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Profile: An icon, anxious and shy: Rodney King - As he awaits a new trial of the police who beat him, Rodney King has become a hero, a demon, and a gold mine. Phil Reeves reports

Phil Reeves
Sunday 21 February 1993 01:02 GMT

SOUGHT BY reporters, film-makers and publishing companies, Rodney King has become a celebrity. His family is already quarrelling over who controls the commercial spin-offs. His face is on T-shirts worn by black youths in the streets. His name is scrawled on the riot-charred walls of south-central Los Angeles, as if he were a black revolutionary leader.

This is not a role that he ever sought. When he learnt last April that a jury had acquitted the policemen who beat him, King, still on medication for his injuries, retreated to his bedroom and, like an abused child, repeatedly wailed: 'Why are they beating me again?' As King watched the flames of the Los Angeles riots on television in his guarded flat, his lawyer, Stephen Lerman, called a psychiatrist.

Now, King looks ahead to a second trial - it is expected to start this week after the lengthy process of jury selection - and must fear that his beating has yet to end. The four white officers, who beat him after a car chase, face charges in a federal court of violating King's civil rights. This time, King is likely to testify. In the first case, he was not called because his early accounts of the beating were contradictory and the prosecution feared that he would fly off the handle.

So Rodney King has remained little more than a face and a name, albeit a powerful one. For millions of black Americans in the inner-city ghettos he proved beyond doubt that the white establishment is still capable of extreme racism. To countless young blacks, his multiple injuries have become a heroic symbol of the abuse they suffer almost daily from the police. To whites in the dormitory communities surrounding Los Angeles, he symbolises a threat to their prosperity and comfort - a convicted felon from a criminal class that the city's police and vast army of private security guards struggle to control.

If people know little more about King, it is partly because he has remained under wraps, moving from one secret address to another. These days he lives in Pasadena, where he spends much of his time watching television under the watchful eye of his 'personal assistant', or bodyguard.

The police officers will base their defence on a claim that they knew King was a paroled criminal who, they believed, had taken PCP, a drug that is supposed to endow people with superhuman strength. Given his size - 6ft 3in and 16 stone - it is easy to depict him as an aggressive monster. But his robbery conviction suggests that he is bungling and inept, not a calculating, dangerous criminal.

It happened in November 1989, when a penniless King marched into a store in Monterey Park, in east Los Angeles. He bought a single piece of bubble gum, then produced a two-foot- long iron bar from beneath his jacket and ordered the Korean store owner, Tae Suck Baik, to open the cash register. Baik allowed him to take the cash but, when King also tried to take some cheques, he grabbed King's jacket and began clubbing him with a rod that he had picked up from the floor. King dropped the bar and tried to pull away. He struck the storekeeper only once, with a pole that he had found near by, before fleeing in his car with dollars 200.

When the Korean was asked about the episode much later, he said: 'I hit him first. If I didn't hit him, he wouldn't have hit me.' Nor did the crime suggest the quiet, polite man known to King's neighbours in Pasadena. Some found about it only after his past was brought into the spotlight following his beating; even then - despite police efforts to paint King as a violent criminal - they had trouble believing it.

Ten days after the robbery, King was arrested. He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years at a state correctional centre in Susanville, northern California. Evidently disturbed by his first taste of prison, he wrote to the judge who sent him down. The semi- literate text was later acquired by the Los Angeles Times. 'I have seriously been thinking about what happen and I think if it is possiblethat you can give me another chance, your honor. I have a good job and I have two fine kid who wish me home. Have so much at stake to lose if I don't get that chance. My job and family awaits me. So please reconsider your judgment, your honor. The sky my witness and God knows.'

The plea was ineffectual but after a year he was released on parole. Soon afterwards he found a part-time job as a labourer at the Dodgers baseball stadium near central Los Angeles. Three months later came the incident that was to change his life.

A drunken King, taking a spin in his old car with two friends through the outskirts of Los Angeles, found he was being followed by the California Highway Patrol. Fearing arrest, King accelerated, starting a high-speed chase. The Los Angeles Police Department was summoned and eventually stopped him. He was ordered to spreadeagle on the ground but did not. After 56 baton blows and kicks, and several blasts from a stun gun, he had no choice.

When a horrified world saw the amateur videotape of four white Los Angeles policemen administering the beating, the officers' guilt seemed evident. But the trial was held in a white suburban stronghold outside the city. The officers were acquitted on almost every charge and another chapter in the long history of black-white relations in America had begun.

RODNEY GLEN KING was born in 1965 in Sacramento, California's administrative capital. His family soon moved south to Pasadena, a tidy suburban community on the north-east edge of Los Angeles. His father, Ronald, worked off and on in the building industry and as a maintenance man, but drank heavily and died at the age of 42. His mother, Odessa, who had four other children, was (and still is) a passionate Jehovah's Witness.

Rodney - or, rather, Glen as he was known then - was not the brightest student to enrol at either of his two high schools, nor the most enthusiastic. His reading difficulties required special classes and he had a record of truancy. But the teachers do not remember him being involved in any serious trouble.

According to his Aunt Angela (his father's sister), Rodney was never the family's chief worry. His brothers were the badly behaved ones; if Rodney was scolded it was usually only as a hanger- on. 'He is a real gentleman, kind, quiet and shy,' his aunt said. 'He blows up every now and then but only when he is pushed to the wall.' At 18, six months before graduation, he dropped out of high school in favour of loafing around the streets.

After two relationships, which produced two children, King married an old school friend, a quiet girl called Crystal Waters, who already had two children of her own. The couple remain together, but they have had their differences. On one occasion, after the riots, they had such a furious row that Crystal dialled the emergency services. The Los Angeles Police Department, not renowned for swift response to domestic disputes, sent five squad cars to the scene. No charges were brought.

Actions such as this - and King has been stopped and released without charge several times since the beating - have added to his unease. He has become nervous of eating restaurant food unless he can see it cooked. He is aware he has enemies as well as fans.

Lerman kept him out of the public eye, allowing just one appearance, the emotional televised appeal for calm two days after the riots began. King's words - 'Can we all get along?' - were plastered across billboards in south-central Los Angeles for weeks.

After attempts to reach an out-of- court damages settlement with the Los Angeles City Council broke down, Lerman was unceremoniously dumped. (The city offered dollars 1.75m, Lerman would have accepted around dollars 5m.) This decision was encouraged by several of King's in-laws, who felt negotiations were progressing too slowly. It further widened the divisions between King's relatives and his wife's. Though his mother has stayed well away from the secular world of television cameras, film deals and publishing rights, some relatives appear far from nave about King's potential commercial value. In effect, the two sides of the family are struggling for control.

Aunt Angela is furious about Lerman's dismissal and unhappy about his decision to sign up with a small entertainment company for film and publishing rights. She already produces Rodney King T-shirts and is planning a book of her own. 'Them people out there have got their claws in him, and have really turned him against his family,' she said. 'We are all part of this mad mess, and we will always be part of it. I just don't know what these money- hungry people have got in his head.'

King's new lawyer, Milton Grimes, decided his client should come out of hiding and counter police attempts to smear him. He arranged for him to address black students at a local school. Some members of the public were furious that a convicted felon should be offered as a 'role model'. But King turned in an uncontroversial performance, urging his audience to stay in school for as long as possible and only briefly discussing his case.

There were also complaints when King gave an interview in December to KJLH (Kindness, Joy, Love and Happiness), the black Los Angeles radio station. He arrived just like any Hollywood celebrity but, when he went on air, he sounded like someone who would happily swap fame for the right to stroll into a hamburger joint unnoticed. He was a decent human being 'just like anyone else', he said, sounding confused and distracted.

Whatever the outcome of the new trial, Rodney King will never again be like anyone else. An ordinary, rather shy, man has become an icon and a money-machine for some, and a demon for others. But he will never again be anonymous or free. It is a punishment every bit as severe as the beating that turned his life upside down.

(Photograph omitted)

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