The Untold Story of the LA Riot

The prevailing view about its causes is flawed. The unsettling truth is that incompetence, alcohol, greed and hatred helped make it happen.

National Guardsmen watch a business go up in flames in South Los Angeles on April 30, 1992.

National Guardsmen watch a business go up in flames in South Los Angeles on April 30, 1992.

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Not so exotic. News accounts often portray South Central L.A. as an exotic world filled with Uzi-toting gang members, promiscuous teenage girls looking for crack and innocent children who dive for cover on bullet-riddled playgrounds. To be sure, such characters and events do exist. But day-to-day life at Florence and Normandie was far more ordinary. Young males hoping to meet girls headed to Kakawana's car wash or lingered at Art's Chili Dogs next door. A half-dozen winos hung out in the parking lot at the corner at Tom's Liquor, where they were sometimes joined by a few crack addicts who occasionally hustled tips pumping gas at the Unocal 76 station across the street. And almost anyone who was hungry was welcome on 71st Street, where several moms always seemed to cook enough to feed the entire block.

To outsiders, however, the neighborhood was far more forbidding. In particular, a significant segment of residents—especially young black men—detested cops. That antagonism had grown during the 1980s, as overwork and serious understaffing forced officers to have less contact with law-abiding residents and more encounters with an ever more violent criminal underclass, leaving many officers jaded. Then, in 1988, Chief Daryl Gates launched a controversial series of gang-member roundups. In one night, 1,000 extra-duty patrol officers rounded up 1,453 black and Latino teenagers. By the time "Operation Hammer" was over, LAPD files listed nearly half of all black males in Los Angeles ages 21 to 24 as gang members, and every neighborhood was rife with kids who told tales of dubious arrests and petty harassment.

The residents' distrust of outsiders also extended to young black males from outlying areas. Florence and Normandie was near the center of Eight Tray Gangster Crips turf, one of Los Angeles's most violent gangs. Wearing the wrong color, bearing an alien tattoo or flashing the wrong gang sign all could lead to a bullet. The 800 or so Eight Tray members fought not only with their traditional enemies, the Bloods, but with another Crips set, the Rollin' Sixties. Though news reports often painted Crips gangs as major crack distributors, most Eight Trays slept late, hung out with their "homeboys," partied with girlfriends and often imbibed fortified wine or 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. When violence did erupt it was rarely over drugs; typically, it was the same issues that preoccupied the Jets and Sharks of "West Side Story": "dissing" (showing disrespect), girls and turf.

THE SPARK

When the jury in Simi Valley acquitted four LAPD cops in the King beating, the verdict hit millions, especially African-Americans, like a sucker punch to the stomach. At the prominent First AME Church in Los Angeles, stunned black leaders wept openly after the verdicts were read at 3:10 p.m. At the grungy 77th Street LAPD station several miles away, the officers sat riveted to the TV announcement, too. Everyone felt edgy. When the cops went out on patrol, a few pedestrians screamed obscenities; others watched silently. Bart Bartholomew, a photographer on assignment for the New York Times, finally inquired of officers on the station roof: "Where should I go?" They hollered: "The liquor stores. That's where it will start."

Sure enough, at the Pay-less Liquor and Deli, three short blocks from Florence and Normandie, it did start. Right around 4 p.m., five youthful gang associates decided to make a run up to "Mr. Lee's," as the Korean-owned store was known, to get some Olde English 800. Once they arrived, however, the young men decided to steal the malt liquor, each cradling three or four of the large bottles in their arms as they headed for the door. When David Lee, son of the owner, tried to block their path, one of them smashed him in the head with a bottle. Then the others hurled a couple of bottles against the door, shattering the glass. "This is for Rodney King!" one youth yelled.

From behind the bulletproof shield at the counter, Samuel Lee, David's father, pushed the silent alarm. At 4:23, an LAPD dispatcher sent two officers to the scene, but the suspects had run away.

For the next half-hour the Florence and Normandie intersection remained eerily quiet. Jim Galipeau, a member of a gang unit at the county probation department who probably knows the Eight Trays better than any white man in L.A., stopped his car a few minutes after 5 p.m. to banter with 10 to 12 male blacks who were hanging out drinking beer near Tom's Liquor. "They didn't care about Rodney King," he recalled. "Guys like King had been beaten up for decades in these neighborhoods. They were just using the verdict as an excuse to party—they weren't getting armed and mobilized."

Yet just as Galipeau was readying to leave, Mayor Tom Bradley went on the air stating that "we will not tolerate the savage beating of our citizens by a few renegade cops." Though Bradley also appealed to Angelenos to stay calm, no one will know whether his comments helped incite a riot. But at 5:22, shortly after he finished speaking, an LAPD dispatcher reported that a group of eight black males were using baseball bats to break the car windows of passing motorists at Florence and Halldale avenues about 100 yards from Mr. Lee's store. Shouting "Rodney, Rodney," the group had attacked two whites who had driven an old Cadillac through the area and thrown rocks and beer bottles at other drivers. When officers drove up to interrogate the group of young men and two girls, they were met with a fusillade of insults. "F--- y'all," one of the men screamed. "What you gonna do, beat me?" "You sold out to the white man, Uncle Tom," another one told officer Rick Banks, who is black. After searching and handcuffing several youths, the sergeant on the scene made a fateful decision: They would arrest the kid who still had a baseball bat and let the others go. The small crowd that had gathered seemed to have quieted down and most of the white motorists whose windows had been smashed had left.

Before long, the cops were second-guessing themselves. The four cars that had been on the scene had driven only a few blocks when they heard a help call at 5:34 from another 77th unit that was being pelted with rocks and bottles at Florence and Normandie. Before five minutes had passed, 18 cop cars and some 35 officers had sped there. But the crowd was swelling, too, and eventually, more than 100 residents surrounded the police. The first face-off was about to begin—and it was the LAPD that would blink.

THE RETREAT

As residents ran to the intersection, one question mattered: Were the cops going to brutalize someone again? Two black cops had chased and caught a 16-year-old youth named Seandel Daniels, who they claimed had thrown rocks at them (a charge he later denied). Cornering Daniels in a yard, the cops passed him over a chain-link fence at 71st and Normandie and pressed him to the ground. "I can't breathe," Daniels shouted. "Don't make this another Rodney King beating," one of the black officers warned him.

While the police wrestled with Daniels and hogtied him, the crowd got more incensed. Daniels "was just a kid," people screamed. Soon, onlookers—mothers, teenage girls, older men and gang members—started bellowing curses, and a few teens threw a smattering of rocks and bottles. To the white cops, they hollered "F--- all you white men," "Get the f--- out of here" and "It's Uzi time. Cops gonna die tonight." Black cops came in for even harsher invective as "Uncle Toms" and "kiss-ass niggers."

After subduing Daniels, officers arrested two men in their late 20s, Cerman Cunningham and Mark Jackson. Both had once run with the Eight Trays, but now they were two of the more gainfully employed neighborhood men. Jackson installed car stereos in his back yard and Cunningham worked part time repairing cars over by the car wash. Their arrests, when they seemed only to be doing what everybody else was doing—threatening and taunting the police—ratcheted the fury of the crowd even higher. "Kill me, nigger, kill me. ... Why don't you just kill me?" Cunningham screamed as three white cops cuffed him. Several men in the crowd grabbed Jackson and tried to pull him back from four policemen, so the officers quickly formed a skirmish line to separate him from the crowd. Complicating matters, the cops could see that two men were standing on the fringe of the crowd, videotaping them for evidence of misconduct. Instead of jabbing with their batons to make the crowd move back, the officers stood stoically, merely asking people to step back and calm down.

A store owner and a Los Angeles Police Department officer look at the damage caused by looters on April 1992, in Los Angeles.
A store owner and a Los Angeles Police Department officer look at the damage caused by looters on April 1992, in Los Angeles.

Lt. Mike Moulin, the supervisor on the scene, had seen enough. "Anarchy was occurring before our very eyes," he said later. Once the squad cars had pulled away with the three arrestees, Moulin hollered "Let's go!" through a squad car public address system, ordering the officers to pull out to de-escalate the tension and prevent injuries. Embarrassed, the other officers walked briskly back to their cars—a few even trotted—as rocks and bottles fell around them and the crowd roared in approval. As the patrol cars pulled away, Moulin ordered his troops again to stay away from Florence and Normandie and got a one-word radioed retort from an officer: "Bullsh--."

The only white left behind in the crowd, photographer Bartholomew, realized it was time for him to scram. As he turned to walk back to his car on 71st, someone cold-cocked him with a two-by-four under his chin, shaking his whole body. "Give me the f---in' film, give me the f---in' film," a man in dreadlocks chanted to the photographer. Bartholomew pulled out a roll of film and handed it to the cheering crowd. Ahead, he saw four black males dancing on the hood and trunk of his car as though in "a joyous rage." By the time he got his car going and pulled away—amid high-fives between two of his attackers—looters had stolen thousands of dollars in equipment and a hurled rock had smashed his window and face, leaving his left cheek the size of a grapefruit.

At last, the crowd turned and started to jog the short distance to Florence and Normandie, yelling at the fleeing cop cars. One of the crowd members was 19-year-old Damian "Football" Williams, who had a special reason for being angry. Mark Jackson, whom police had just arrested, was his older brother, and some girls had called Williams a "pussy" for standing by and watching the arrest. Now, after pulling his shorts and underwear down to flash the girls and the police, the angry Williams strode jauntily with the crowd to Florence and Normandie, yelling "F--- that sh--!"

THE ACCUSED

Three men—Williams, Henry Watson and Antoine Miller—stand accused of attempting to murder Reginald Denny. The former district attorney, Ira Reiner, said the trio were "simply gangsters." Yet the Denny attack is chilling in part because it was not carried out by especially notorious gang members or violent criminals. In fact, Williams—whom a local magistrate singled out for "braining" Denny—was something of a mama's boy.

Williams's mother, Georgiana, was a devout Christian who had left the cotton fields of Mississippi to work as a nurse caring for the homebound in Los Angeles. She worked full time during the week and often toiled on weekends, somehow managing to raise not only three of her own children but also numerous foster kids. An unmistakable presence on 71st Street, Mrs. Williams kept vast vats of chili, greens or spaghetti on the stove during dinner hours for hungry neighbors and teens. When the rotund matron, broom in hand, hollered from her porch for the kids to "act right," they listened.

Damian, the baby of the family by 10 years, had many advantages over his peers in South Central. From the time he was 2 until he was in 10th grade, he attended a strict Christian academy. After Mrs. Williams's brother Alandress was brutally beaten in a robbery and moved into the Williamses' house, Damian helped tend his uncle, cleaning him up when he was incontinent and lifting him back into bed after his seizures. There was no indication that Damian bore whites a grudge: His best high-school buddy was white, and Williams was so light-skinned as a child that he sometimes wondered whether he, too, was white..

Gang time. Williams started drifting into trouble at age 16, dropping out of school because he disliked wearing a uniform, and soon joined the 71 Hustlers, a feeder gang of young teens affiliated with the Eight Trays. With his mother away at work all day and no regular male discipline in his life (he had never known his father), Williams eventually started hanging out with local Eight Tray members. He was arrested several times for auto theft, robbery and other offenses but never convicted; by Eight Tray standards, his criminal record was of the garden variety. But before long, he started growing bored with gang life, with its endless gambling, rapping and trips to Mr. Lee's for Olde English 800. Williams spoke of going back to school, and the morning of the Florence and Normandie assaults, he had interviewed for a renovation job down the street. He dreamed of bigger things, too. The night manager at Tom's Liquor knew that the 5-foot, 9-inch, 180-pound Williams had been a talented high-school running back, and he had helped Williams get a stint earlier that year with the L.A. Mustangs, a semipro team. Though Williams stopped attending practices at the end of the season, he still bragged that one day he would be in the pros and "have me a big mansion."