The car full of Crips pulled into the gas station a moment after I did.
One of the Crips hopped out of big sedan he and his fellow gangsters were riding in.
He calmly walked to the driver’s side of my compact, beat-up rental car. It was a warm day, and my driver’s side window was down.
“You a newsman?” the Crip asked.
Before I could answer, the gangster reared back and punched me in the face. I hit the gas and sped away.
So began my adventure covering the L.A. Riots, which broke out 20 years ago. On April 29, 1992, large swaths of Los Angeles exploded in rage and violence after a state jury acquitted four white LAPD officers of the prolonged beating of Rodney King, a black man who had led cops on a high-speed chase. I was trying to find the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, where non-black motorists were being pulled from their cars and beaten, when I pulled into the gas station to get my bearings.
Those first hours after the verdict were just the beginning. The rioting raged for three days, leaving 54 dead, more than 2,000 injured, and more than a thousand businesses destroyed or damaged. The property damage alone would clock in at a staggering $1 billion.
It all unfolded because, the previous year, a man happened to have a video camera and a good vantage point to watch – and record – King’s beating. The video showed an unresisting King, on the ground, surrounded by cops. Some of the cops beat him with batons or kicked him. The videotape was widely aired by TV news stations before the trial of the four cops.
A videotaped beating sets the stage for an urban catastrophe
With the videotape as evidence, many people expected convictions. Not necessarily, I thought. The trial had been moved to Simi Valley, a conservative white enclave north of downtown L.A.
I grew up in L.A., and moved to Washington in 1989 to work as a reporter for The Washington Post. I knew that Los Angeles was physically beautiful, with seemingly nonstop sunshine, beaches, nearby mountains, and beautiful wooded parks. The Lakers and Dodgers were exciting, winning teams. There was the glamour of Hollywood, the wealth of Beverly Hills.
But I knew that racial and class tensions seethed just below the surface. There was a chance some of the cops would be acquitted. And if they all got off, I knew, something would happen.
I followed the trial and arranged a vacation to visit my family during a week when it looked like the trial would go to the jury. Whatever happened, I wanted to be there.
I’d just had lunch with a friend near downtown L.A. when the oldies station I had on the car radio broke in with a news flash: Each of the cops charged with beating King had been acquitted. I pulled over, made a beeline for a payphone, called the Post’s national desk and volunteered to help out on the coverage.
“Gee, do you think there’ll be trouble?” the editor asked.
“I think something will happen,” I replied.
The editor dispatched me to a downtown LAPD press conference. By the time the presser broke up, in the late afternoon, the violence was exploding at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, in a predominantly black, working-class to poor section of L.A.
After the presser, I called home to let my parents know I was working and I’d be home late. I asked my Pop what the TV news was showing. He said people were being pulled out of cars and beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. I thanked him, hustled to my car, and headed toward the intersection.
Saved by brave strangers
After my encounter with the Crips, I made my way to a side street near the ground-zero intersection. I figured it would be too dangerous to drive any closer, so I hopped out walked onto Florence Avenue, toward Normandie. I was about halfway down the block when I heard screaming in my general direction. I turned and saw a black couple, standing on their porch, yelling at me.
“You can’t be out there!” the man said.
“You need to get off the street!” the woman yelled.
For a moment, I was puzzled. I was accustomed, as a reporter, to going anywhere I wanted on the street. But I had been so focused to getting to my destination that I had developed tunnel vision. I turned toward the street and saw something out of the movie Road Warrior: Black men, and some women, were flinging bricks, rocks, and full bottles of beer at passing motorists. One man with dreadlocks waved a handgun. Across the street, a Latino man with a bloodied face staggered about. The mob had coalesced behind me. I couldn’t backtrack.
“Come up here!” the black man on the porch implored.
So I did. I hustled up onto the porch. The man’s name was James Henry, his wife was named Barbara. They had a young boy sitting in the living room, watching TV coverage of the action on the street. From the porch, we watched the mayhem unfold. A lone LAPD squad car appeared from a side street. The cop behind the wheel saw what was happening, then sped out of there.
We watched the violence unfold before our eyes until it became clear that my presence could make it dangerous for the Henrys. We all ducked into the house, and I watched the TV news while peeking out the window. On TV, I saw Reginald Denny pulled from his truck and savagely beaten, just a few yards from us. There is a reason all of the footage from the intersection of Florence and Normandie was shot from news helicopters: It was too dangerous for any reporters to be on the ground.
As twilight fell, in the worst possible time in the worst possible place, a van broke down, in front of the Henry home. A diminutive Latino man got out. Five young black men who were standing nearby rushed the motorist and pummeled him. They beat him with their fists and kicked him, then rifled his pockets and left him on the street. A speeding car ran over the man’s legs. James Henry, a big man originally from Mississippi, had had enough. Unarmed, he marched out to the street and pulled the Latino man to the sidewalk and stood by him, even though the attackers remained just a few feet away.
After nearly an hour, the five men and the rest of the mob moved on. About a half hour later, about 30 LAPD cops in riot gear appeared. The cops crouched behind cars and took cover behind buildings as they inched their way up Florence Avenue. If it wasn’t so horrible, it would have been comical.
When the cops reached James and the injured man, I hustled out to join them. I was surprised to see a cop I knew, George. When I lived in L.A., I played pickup basketball with a group of cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys and court workers at the Boyle Heights Boys and Girls Club. Now and then, a cop named George joined us.
I looked at George and asked, plaintively, “What took you guys so long?”
George replied that he and his squad had been at a station for a couple of hours, just waiting for orders.
The next 72 hours were exhilarating and terrifying.
I tuned the radio in my humble rental car to a news station and responded to wherever the action was breaking out – and it was breaking out all over the place.
Near USC, my alma mater, I saw four anxious cops in plain clothes jump out of an unmarked car, shotguns and pistols drawn, scanning the street for unseen attackers.
Korean merchants take up arms
On the second day of the rioting, I teamed up with Gary Lee, a fellow Post reporter. As we drove through Koreatown, I noticed a dozen or so SUVs, trucks, and sedans parked in a semi-circle in front of a Korean supermarket, like an urban wagon train waiting for the Indians to attack.
I parked near the market. We need to talk to these people, I told Gary. Sure, he said.
As we got closer, we noticed that there were men inside the vehicles and on the rooftop of the supermarket – and they were holding shotguns and rifles. Korean businesses were being hit hard, primarily by blacks and Latinos who were looting and burning stores.
Gary is black. As we approached the heavily-armed Koreans, it occurred to me, and I am sure to Gary, that we look a lot like the people these folks are arming themselves against.
Gary muttered something about this being a bad idea. The panel door of a van opened, and a man holding a shotgun leaned out and stared at us. Walking slowly, I held up my press card and said, “We’re press, we’re news reporters. You aren’t going to shoot us, are you?”
We reached the van. Shotgun man was edgy. He took a quick look at our press IDs.
He asked, “Where is the LAPD? Where is the National Guard?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Shotgun man seemed to be in charge. We interviewed him. He described how Koreans were mobilizing to defend their businesses, getting the word out through Korean radio and TV and phone trees. Many of the men were South Korean Army veterans. They knew how to handle weapons. They realized they couldn’t count on the police for help.
Later that night, driving through a smoke-filled street in South L.A., Gary and I almost found ourselves in the crossfire of a gun battle between LAPD uniformed cops and people we couldn’t see in an apartment building. On my right I saw the cops crouched behind their squad cars, guns drawn, and put the car in reverse.
In Hollywood, a day or two after the rioting started, I saw the same gun-wielding man who was on Florence Avenue carrying a big TV from a looted store. Gary and I drove through Melrose Avenue, where several blocks had wrecked by looters. Store windows were smashed, some buildings were on fire. We finally ran into a lone, tired LAPD cop in the middle of the street. We showed him our press credentials. I asked him, What happened?
He shrugged. “We lost it,” he said.
I was stunned. It was one thing for rioting to break out in the downtown area and South L.A., but Melrose Avenue? Could Beverly Hills be next?
The rioting started on a Wednesday. By Friday afternoon, National Guard troops were on some streets. I walked past a tank a block from USC, on a corner I used to walk past on my way to classes.
Rodney King made his famous televised appeal. “Can we all just get along?”
But it wasn’t anything that the National Guard or the LAPD did, or Rodney King’s words, which ended the violence. The rioters had played themselves out.
The riots underscored how fragile the social contract is, particularly in a sprawling, complex city like L.A. The authorities can only do so much to protect society. A peaceful community depends on the people who live there to behave lawfully.
The riots exposed the racial and class fissures in L.A, but it also revealed heroes, people like James and Barbara Henry.
If not for them, I would have suffered a terrible beating and may have been killed. They risked their lives for a stranger.
And to this day, I wonder about the Crip who slugged me in the gas station. He and his cohorts were wearing their blue bandannas and blue shirts. The rioting was just commencing, and they were looking for trouble. I would bet my life’s savings that at least one of them had a gun.
If the Crip had simply reached in and gone for my keys, we would have struggled, and his fellow gangsters would have joined the fight. I probably never would have met James and Barbara Henry.
I wonder, did the Crip slug me to warn me? Did he let me get away?
(Feature photo: screen shot of national television news depicting the Rodney King beating in 1981.)
Ruben Castaneda is the author of S Street Rising. He covered courts in Maryland for The Washington Post from 1997 to 2011.