• U.S.

From The Publisher: May 11, 1992

2 minute read
Elizabeth P. Valk

Early last Wednesday evening the phone rang in the home of our Los Angeles correspondent James Willwerth. On the line was bureau chief Jordan Bonfante with urgency in his voice. “Are you aware that rioting and gunfire have broken out over the Rodney King verdict?” he asked.

Throughout that evening and during the next 48 hours, Bonfante, Willwerth and seven other TIME correspondents, reporters and photographers spread out across Los Angeles to record what would become the worst U.S. rioting since the 1965 Watts disturbances. Their reporting, most of it gathered under high- adrenaline conditions, is the basis for our cover stories this week. Correspondent Jeanne McDowell, covering the antiriot mobilization at city hall, managed to grab a personal interview with Mayor Tom Bradley by posting herself near the entrance to his office there. Correspondent Sylvester Monroe, who has covered the Rodney King story throughout, was one of the first journalists to witness the early arson and looting. As Monroe was driving through South Central — the focal point of the riot — looters who noticed him would flash the black-power sign, a clenched fist, and he would flash it back. Says Monroe: “That’s how I managed to move through the community that night without being attacked or shot as some reporters were.”

Others had equally harrowing experiences. Reporter Sally Donnelly, emerging from a rally at a neighborhood church, had to be smuggled out by black colleagues and driven away lying on the backseat of a car to avoid clusters of young men positioned around intersections hurling rocks and setting fires. Photographer Roger Sandler, roaming through a newly burned-out section of the city’s Crenshaw district, had the business end of a pistol suddenly thrust in his face by one of a gang of teenagers bristling with weapons. Just as he lowered his camera, certain that they would fire, they quickly jumped back into their car and drove off. Jim Willwerth was watching a group of looters empty a sporting-goods store when one punched him in the head and tried to seize his notebook. He fled to a nearby minimall, where the merchants had set up a fortress of their own. Willwerth, who has covered wars and insurrections on two continents in his 25 years at TIME, says simply, “If there is a hell, it must look something like L.A. did that night.”

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