was bad reactions. Like, I'd be just crying, crying. And I have to watch 'em by myself 'cause I don't want to make anybody else feel uncomfortable.
But, you know, I think this year I'm getting closer to feeling better. I don't think I would ever heal properly because, again, it's somethin' that's very random, right? So it could show. Every time a incident happens, they show something else, and then they show my dad.
So it's like, "Ouch, I can't really, you know?" But that's one of the reasons why I do everything that I do within the inner city and community help, because it helps me. It helps me so much with grieving. It always helps to help someone else when you're goin' through something.
And the killer part is, no one knows what you're goin' through. And my dad often did that too. You know, there's been times where he went to high schools in Pasadena, California, Altedena, California. And he paid for kids' uniforms that their parents couldn't afford. He put money into the park that he was raised in to save the park, even though he was still struggling.
Lee: So you're a mother yourself. How has all this shaped your parenting? 'Cause in some ways it's like the children are so precious 'cause we realize that life is so precious. But also you're dealing with that trauma and the weight of that. How has it shaped your parenthood?
L. King: I'd say the most amazing part of the whole thing is my daughter, she was five when my dad passed away. But I shielded her from the media and everything of that nature. Because I always just wanted her to develop her own relationship. And that's what happened.
She literally developed her own relationship. Like, she knew him as her grandpa. Sit down on the floor, you know, do arts and craft, make bracelets, you know, beads. He gave her her first, what is that, Vtech computer, played with her. And then after he died, I was attempting to watch the Oprah segment.
And I was like, of course, boo-hooin'. And she came up. "What are you cryin' for?" So she looked up at the TV. And she's like, "That looked like Grandpa. But it doesn't. Who is that man?" And of course, I couldn't answer her. 'Cause I was, like, trying to get it together.
And then she seen the video. It didn't make sense to her. She's like, "Wait. You know, huh?" And then she seen the officers. And she's like, "Well, who are they?" So I had to explain that whole thing to her. And that was really hard. That was really tough.
'Cause she didn't understand. She's like, "Wait, so Grandpa's on TV. So does that mean he's a celebrity? Wait, what do you mean?" So as the years went on, she would come to me with, like, little information which she was doin' her own research. (LAUGH)
She had a project due a few weeks ago that she did on him. And it was pretty impressive from her point of view, and then from her worldly point of view, and her child-like point of view. And she's in ninth grade now. I was pretty impressed. Yeah, so my son, he's two. And I'm sad that he never got to meet my dad. But he reminds me of my dad. 'Cause he's, like, full of energy. (LAUGH) So I'm happy because my dad always wanted a boy. And he never had one. So now he has one. (LAUGH)
Lee: When we come back, Lora King talks about her work with the Rodney King Foundation on behalf of her late father. Stick with us.
Lee: Lora King has always loved giving back to the community. Before he died, her father often told her that she should start a non-profit and make helping people her full-time job.
L. King: I worked in Glendale, California, for ten plus years at an accounting firm doing administrative work. And I would go to Skid Row twice a month to feed the homeless. And I would make sack lunches. I would put somethin' sweet in there. I would put a soda. I would put juice. I would put fruit, yogurt.
And he would get so upset at me. Like, "Why are you spending your own money doin' this? Don't do that. Start a foundation." And I was like, "No, I'm not interested. And I don't want to do all that. I don't want to do all that paperwork. I just don't want to do it."
So he would get so mad. And after he passed, I just was so like, "I need something to express my feelings." So I was like, "Duh, start a foundation." And I started it two months later. And then I just didn't finish. I stopped everything 'cause I went through, like, a really hard state of depression for several years. And I thought to myself. I said, "Okay, so either you're gonna spiral down on your emotion, or you're gonna use that same pain and help someone else and continue to do what you're doin'."
Lee: So in 2016, Lora founded the Rodney King Foundation to carry on her father's legacy and to help the community. The foundation provides people with mental health resources and gives out shoes, hot meals, and household items to those in need. Lora also speaks with kids at youth centers and schools about self-esteem and peer pressure in the age of social media.
And she works with the LAPD to build bridges between the police and the Black community. Decades after her father's beating and the riots, Lora has tried to keep moving forward. She knows that's what her dad would have wanted. But sometimes it's just really difficult, especially when videos of police violence keep showing up in the news.
L. King: It brings back memories. And it's sad because I think the only difference is clearer videos, clearer phones. But we're still seein' it. And there's no repercussion as to what would happen. Like, with George Floyd, for example, it kinda hurt my heart again.
Because his body language let me know that he's done this, you know, which lets me know this is normal behavior. And George was literally begging for his life, politely begging for his life. And it was like no big deal. That bothered me a lot. It still bothers me. And I was only able to watch that video one day. And I had to break it up in segments.
Lee: Lora felt an immediate kinship with George Floyd's family just like she did with the family of Eric Garner. Just this past February, Lora finally got to meet Bridgett Floyd, George Floyd's sister, in person. They toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture with their kids.
L. King: It's like a instant trauma-bonding experience. It's a hurtful feeling that's undescribable. But only them and I can understand and relate, you know? I was so honored to meet Bridgett in person. We've had Zoom meetings. But I was so honored to spend the day with her in Washington, just to hug her, actually touch her.
And it's undescribable, the same with Eric Garner's daughter. I've never met her in person. But we've developed an amazing friendship. And it's like sisterhoodship. And it's sad that it's a automatic, "look out for each other." But it's survival mode, trauma bonding. And it's somethin' that I don't wish upon anybody.
Lee: Yeah. Well, how do you find the light, the strength, the will, desire to push through when you have all this pressure from everyone, everybody got somethin' to say? "You should be doin' this." (LAUGH) And you see it on TV, and reporters are calling you askin' to talk to you all the time. (LAUGH) How do you find the fortitude to push forward?
L. King: You know what? I often think about our ancestors. And I say, "They were given much less than what we have to cope with the world." And they still pushed on. They were given not reliable shoes. And they still walked hundreds of miles. At one point in time, they didn't even speak English. So they had to communicate without communicating. And they still pushed forward. So who am I not to push forward? You know, rest when needed, but keep going.
Lee: That inner strength is why this past week Lora felt it was important to be a part of some of the events commemorating the 30 years since the L.A. riots. The current mayor of L.A. spoke at several events Lora attended. There were also activists continuing to push for peace and even some home town celebrities.
L. King: Montell Jordan who's from South Central L.A., he came. And he stayed the entire time. And he performed. And it was amazing. I didn't know he was that tall. I had no idea he was 6'8". (LAUGH) I mean, I had no idea.
Lee: Well, you clearly didn't listen to the song. 'Cause he says it in the songs. So you clearly wasn't payin' attention to the song.
L. King: No, I'd just be singing along obviously gettin'--
Lee: "All they said was 6'8" he stood." (LAUGH)
L. King: Right, right. You know what? And you know that's the "old school" goin' through. So I didn't know if he was referencin' the "old school" song literally. (LAUGH) I was, what, in fifth grade when that song came out.
L. King: Right, so. (LAUGH) But it was just cool. You know, it was cool to see everybody genuinely gettin' along. And there was lots of people there. There was a younger generation there too. And the older people was really pushing for peace. Those events back-to-back-to-back, those were, like, very, very memorable. I think that that was a big difference. I do.
Lee: How do you think your father changed America?
L. King: I think he took the blinders off to America. I think he allowed people to feel what it's like. Because they didn't feel it at that moment. But fast forward to George Floyd, they felt it. Because more people are now really engagin' in different racial relationships.
You know, most people now know a Black friend or they have a Black friend. They love a Black person. I think that it definitely woke people up differently. Because even if you were sleeping back then (UNINTEL), but then it's still happening. And it's like, "Wow." They're able to look back like, "Damn, I wonder what he really went through." You know, "I wonder. Wow." It's like a lot of questions now to people like, "Well, what if it happens again?"
Lee: And as you stand on your father's legacy 30 years later knowing all you've been through and knowin' how things have changed in this country with your family, with yourself, your foundation, what your hopes movin' forward for the next 30 years? What are your biggest hopes? You know, are we gettin' any closer to your father's, "Can we all get along"?
L. King: I hope one day we can look back on this and laugh at how ignorant we were. Like, it was very simple, it's easy math. How are we not getting this? You know, it's like we can all use our pain. And the pandemic I think is teachin' and taught people that we're all goin' through something really hard, really deep. And yet we still have to press on. So have the domino effect on the world and help somebody else's life. Help someone else's day be better. 'Cause everybody's goin' through something.
Lee: This week NBC and MSNBC are celebrating other people like Lora, people that made a positive impact on their community and who can teach us what it means to heal. For more on this, you can check out nbcnews.com and watch NBC's prime-time special, Inspiring America this weekend.
Inspiring America airs Saturday, May 7th, on NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo. Or you can catch it on demand on Peacock starting Sunday. And for more Into America follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod. Or tweet me using my full name. That's @trymainelee.
And of course feel free to write us using the email firstname.lastname@example.org. That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I.com. Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.