Los Angeles and Rodney King 20 Years Later: Both Better, Not Perfect, But Better

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Matt Sayles / AP

Rodney King poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on April 13, 2012.

CNN today reported that Rodney King, the man whose beating at the hands of LAPD officers in 1992 triggered weeks of rioting in Los Angeles, was found dead in a swimming pool, at age 47. TIME's Madison Gray had interviewed King just two months ago, recording his impressions of how America had changed in the two decades since he was at the center of a national storm.

For Rodney King, it's all about the next generation, about moving forward and not what happened 20 years ago, to him or to Los Angeles, or even what he or the city has been through since.

Two decades ago he watched as the most violent episode of social unrest in U.S. history unfolded before his eyes all because the four policemen accused of delivering a vicious beating to him a year before in a traffic stop were acquitted. But he and others who lived the Los Angeles Riot of 1992 say the city has managed to move on and now faces challenges different from the dense racial tension that divided blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians in those days.

"It's slowly getting better, but it is getting better," he told TIME between appearances to promote his new book The Riot Within. "I can tell. It's been so bad so long, it's hard for people to see the difference. Speaking for myself I see the difference in police relations especially in Los Angeles and in other parts of the U.S. too."

King, 47, says he is trying his best to keep a positive outlook even though he's had to live in the shadow of the beating he took from the four cops in 1991 that fueled already heated racial tensions in Southern California, particularly between African Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department. The footage was shown so often on TV and over cable news that it was the equivalent of the most viral of videos today.

Nevertheless, King insists he's doing better than he was in the tumultuous year between the incident itself and the riot it spawned. He is happy, he says, because through the book, he is finally able to let the world know what happened from his perspective.

"The better part already started when I started writing my book," he explained. "I waited 20 years, including two years writing this and I'm able to tell my story, I call that better in my life." The title of the book refers to his personal struggles as well as the urban unrest that centered around him. "Getting past the beating, making it through that alive means better to me."

To be sure, King is still pained by the incident — and his life since has not been easy. He has had several run ins with the law, and has battled depression, alcohol and drug abuse, most famously with a stint on VH1's Celebrity Rehab in 2008. All this came before the healing he says he is undergoing now. "It's a good time to be in this black skin now," he says. "I wouldn't want to be in black skin, 30, 40, 50 years ago. I wouldn't want to undergo what they went through." But he says, he'd change very little of his life experience, if anything.

"I wouldn't change much," he said. "I think it exposed the LAPD for what it was, and it exposed some of the courts and brought attention to people's minds to what was so unfair. Things change when people see things going crazy."

In the same way, Los Angeles seems to have turned a corner in the years since the riot. The uprising killed 55 people, destroyed 1,573 businesses and cost $1 billion in the initial three days, eclipsing the damage done in the Watts Riot of 1965. And like Watts, the hardest hit area was South Central, home to much of the city's African American population. But since then, the racial tension has dissipated, replaced instead by nervousness about California's fragile economy. Serious violent crimes are down 7.3% in 2011 from 2010, property crime was down 5.5%, and gang crime was down 15.2%, both in the same period, according to figures released by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, continuing a decade-long trend. These figures mark a serious turnaround from the crack epidemic days of the 1980s and 1990s.

There is one other important transformation. In 1992, 60% of the LAPD was white, but now it is 60% minority.

John Hope Bryant, an activist and entrepreneur, whom TIME spoke to on the 15th anniversary of the riot and again for this story, says that change came to Los Angeles not so much because of the intervention of government, but because Angelenos were left to their own devices. "The tension was so tight 20 years ago you could cut it with a knife," says Bryant, whose Operation HOPE was among many community groups to rise in response to the riot. It is one of the few still operating. "We were forced to band together. It forced us to save ourselves and do it when you have 10 percent of the resources you need to save your community."

Bryant says a cadre of local clergy, investors, developers and even people who were not directly connected with the area came together to find solutions once they discovered the federal government's help would only go but so far. "We've been fishing in the wrong hole for 20 years," he says. "We were relying on an old model of government intervention at the federal level to right all wrongs. The recovery needed $10 billion, [former baseball commissioner] Peter Ueberroth [who was in charge of the civic group Rebuild L.A. after the riot], delivered $1 billion. But we needed a federal government response for safety, schools, road repair, that didn't happen. The community survived in spite of all that.

"The billions in private investment yielded improvements in retail, residential, and financial amenities that cleared away the burned out hulks of buildings. "Every commercial corner was rebuilt," Bryant says, noting developments like Chesterfield Square shopping plaza, the L.A. Urban League/Toyota Automotive training center and developments in Crenshaw District, and throughout many other parts of South Central. "It looks like some upscale Brentwood area. We've almost succeeded in spite of ourselves."

But that doesn't mean the areas hit hardest by the riot are phoenixes rising from the ashes, either. The recession has hit the city hard. Unemployment was 13.3% in February, 2012. More than 12,000 homes were in foreclosure in March, according to RealtyTrac. The graduation rate, according to most recent Los Angeles Unified School District statistics is 56%, well below the national average of 75%, meaning jobs in California's increasingly technological and skilled trades-based economy are less accessible to those without at least a high school diploma.

A study done by Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles reflects the views of citizens a generation after the riot. They are not all positive. According to the survey, 44% of those questioned feel that L.A. is going in the wrong direction overall, but 58% believe racial and ethnic relations were going "somewhat well." Only about 15% felt another riot was likely, as opposed to 26% in 1997.

"The greatest finding that our survey has is while people don't think the city is going in the right direction, Angelenos aren't as pessimistic about the city as they were 20 years ago," says Fernando Guerra, director of the LMU Center, who noted that a recession and a poor housing market also existed in 1992, at the time of the riot. "Angelenos are de-linking their pessimism to crime and race relations. They are actually optimistic about that, and think it makes the city more livable."

King, is one of the people who feels this way, even though he has long since left Los Angeles proper to settle in Rialto, 50 miles away from the epicenter of the riot. To his famous question, "Can we all get along?" he now feels there is a positive answer. "There was a lot of good that came out of it, in that era it didn't feel like it because you're living it," he chuckles lightly, even noting that having a black president may have been indirectly made possible by what happened. "I can't tell you what the future holds," he says. "I can tell you how I would like it: to be peaceful and everyone getting along. Hopefully I can leave something positive here and make it better for the next generation, that's what it's all about."