L.A. Lawless

10 minute read
David Ellis

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS RIGHTEOUS indignation. Just three hours after the King verdict was announced, thousands of shocked black residents of South Central Los Angeles gathered at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Speaker after speaker denounced the injustice and alienation that are part of their everyday life. Each community leader acknowledged that institutions designed to protect law-abiding citizens had failed them this time, but still some appealed for calm. “Look beside you,” said Los Angeles city council member Mark Ridley-Thomas. “These young African Americans are not in the streets.”

But it was already too late. By the time the two-hour meeting broke up, the first fires had been set. As weary parishioners left the prayer meeting, some were shot at by rioting thugs. “Nothing you’re talking about is going to do any good,” one young man told the departing crowd. “Come with us — let’s burn.”

Most of the destruction was limited to the depressed South Central area, a 46-sq.-mi. part of town plagued by gangs, poverty and the drug-dealing criminals who dominate life there. Not surprisingly, it was the besieged black community that suffered the most. In a bid to protect their businesses from the rioters’ wrath, a number of shopkeepers desperately posted signs declaring that their stores were BLACK OWNED. In many cases, the signs were ignored by looters and arsonists who destroyed the shops anyway.

For more than 48 hours, an urban nightmare came true as hatred ruled the streets. During that time, parts of the city virtually ceased to function. Hundreds of thousands of citizens were sent home from schools, offices and public facilities. On orders from city hall, all professional sporting events were suspended until after the weekend; N.B.A. play-off matches involving the Clippers and the Lakers were rescheduled, as were baseball games at Dodger Stadium and Thoroughbred races at Hollywood Park.

Almost immediately after the rioters took to the streets, Angelenos experienced the brutality of mob rule. At 6:30 Wednesday evening, an airborne television camera captured the beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who made the mistake of stopping at a red light in the neighborhood where the first riot erupted. At least five black men pulled Denny from his sand truck, bashed him with the vehicle’s fire extinguisher, punched him and stole his wallet. Another fired a shotgun into him at close range. As a blood-soaked Denny called for help, he was hit with beer bottles and karate-kicked in the head. The whole macabre scene, like a mirror-image replay of the King beating, was broadcast live on a local TV station. Denny was eventually rescued by four black bystanders and taken to a hospital, where he underwent four hours of brain surgery.

Many residents assumed that the mayhem would be restricted to the South Central neighborhood, considered a no-go area by middle-class whites. But by midday Thursday, fires were breaking out in scattered areas all across Los – Angeles. In a racially mixed neighborhood just west of downtown, looters and arsonists hit stores, including the upscale I. Magnin on Wilshire Boulevard. Nearby apartment buildings caught fire. “We pick up from one fire and go on to another,” explained fire captain Mike Castillo shortly after evacuating 15 residents from a burning building. Castillo’s four-man crew stayed on the job for 48 hours straight, tracking arson activity as it moved north and west through the city.

On the first night of rioting, a local man watching Castillo’s crew put out a fire at a nearby grocery was gunned down by a sniper and hospitalized. In the warm spring weather, fire fighters were forced to don flak jackets to protect themselves from attack.

The firepower wielded by gun-toting gang members and frightened citizens also hindered law-enforcement efforts. Traffic was snarled on one South Central street after a car careened out of control when a motorist was killed by a sniper. Fears that random gun battles would break out in the downtown office area led businesses to dismiss their employees for the weekend by Thursday afternoon. Several roadways were cordoned off by police to prevent destruction from spreading north to Hollywood and Beverly Hills from the poorer regions of the city.

Though the King verdict clearly sparked the explosion, the black community’s rage had long been building. Citing numerous incidents, black leaders charged that local police forces had systematically brutalized and mistreated blacks.

Three years ago, for example, black private investigator Don Jackson videotaped his interrogation by Long Beach cops after a routine traffic stop. Although one of the officers was recorded shoving Jackson’s head through a plate-glass window, a jury could not reach a decision as to whether this was an excessive use of force. During the 1970s, 16 blacks died as a result of choke holds administered by Los Angeles police. Police chief Daryl Gates defended the use of the procedure at the time, suggesting that blacks had some anatomical weakness that made them especially vulnerable to that method of restraint.

Just as Gates was the target of protests following King’s beating, he found himself accused of slow response — and worse — in his handling of last week’s violence. In large measure, the riots got out of hand because the 7,800-strong police department was slow to respond to many of the initial disturbances. Although Gates had earlier indicated that $1 million had been ! set aside for police overtime, the force was virtually invisible in the early hours of the rioting, allowing many looters to smash storefronts and torch buildings with impunity.

Lee’s Market was one of the many stores to be cleaned out by looters. Dozens of black and Hispanic men, women and children emerged from the jagged front windows laden with groceries as an L.A.P.D. cruiser moved past the area, its occupants, vastly outnumbered, making no attempt to intervene. “They should go and destroy Beverly Hills,” said one rioter. “Hey, the police don’t even bother to stop.” A minute later, someone lit a match, and what was left of the store went up in flames. Watching the carnage, neighborhood resident Verdis Barnes expressed rage over the King verdict: “The video tells it all. They didn’t have to do him like that. But these people should have gone somewhere else to do this.”

After nightfall, police responded only to life-threatening situations, escorting fire fighters but standing a safe distance from rampaging gangs as they cleaned out stores in dozens of malls. Gates initially claimed that his force was simply overwhelmed, but his department had not identified potential trouble spots and did not have enough officers on standby for riot duty as needed, which is standard procedure for some big-city forces, particularly those that have experienced racial unrest.

Other law-enforcement units were also slow to react. Though California Governor Pete Wilson deployed about 2,000 National Guard troops on Wednesday evening, it took almost 24 hours for the extra men to reach the streets. They were followed by hundreds of California highway patrolmen on loan from other parts of the state. By the time President Bush dispatched 4,500 federal troops to the area at week’s end, the violence had largely abated.

Some speculated that Gates, who is despised by the black community, was deliberately holding his men back. “They want us to burn ourselves out,” claimed a caller to KJLH, a black radio station that opened its airwaves to listeners after the city erupted. Another caller noted that residents in white neighborhoods were able to deploy private security forces to keep the rioters at bay. “Who can we call to get someone to protect our house?”

According to one community source, commanding officers were allegedly told at a preverdict meeting not to react too quickly to disturbances. Sources speculate that the order may have been given because of concern that a heavy police presence too soon would provoke even more unrest.

Not all the black rage was directed at the police force. Many rioters specifically targeted Asian-owned businesses. Relations between the black and Asian communities have been tense for years, mainly because of a perception that Korean merchants have been exploiting poor neighborhoods by establishing shops in ghetto areas while refusing to hire blacks to work in them. A particularly bitter episode occurred last year when grocer Soon Ja Du was convicted of killing 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, whom she accused of stealing a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Although an in-store video camera clearly showed that Du had shot Harlins in the back as she left the store, the trial judge sentenced the Korean to just five years’ probation.

Last week store owners in the prosperous Koreatown district, five miles north of the initial flash point, were ready for action. In the absence of effective police protection, the merchants resorted to vigilante tactics. At a large mall featuring a food outlet, a pharmacy and a liquor store with Korean- language signs, men with pump shotguns and high-powered pistols defended their businesses. A barricade of shopping carts was arranged in the parking lot, which was patrolled by armed Koreans in a four-wheel vehicle. As a pair of looters approached the mall, the guards fired 12-gauge rounds into the air to chase them away. Elsewhere a security guard was killed defending a Korean- owned store from attack.

The area’s most prominent blacks had virtually no ability to restore calm. Johnnie Cochran, a prominent lawyer who helped outlaw use of the choke hold, said, “It makes no sense, because they are destroying their own communities. I don’t think there’s anyone who can talk to these people now. They will only understand the measure of force, the National Guard or the police being assertive.”

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley deplored the King verdict at the Wednesday- night church rally when he angrily declared, “We have come tonight to say we have had enough!” But the following night, a subdued Bradley appealed for order on a broadcast of the Arsenio Hall Show and issued a warning: “Don’t break the law, or we will put you in jail.” But most Los Angeles viewers knew that was a promise the mayor could not keep.

The week’s violence may have boosted the chances that a referendum calling for comprehensive police reform will be endorsed in next month’s primary. Known as Charter Amendment F, the measure calls for civilians on the police- review board and a five-year limit to the police chief’s term, subject to a one-time reappointment by the mayor. Gates, who had a virtual lifetime guarantee of employment before he announced his retirement effective this June, opposes the new law. When last week’s violence erupted, in fact, Gates was at a reception in the affluent suburb of Brentwood, trying to raise money to fight the proposal.


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 798 white and 200 black American adults taken for TIME/CNN on April 30 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling error is plus or minus 3.5% and 7% respectively. Some “not sures” omitted.

CAPTION: Which makes you angrier, the verdict or the violence that followed?

Were the events in L.A. a genuine reaction to the verdict, or were people taking advantage of the situation?

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