The true story of the riot is more disquieting. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it began in one of South Central's better-off neighborhoods. Avenging Rodney King was only superficially present in the minds of those who started the riot at the now infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues. And the young men who nearly killed Reginald Denny were distinguished neither by their notoriety as thugs (as some conservatives would have it) nor by their militancy (as some liberals suggest).
A richer explanation of the riot's genesis must extend beyond the usual suspects. Neighborhood loyalties and simple greed motivated the mob as much as the desire to right a warped system of justice. And a massive riot might not have occurred at all were it not for a Keystone Kops performance by the LAPD. Liquor played a little-noticed role throughout the disaster, from King's arrest to the attacks at Florence and Normandie to the targets of the looters (story, Page 57). Last, and most sad, blacks attacked Anglos and Hispanics because of their skin color. Thankfully, numerous black bystanders dissented from that racial litmus test, coming to the rescue of the victims.v The popular understanding of how the riot began is based on the much replayed television clip of one incident, the beating of Denny. Once seen, the gruesome footage is indelible. Even so, it actually understates the reign of terror that prevailed at Florence and Normandie. U.S. News has reconstructed a fuller picture of how this epic riot started by interviewing residents, businessmen, police officers, reporters and photographers who were present at ground zero and by reviewing court records, police radio transmissions and amateur videotapes taken on the ground during the violence.
Collectively, they show how several dozen victims were assaulted and robbed. Sometimes, the perpetrators raged as they attacked passing motorists and pedestrians. Yet just as often they cheered, laughed and even danced. Their unadulterated language is profane and occasionally chilling. But as the opening of the divisive Denny trial looms this summer, a candid reassessment of the outbreak may assist officials in preventing future disturbances and help Americans understand just what it means to grow up in South Central Los Angeles.
At first glance, the area around Florence and Normandie seems an unlikely site to start a riot. There are virtually no high-rises or housing projects, the streets are wide and uncluttered and the vast majority of blocks consist of single-level, owner-occupied homes with neat lawns and trim hedges. Families—about 3 in 4 are black—hold weekend barbecues, friends pull up chairs to play outdoor games of dominoes and kids race around on 12-speed bikes. In the census tract that was home to Reginald Denny's attackers, 1 in 6 black households made more than $50,000 in 1990, and the majority of black males work. By contrast, in South Central as a whole, more than half of all residents age 16 and over don't hold jobs.
Ironically, the comparative success of the Florence and Normandie neighborhood may have made it a candidate for havoc. After the riots of the 1960s, sociologists found that neighborhoods characterized by "relative deprivation" were more often riot flash points than were the worst slums. Once some residents start seeing neighbors achieve upward mobility, expectations can get both raised and dashed. During the 1980s, the area around Florence and Normandie improved in economic terms: The poverty rate dropped from 33 percent to 21 percent, and even the proportion of households headed by single mothers dipped. Covetousness, more than rage, filled the streets. One example: The 1991 homicide rate in this census tract was not much above that of the average U.S. community; the robbery rate was nearly four times the national average.
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.