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.
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.