Well before he heard the first siren, Rodney King knew he never should have slipped that key into the ignition. They had been having so much fun, he and his buddies Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, just kicking back, sipping some inexpensive 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor at the local park as they jawed and laughed while the daylight ebbed away. Afterward, they had stood in front of Allen's mom's house trying to croon a few tunes. King wasn't much of a singer but, when he switched to rapping, his buddies felt he was almost in a groove. And then it was after midnight, and suddenly King was driving his car, flying down the highway at 80 miles per hour, the radio blaring, he and Allen singing again, and then there it was—the flashing light atop the highway patrol car bouncing off his rearview mirror, filling his car with a red light that King had learned to dread.
King knew, as he later testified, that he was drunk and that if the police caught him speeding he'd soon be back in prison for violating parole. The fact was that liquor had tempted and cursed him for years. His father, an alcoholic, died at age 42, and King himself had built up quite a tolerance for "eightballs," the street name for Olde English 800, a high-alcohol beer. That evening King had consumed enough eightballs—roughly the equivalent of a case of regular 12-ounce beers—to put his blood alcohol level at twice the legal limit. But he wanted still more: When he spotted the highway patrol car behind him around 12:40 a.m., he had just exited the freeway on his way to another liquor store. Once the chase began, he ran red lights, pushed the speedometer up to 80 mph in 35 mph speed zones and ignored the hollered pleas of his childhood friend Allen to please "pull over." By the time King finally stopped, nearly 8 miles later, a small army of cop cars had joined the chase and a Los Angeles Police Department chopper was whirring overhead.
A Los Angeles jury decided last month that nothing King did justifies his manhandling by the LAPD. But even those who testified against the police described an encounter that was complicated by King's drunkenness. They say he responded slowly or not at all to commands to lie down and place his hands above his head. He smiled and danced a little pitter-patter, waving to the helicopter; he threw a kiss and wiggled his butt at a female officer who had ordered him, at gunpoint, to lie down; finally, he heaved four male officers off his back who tried to handcuff him and seemed to shrug it off when police stunned him with a Taser. King's behavior so alarmed the arresting officers that they mistakenly assumed he was on PCP. A second Taser dart fired by Sgt. Stacey Koon failed to incapacitate the 6-foot, 3-inch, 225-pound King. Then, across the street, an amateur videotaper named George Holliday turned on his camcorder and taped the conclusion of what soon became the most infamous beating in history. George Bush later called the footage "revolting." Afterward, as King lay hogtied on the ground, the bloodied, angry victim alternately laughed and cursed into the chilly night air. "F--- you!" he screamed. "F--- you!"
The story of how the worst American riot in this century began is a little like the story of Rodney King's beating: By now it has been twisted into a series of half-truths and misconceptions. Just as King was not simply a speeding motorist who was beaten after a routine traffic stop, so, too, the analyses of the roots of the Los Angeles riot require some revision. The official version runs roughly as follows: Angry blacks, indignant over a suburban jury's decision on April 29, 1992, to acquit four LAPD cops in the King beating, started the riot by pulling white trucker Reginald Denny from the cab of his truck and then beating him brutally to avenge the King beating. The subsequent riot was bred out of decades of racism and police brutality and nourished by the enraging conditions of ghetto life: unemployment, poverty, family breakdown, gangs, drugs, welfare and Reagan-era cutbacks in aid. When it was over, more than 50 people lay dead, 2,300 had been injured and $1 billion in property had been damaged.
No one doubts that deprivation and bitterness fill many neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles or that outrage at the cops' acquittal set the stage for the riot. But there are two core premises to the official version of the riot that are wrong in some instances and exaggerated in others. The first is that the grim conditions of South Central and the surprise acquittals combined to make a riot inevitable. The second is that the Los Angeles riot was fundamentally a massive protest over social injustice. Many liberal commentators, as well as prominent black and Latino Angelenos, now insist that the riot should be referred to as a "rebellion" or an "uprising." The men accused of beating, trampling and robbing Reginald Denny have thus been dubbed the "L.A. Four"—a moniker usually reserved for political martyrs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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--!"
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."
Antoine Miller bore even less resemblance to a remorseless hoodlum. A thin, introverted 19-year-old, Miller had lived with the Williamses for seven years because his mother had struggled with a drug problem and his grandmother, in his presence, had shot and killed his grandfather during a quarrel. As a would-be gang member and "tagger" (i.e., someone who paints graffiti), Miller had spray painted his moniker, "'Twan," all over the neighborhood and had been picked up for small-time offenses like joy riding.
The only accused Denny assailant who came close to fitting the thug stereotype was 27-year-old Henry "Kiki" Watson. The 6-foot, 1-inch, 215-pound Watson had served time for holding up an armored car in 1990 and had a menacing glower that accentuated his muscular build. Even so, Watson had never joined a gang. He married after he left prison and was working two jobs to support his family when he was arrested. No one in the neighborhood considered Watson to have a violent or racist disposition; if he argued with someone it was usually over sports trivia or one of the basketball games he liked to round up. Watson, Damian Williams later told a detective, was "a gentleman."
THE FIRST VICTIMS
When the police vanished at 5:45 p.m., the angry crowd turned into an out-of-control mob. Residents started throwing rocks, bottles and bricks at passing cars, periodically pulling motorists out of their vehicles to beat and rob them. All told, at least 30 persons were eventually victimized by the throng.
There was, however, a partial method to the disorganized madness: Blacks could pass safely through the intersection. (Subsequently, a small number of black motorists, most of them fair-skinned, did have rocks thrown at their cars.) Kirk McKoy, a black photographer for the Los Angeles Times, arrived right as the crowd was running over to Florence and Normandie and soon saw that perhaps a dozen individuals in the 100-person mob were doing most of the hurling of rocks and racial slurs—hollering phrases like "F--- the white man," "Mexican motherf---er," "Asian a--hole" and "Get the f--- out of my neighborhood"—while the rest of the crowd stood by either watching passively or cheering them on. "A guy in the center of the intersection would unload a rock and then folks would follow suit," McKoy says. Later, Damian Williams boasted to the police that he was throwing rocks "like Darryl Strawberry," the all-star outfielder of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ironically, virtually all of the victims were struggling Hispanic and Asian immigrants who spoke little or no English, rather than representatives of the white establishment. The first target was a family of three Hispanics: Marisa Bejar, her husband, Francisco Aragon, and Josh, their 7-month-old baby. As Marisa drove through the intersection, their Volvo was met by rocks, bricks, a piece of wood and a metal-covered phone book, opening up a 13-stitch cut on Marisa. Her husband quickly got clobbered on his forehead, and a man leaned in and told him to give up his cash "or I'm going to kill you" as others screamed "We'll whip your ass"; the infant, meanwhile, suffered minor scratches after a youth tried to throw a large, stand-up Marlboro sign through the rear window of the car.
"Get 'em." The attacks on the innocents continued minutes later when another Hispanic family, the Vacas, drove into the intersection in a beat-up '73 Buick Regal. In a scene captured on videotape, Antoine Miller and other males threw rocks at the frightened motorists, prompting the panicked driver, Manuel Vaca, to fishtail and crash into a pickup truck. Miller, his arms stretched into the air, leapt for joy and sprinted with Williams up to the car as people screamed "Get 'em." This time a group of six males pulled Vaca, his wife and his brother from the car, beat and robbed them. Eight Tray member Anthony Brown later explained to police that he kicked at Manuel Vaca "because he was Mexican and everybody else was doin' it." After the Vacas managed to struggle away on foot, a carload of five Anglo nuns entered the intersection, driven by a sister in a habit. She, too, was immediately hit in the left arm by a brick that shattered her window.
Perhaps none of the early victims, however, was more stunned than Sylvia Castillo, a fourth-generation Mexican-American and prominent activist from South Central who had worked closely with gang members to reduce liquor stores and crack abuse in the area. As her car crawled into the intersection, bricks, cement chunks and bottles shattered the windows and a startled Castillo looked up in the rearview mirror to see a streak of blood running down her nose. Out of nowhere, a young black man leaned in the window and blurted "Bitch, you are going to die." Castillo sped away. "I knew I was outraged by the verdict," she says, "and had always struggled against racism. All I could think was: 'Why are they doing this to me?' "
THE LIQUOR SPREE
Minutes after the mob started pelting motorists, Wes Wade, the night manager of Tom's Liquor—the same man who had helped Damian Williams get his start in semipro football—padlocked the metal gate that fronted the store. But Wade's efforts to save the Korean-owned shop proved futile. Just after 6 p.m., a group of young black males smashed the padlock and gate, one of them hurling a steel light pole through the window. Blissfully unaware of history, the pole thrower sported a black-and-white T-shirt depicting Malcolm X, an ardent advocate of abstinence. Looters gleefully piled in, with the party atmosphere captured on amateur videotape: "Bring all that sh-- out," "Y'all can thank Rodney King for this" and "Go back there and get the rest—Yeah!" Above, a local news helicopter was broadcasting the looting live, advertising to residents, as owner Tom Suguki later put it, "Hey, free beer!"
Booze out. During the next hour every bottle of beer, wine and liquor in Tom's was either stolen or smashed, including the roughly 100 cases of 40-ounce malt liquor bottles and an additional 90 cases of 16-ounce malt liquor cans ordinarily stashed in the storage room. The sudden presence of gallons of free liquor plainly inflamed the violence—albeit indirectly—of a crowd that had grown to perhaps 200 persons. There is no evidence that Denny's assailants themselves were drunk, though three of them (Williams, Miller and Anthony Brown) told police they went into Tom's Liquor during the conflagration and a fourth man later picked the pocket of the unconscious Denny while holding a bottle of liquor. But many looters simply carted the wares home while others heaved liquor bottles at passing motorists. Before long, the entire intersection was covered with finely crushed shards of glass, and a significant segment of the crowd had started drinking. Pete Demetriou, a reporter for news radio station KFWB who was standing near Tom's, reports that by 6:15 p.m. "you could smell the liquor on people's breath from several feet away as they walked by. You already had anger and frustration at the intersection—and when you fueled it with alcohol it turned into insanity."
As motorists alternately sped through or made desperate U-turns, Florence and Normandie started resembling a scene out of the movie "Road Warrior." "I hate to use this term," says Roy Walker, a black state police officer who was watching the violence from his home at the corner of 71st and Normandie, but "young men and women were driving around in trucks, hollering and taking over the streets like it was a Nazi gala." Five minutes after the looters hit Tom's, a man in the mob informed a resident with a video camera that the ringleaders of the violence were "f---ing up everything white and Mexican that comes through here." The race hatred finally peaked when Larry Tarvin—the "other" white trucker—drove his small delivery truck into the intersection.
Tarvin worked for a black-owned company and was carrying medical equipment bound for Chile that doctors use to oxygenate blood during open-heart surgery. Lacking a radio, he knew nothing about the verdict. But the frail 52-year-old driver, all of 5 feet, 7 inches and 130 pounds, was halted by a hail of rocks when he stopped for a red light. The hulking Watson then helped yank and throw Tarvin from his truck like a sack of potatoes, stomped on him and delivered a soccer-style kick to his head. "Enough is enough," Tarvin pleaded. But it wasn't enough for his assailants. Another man threw a fire extinguisher at him, while others kicked him senseless, fracturing his ribs, cracking his pelvis and leaving him with an infected abscess in the nose and permanent facial scars. "Oh, yeah, yeah," one onlooker is recorded saying.
Bleeding profusely, Tarvin lay unconscious in the street for more than a minute. As he haltingly pushed himself up, a man nearby declared, "No pity for the white man. Let his white ass down. Now you know how Rodney King felt, white boy." For a moment, several bystanders looked as if they might come to Tarvin's aid, but one man yelled: "Hey—don't help his white ass!" Tarvin finally staggered back to his truck. And with the help of an African-American named Rodney (Tarvin never learned his last name), the disfigured trucker slowly pulled away at 6:46, preceded by a chorus of "White boy!" Just then, Reginald Denny drove into Florence and Normandie.
THE ATTACK ON DENNY
The white male who became the nationally televised symbol of retribution for the King beating was a simple, self-effacing man who didn't care for much besides driving a truck and hanging around his buddy's boat shop. That day, Reginald Denny had just followed his usual routine when he exited the 10 Freeway west onto Florence Avenue, hoping to avoid traffic. He was headed to the batch plant across town—where he would dump his two trailers of gravel—when he saw that something was terribly wrong up ahead.
Without power steering, Denny knew that he would never be able to turn his huge load around. Still, no one would want to steal gravel, and since Denny was driving just about the biggest rig on the highway, he figured that he could just "tiptoe across this intersection and get on down the road." When several black males motioned him to stop, he wasn't about to run them over. Immediately, rocks came whistling through his window and Antoine Miller jumped up to open the door of Denny's cab, allowing several men to yank him into the street. At first, a man kicked Denny in the belly as Henry Watson held Denny's head down with his foot. Then the man in the Malcolm X T-shirt (the liberator of Tom's Liquor) threw a 5-pound oxygenator stolen from Tarvin's truck on Denny's head, pushed Denny's head down with his foot and hit him three times in the head with a claw hammer. Somehow, Denny got up on all fours and started to rise, when Damian Williams, at point-blank range, winged a piece of concrete into Denny's right temple—knocking him unconscious for close to five minutes. The blows were so savage that they crushed pieces of Denny's skull into his brain, fractured his face in 90 to 100 spots and dislocated his left eye so that it would have dropped into his sinus cavity had surgeons not replaced a crushed bone with a piece of plastic.
His assailants, though, still weren't satisfied. Next they proceeded to demean Denny. As the 36-year-old trucker lay bleeding and senseless, Damian Williams thrust his arms upward in celebration and did a victory dance, imitating a receiver who has just beaten his defender for a touchdown and then points back at him in taunting recognition. Williams then flashed the Eight Tray Gangster Crips sign to the crowd across the street and looked up at the news helicopters and pointed out Denny. Another gang member, Anthony Brown, joined him, flashing the Eight Tray sign before spitting on Denny.
As Williams and Brown walked away, Denny lay in the street like a curiosity item. Several men darted up to throw liquor bottles at him. A man whom police identified as Lance Parker—a process server for a law firm—calmly halted his motorcycle, stepped off, pulled a shotgun from a gym bag and shot at Denny's gas tank, narrowly missing. Next, Gary Williams, a crack user who ordinarily hung out at the Unocal 76 station, sauntered over and went through the trucker's pockets, balancing a bottle of liquor in his free hand.
Finally, Denny rose to his knees, blood seeping from his head into a 1-foot pool in the street. He reached out with a trembling left hand, fumbling in the air as though he was trying to feel his way in a dark closet and beseeching the mercy of the crowd. What he got instead was the man in the Malcolm X T-shirt, who jumped across Denny, using the kneeling man's head as a stepping stone.
Somehow, Denny managed to crawl back into the cab and start his truck. Fortunately, a fellow trucker—an African-American named Bobby Green—had seen Denny on TV and came running to the intersection. Green knew how to drive Denny's truck, which requires a special license, and with the help of three other blacks, two of whom led him in a convoy, got him to a local hospital. Had Denny arrived minutes later, he would have been dead.
Only after Denny pulled away from Florence and Normandie did the first belated protest sign appear on videotape. Spray painted on a white placard, it said "Kill Gates" and "LAPD 187" (187 is the number of the California penal code section for murder). A couple of men took up the demonstration, chanting, "All we want is to kill Gates. Kill Gates. Kill Gates," while another chimed in, "Kill that little rednecked motherf---er." But Daryl Gates—and the LAPD, for that matter—were nowhere to be found. The officers of the 77th division were sitting idly at their special command post.
The plaintive radio plea of a female LAPD officer a half-hour before the Denny beating—"What the f---is going on? What are we doing here?"—effectively encapsulates the 77th division's no-show response to the mob. Senior cops in the division either directed officers to disregard emergency calls about victims at Florence and Normandie or ordered cars out of the area at least nine times during the hour preceding Reginald Denny's arrival—even though two squad cars that did barrel through the intersection managed, one at gunpoint, to rescue beaten-up motorists who were stranded within a couple of blocks of the mayhem. A half-hour after the Denny beating, as 911 calls poured in, Lieutenant Moulin and other supervisors were still advising officers to stay put because they "had squads forming" at a bus depot that was serving as the command post.
In fact, the special "command post" was a sham. It had no TV in it, so while hundreds of thousands of Americans watched the looting of Tom's Liquor and the beating of Denny live, none of the officers of the 77th did. Its few telephones were set up only to receive incoming calls. Lacking a working computer, supervisors had to track multiple emergency calls and deployments of police cars with pencil, paper and street maps. Officers stood disgusted beside their squad cars, listening with impatience to ever more urgent calls on the police radio while LAPD supervisors debated whether they had sufficient officers and riot equipment to intervene.
In the hour that followed Moulin's retreat, the LAPD officers failed to implement virtually every time-honored crowd-control tactic. They failed to take the elemental step of sealing off traffic to Florence and Normandie by cordoning off nearby streets. They failed to confront the mob with a squadron of, say, 50 officers marching in riot gear—which ordinarily will make even a rowdy crowd disperse. They had no field-jail units and buses in place—which would have enabled officers to arrest unruly crowd members and then turn them over to detectives without having to leave the scene to bring arrestees to the station. They failed to use tear gas or pepper gas to disperse the mob. They did not send their vice and narcotics cops in undercover to spy on the mob or place police snipers atop tall buildings in the area. They failed to provide police escorts for firefighters, so they could safely combat early outbreaks of arson. And they failed to secure local gun stores (one of which lost 1,150 firearms during the first night of the riot). Not until 6:43, an hour after the police retreat, did LAPD dispatchers even issue a tactical alert for south Los Angeles, which finally freed supervisors to assign emergency calls to units from other parts of the city.
AWOL brass. The 77th's lack of preparedness was exacerbated by gaps in the chain of command. In the midst of the biggest crisis of his career, Daryl Gates left police headquarters to attend a fund-raiser in posh Brentwood about 6:20 p.m., temporarily turning over command to a deputy. Meanwhile, two thirds of the LAPD's 18 patrol captains were out of commission, returning from a training seminar outside the city.
To be sure, a rapid and decisive response by the 77th at Florence and Normandie would not have prevented some kind of disturbance from evolving in Los Angeles that day; isolated incidents of blacks assaulting whites and looting of stores started popping up on a small scale at several locations in South Central about 15 minutes before Denny was beaten. Even so, the prolonged, televised absence of police at the riot's epicenter virtually invited thousands of would-be looters to believe they could steal and rampage with impunity. In fact, no riot-related fires started in Los Angeles until after the Denny beating—some four hours after the acquittals were announced—and the number and location of lootings mushroomed immediately following the attack on the trucker.
The fact that the riot could have turned out differently was illustrated at the LAPD Foothill division, the very precinct that had housed the cops who beat Rodney King. By early evening, a crowd numbering 400 people—twice the size of the mob at Florence and Normandie—had started a fire outside the station and were throwing rocks and bottles. But unlike their peers in the 77th, the Foothill cops had completed some serious riot training that taught them crowd-control techniques. They went into the crowd in formation, employed a skirmish line to push the crowd back, sensibly dropped to their knees when someone in the crowd fired a couple of shots in the air (instead of returning fire) and dispelled the crowd after arresting individuals who had started fires or thrown rocks. "It was a critical mistake not to go back in to Florence and Normandie," says Robert Vernon, the former assistant chief of the LAPD, who retired from the force just days before the riot. "You cannot have a limited riot—any more than you can have a forest fire that burns a handful of trees."
Ultimately, the same community that produced the mob at Florence and Normandie also nurtured African-American men and women with the courage to face down the crowd. In the hour following the Denny beating, one black man after another stepped forward to save the victims. James Henry left the safety of his porch to pull Raul Aguilar, a diminutive immigrant from Belize, out of harm's way after gang members beat Aguilar into a coma and let a car run over his legs; Donald Jones, an off-duty fireman, comforted and protected Sai-Choi Choi after several men ripped him from his car, beat and robbed him; John Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times abandoned his customary spectator role as a reporter to save Tam Tran, a 34-year-old Vietnamese woman who was robbed and bashed in the head with a brick; Gregory Alan-Williams told a group of men who were beating Takao Hirata senseless, "Y'all know this ain't right. Leave him alone," and pulled the badly wounded man to safety.
No one battled the tide of race hatred more tenaciously than an ex-convict and onetime pimp named Bennie Newton. When Newton, who then ran an inner-city ministry, saw the Denny beating on TV, he headed to Florence and Normandie to stop the violence. But when the reverend arrived, around 7:40, a mob of young black males was savaging Fidel Lopez, a self-employed construction worker. After stopping Lopez in his 1980 GMC pickup, they had spray painted his face black, pulled him from his truck and robbed him of $2,000 he had saved to buy construction materials. When Lopez tried to run, someone hit him on the head with a stereo speaker, and his attackers punched and kicked him into unconsciousness before dousing his pants with gasoline. Then, one of them indulged in a final act of humiliation. Damian Williams has been charged with spray painting Lopez, who ended up with his chest, penis and testicles painted black after his assailants slid down his pants and underwear. "He's black now," said a man on videotape. "He's black now."
That was too much for Newton. He stopped pleading with Lopez's assailants and threw himself over the stranger's fallen body, yelling, "Kill him and you have to kill me, too." When the attackers withdrew, Newton—clad in the white collar and black garb of a minister—stood over Lopez with a Bible in his hand and stretched his arms and cried, "Someone help this man!" Newton himself ended up taking Lopez to the hospital—and later started a fund-raising drive at his congregation to replace Lopez's money. "The simplest description that I can use to describe what I've done is the word L-O-V-E," Newton explained to a television interviewer. "It's not about being black, white, Korean or Latino."
His message got swallowed up that night. When the sun set around 7:30 p.m., the crowd at Florence and Normandie started lighting fires; before the night was over, two nearby auto repair stores, a gas station, a TV repair shop, the house of a minister and a church dining room were aflame. Around 8:30 p.m., LAPD squad cars finally returned, but the crowd had dissipated. Meanwhile, under cover of darkness, the violence was shifting from people to property, as looting and arson exploded throughout South Central. The party had begun—and greed and hate, rather than L-O-V-E, were the passwords of the night.
Anatomy of a Riot
Violence at ground zero preceded Reginald Denny's beating. Times are approximate.
- 4:20 p.m.: Several black males steal malt liquor bottles and attack David Lee, the store owner's son. The burglars flee before police arrive.
- 5:27: Police arrest one man for breaking car windows with a baseball bat and release others suspected of throwing bottles at motorists
- 5:34-5:48: Police arrest Seandel Daniels, Cerman Cunningham and Mark Jackson. Angry crowd protests. Lt. Mike Moulin orders officers out of area. Photographer Bart Bartholemew is attacked.
- 5:50: Crowd chases fleeing police to Florence and Normandie. They hurl rocks, a metal-covered phone book and a Marlboro sign at Aragon's vehicle.
- 5:55: Manuel Vaca, his wife and his brother are pulled from car, beaten and robbed
- 6:03: Looting of Tom's Liquor begins
- 6:15: While waiting for the bus, Salvador Arzate is beaten and robbed
- 6:30: Off-duty fireman Donald Jones rescues a badly beaten motorist, Sai- Choi Choi
- 6:43: Larry Tarvin is assaulted while his truck is looted
- 6:46: Trucker Reginald Denny is pulled from cab, robbed and badly beaten
- 7:16: Gregory Alan-Williams saves bloodied Takao Hirata after another would-be rescuer is beaten.
- 7:35: A building and a car are reported to be on fire. The sun has set.
- 7:42: Rev. Bennie Newton saves Fidel Lopez after he is beaten, robbed and spray-painted
- 8:30: Police return in force to Florence and Normandie.