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Years after the riots in his name, Rodney King trying to get along

He is still recognizable, though he has walked with a limp since he lost control of his car last year, crashed into a house at 100 mph and shattered his pelvis.

City detectives recognize him. They offer their hands and tell him, "Stay out of trouble, man." Fathers point him out to their children. He still means something. By virtue of his troubled life and a single decent gesture, he is embedded in the American conscience.

Rodney King, whose videotaped beating led to the riots that left 55 dead and $1-billion in property damage in Los Angeles in 1992, is living at once the American dream and the American nightmare. He is out of jail now and talking frankly for the first time about the riots, himself and the American way of life.

Dressed in a baseball cap and T-shirt, King cut a lean, handsome figure at a pasta house on Sunset Boulevard. He was polite and soft spoken, a different person altogether from the bewildered man who stood before television cameras 12 years ago trying to find the best within himself as the city burned around him.

"Can we all get along?" is what came out. It became a famous line; a simple, true philosophy. Then the flames dissipated into memories and it became the butt of late-night jokes.

King seems blind to this legacy. Even the most cynical observer had to pity him when he said that he, Rodney King, felt responsible for the riot; that he was the gas can that caused the deaths, the accelerant for the rage that engulfed Los Angeles when the white police officers were acquitted of his beating.

"I don't want to be remembered as the person who started the riots," he said. "I'd like to be remembered for the person who threw water on the whole thing. Part of the solution, you know? I want to be remembered as the person who tried to keep peace in this country, that I did my part."

After the riots, King settled with the Police Department and the city of Los Angeles for $3.8-million, but much of that money went to lawyers. The rest went toward lawsuits against those lawyers, countersuits filed by those lawyers, wrecked cars, a rap label that went bust, all-night partying. He moved into a big house in the suburbs and then into a smaller one. There's little left of the fortune besides a modest mutual fund and the memories.

But you can't relive yesterday, he said. Pity is like a narcotic. Once you commence, you cannot stop.

He now lives in Rialto, a sprawling desert suburb 50 miles east of Los Angeles. His home is a simple ranch house with sheets for curtains and a brown lawn. According to David Guzman, who is working as King's manager on various projects, most of the money is gone and he is now living off that mutual fund.

Over the years, it has been a string of jail, rehab, hangers-on and lawyers. King lives with his brother and his adult daughter, and is close to his mother and his manager. It's an insular life.

King, 39, has tried to stay out of the public eye, finding it difficult to live with the title of human punching bag. Still, he often finds himself the leading man of the police blotter. He has been arrested 11 times, for, among other things, spousal abuse, hit-and-run driving and being under the influence of PCP. He was also arrested for indecent exposure after parkgoers complained about a naked man jumping up and down on an ice chest.

"PCP really got me into a wreck," he admitted over a plate of pasta and a glass of ice water. "But I was never running through no park buck naked."

Recently released from jail after serving time in connection with the car crash, King says he has had recurring nightmares and drugs are the one reliable pacifier.

Nevertheless, he maintains that he was not high on PCP that night in 1991 when he was pulled over in his Hyundai after the police chased him through the San Fernando Valley.

Now he has written a rap song about that notorious evening, Beat Down, and with Guzman's help is shopping it to potential investors.

Among his other endeavors, King is completing a book about his life. He could use some money; he's not ashamed to admit that. After all, cashing in on your misery is as American as poker and pornography.

Have we learned to get along? King was asked. Since the riots there have been the O.J. Simpson trial and a number of sensational cases of white police officers shooting or torturing unarmed black men.

"We're working through change, but it's a slow process," he said. "Race is the biggest problem we face in this country. I don't have to explain it, do I? We all know what's going on."

Across the supper table, King seemed sincere when he said he believed that this was the greatest, most decent nation in the world.

And in this political season, as the presidential candidates and the news media relive Vietnam and argue the virtues of invading Iraq, King returned instead to the domestic problems here and now.

"There's more poor people in this country than rich," he said. "We've got to talk about that. Just imagine how much better it would have been if they took that money and built schools. Rather than spending billions and billions of dollars on killing folks, that could have gone toward a lot of things that could have benefited our kids' future."

The man whose name is synonymous with police brutality was asked about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

"That's brutality," he said, pulling his cap over his eyes. "That was cruel. But that's not what we stand for. I don't believe that's what we are. I know our past says different and it's been a struggle to get this far. But that kind of stuff takes us back."