King became civil rights symbol but never acted the part

Saturday, March 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ His name is known across the country, and a decade after his beating he remains a symbol of police brutality and racial unrest. But it's a role Rodney King never really knew how to play.

In the years since he uttered his famous plea _ ``Can we all get along?'' _ King has seldom spoken in public, even though he has repeatedly found himself in the spotlight.

His life after the beating has been marked by run-ins with the law and squabbles with attorneys over the $3.8 million settlement in his lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles.

He flirted with a music career and started a rap label but quickly abandoned it. He earned his high school equivalency degree, went to work for his brother's construction company and practiced his surfing.

``Rodney never chose to be an icon,'' said Renford Reese, a political science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona who has counseled King and invited him to address his classes. ``He got beat one night, and all of a sudden he becomes a symbol for racial reconciliation and police reform. But he was never trained to be a change agent.''

King, now 35, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Renee L. Campbell, one of his attorneys, said the memory of what happened on March 3, 1991, still brings flashbacks and is too painful to revisit.

That night, a bystander videotaped the scene as four white Los Angeles police officers beat King, who is black, after a car chase. The events captured on the tape, shown repeatedly on television, eventually forced Police Chief Daryl Gates to resign.

When the four officers were acquitted a year later, the city erupted in riots. Two of the officers were later found guilty in federal court of violating King's civil rights.

At the time of the beating, King was a one-time Dodgers Stadium usher who had been convicted of robbery. He was on probation.

Two months after the beating, King was arrested on suspicion of trying to run down an officer after police in Hollywood allegedly saw him pick up a transvestite prostitute. No charges were filed.

He has been pulled over by police and convicted once of drunken driving. He was convicted of hit-and-run driving for an incident involving his wife and later pleaded guilty to spousal abuse in a separate incident. He is on probation until 2003.

``Rodney is an ordinary guy, he has the same kind of typical problems that everyone has, normal family problems, what have you,'' Campbell said. ``To his misfortune, because of his celebrity, whatever happens to him, be it an argument or a shouting match, it can get escalated and turned into something completely different than what it was.''

Over the years, King handed out gift certificates on Martin Luther King Day, started the rap label and explored plans for a book and a youth foundation. He lives in Pasadena, spending time with his three daughters and doing construction work. King lost about half his settlement money in disputes over legal bills.

Those who hoped he would emerge as a civil rights figure or a force behind police reform have been disappointed.

``I've thought about what an opportunity lost,'' said Milton Grimes, who was King's attorney from 1992 to 1994 and sued him over legal bills.

``Racism and police brutality was captured on a $300 video camera. We've spent millions of dollars trying to prove it exists, and here we've captured it on tape. Had it been someone more worldly, more articulate, more insightful, the public might have benefited from it.''