The last time I saw Rodney King was in a small courtroom in Fontana, Calif., east of L.A. It was seven years after the riot that correctly bears his name.
He was wearing shoes that looked like Bruno Magli and a suit made of fine cloth, the kind that drapes just so. He still had money left over from his $3.8 million settlement.
King made periodic appearances in San Bernardino County courts for such charges as DUI, domestic violence and failure to pay child support. I don’t remember what charge he was facing the last time I saw him, but it was a routine court appearance – the kind a defense attorney can handle in a few minutes without the defendant present.
“I guess he wanted to be on TV again,” a bailiff said to me.
King had a personable demeanor at these kinds of appearances. He didn’t mind cameras on him, but his attorney always hovered nearby and screened questions.
I later visited the Fontana cul de sac where King then lived in a two-story house in the shadows of the California Speedway. On race days, he and the neighbors could probably hear the NASCAR crowds and the engines.
Nobody answered the door at King’s home. At the house next to his a woman who appeared to be Hispanic was in a side yard using a pit bull to help round up a flock of chickens. She knew nothing about her neighbor except that he was quiet.
Across the way, several kids – who looked to be Hispanic and Anglo – played in a front yard. When I asked them if they knew Rodney King, one of them asked, “Is he black?”
As I chatted with them, a woman came out of the house and joined the conversation.
“He’s a celebrity, isn’t he? … He gave us a CD.”
She went back inside and returned with a hip-hop CD by Rodney King. The woman couldn’t offer an opinion on it, and I got the impression that she hadn’t listened to it.
Seven years out from the L.A. riots, and King had settled in Fontana, once home to the KKK and a chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Had he been home, I would have asked him if he had ever heard of O’Day Short.
In 1945 Short, a black civil rights activist in L.A., responded to an ad in a black newspaper offering “sunny, fruitful lots in the Fontana area.”
The 1940’s were a boom time in Fontana. While the KKK and the Hell’s Angels represented its wild side, the city also had a huge Kaiser Steel Mill with a labor union that enjoyed benefits considered progressive for the time (e.g., a gains sharing plan and organized leisure activities for steelworkers). Fontana’s Kaiser Steel would eventually have an international reputation for advanced steelmaking.
“For hundreds of Dustbowl refugees … Kaiser Steel was the happy ending to the Grapes of Wrath,” wrote Mike Davis in his excellent book about Los Angeles, “City of Quartz,” published just before the riot.
Short bought a place towards central Fontana – not on the north side where blacks had established a community. He was soon visited by vigilantes, presumably Klansmen, and warned to move his family. He reported the threats to the FBI, the county sheriff and the black press. The Fontana Chamber of Commerce offered to buy him out. He declined.
On Dec. 16, 1945 Short’s house burst into flame. Short, his wife, and their two small children – each of them on fire – ran from the home. His wife and children died, while Short held on for two weeks. He died after being told his family had burned to death.
Local authorities ruled the blaze was of unknown origin, but an arson expert hired by the NAACP found evidence the home had been soaked in quantities of coal oil to produce an explosion.
As Davis noted in his book, the NAACP was occupied with other battles in L.A. The painful deaths of O’Day Short and his family were forgotten.
What would O’Day Short have done had he survived and been offered $3.8 million for the injustice he suffered?
He probably wouldn’t have snorted it up his nose, smoked it or drank it away, and then climbed behind the wheel of car, endangering anyone who came his way. That’s pretty much what King was doing seven years out from the riots.
Now 20 years out, that’s what he has continued to do. In an interview with the L.A. Times, King said he long ago stopped keeping track of his arrests for DUI and domestic assault – 11 or 12, he thinks. (At the time of his 1991 beating, he had gotten out of jail for robbing a market and attacking the owner with a tire iron.)
His latest arrest was last summer when he was driving his 1994 Mitsubishi Eclipse and nearly hit another car, according to the L.A. Times. Unlike the traffic stop on March 3, 1991 when he resisted arrested, King was compliant.
Tests showed he had alcohol and traces of marijuana in his blood. (He has a medical marijuana license.) King pleaded guilty to “wet reckless” driving.
The L.A. Times described him now as 47 years old, jobless and virtually broke: “Gone is the settlement money he got after suing the city for violating his civil rights. All $3.8 million of it.”
King received an advance “less than six figures, he says, but significant nonetheless” for a book based on his story that goes on sale May 1.
He now lives in Rialto, the town next door to Fontana. King complains that he had to cover the holes in his fence because his neighbors wanted to look at him. That’s hard to believe considering that 13 years ago his neighbors barely seemed curious about him.
King sees himself as another Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Obama, he wouldn’t have been in office without what happened to me and a lot of black people before me,” he told the L.A. Times.
King believes his beating has made the world a better place. If that’s the case, he must think that the NASCAR track he lived next to in Fontana is an improvement over the Kaiser Steel Mill it replaced.
Fontana became a “junkyard of dreams” as Davis described it in his book. Kaiser Steel declined and fell, the mill was dismantled and sold to the Japanese. Fontana, Rialto and other working-class towns in Southern California have been reduced to commuter communities that occasionally make the news for their homegrown drug manufacturing and gangs.
King — Rialto’s most famous resident — told the Associated Press he has entered the easy part of his life now.
“America’s been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all,” he said.
King has reaped undeserved reparations.
It’s the O’Day Shorts who really paid the price.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons