I could see the fires as soon as I left the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles on that spring evening 25 years ago. I was a correspondent for Time magazine, covering the reaction to the stunning, April 29, 1992, acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers charged with the brutal, videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.
There was no “Black Lives Matter” movement then. But when I arrived at First A.M.E. — the designated meeting place for community leaders and others concerned about what might happen if the police officers were found not guilty — news of the verdicts was already spreading through the city and the frustration and anger among the hundreds of people packed into the church pews was palpable.
As community leaders discussed what to do about yet another institutional assault on the value of black lives, others had already taken matters into their own hands. At the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in South Central L.A., a black mob had dragged a white truck driver named Reginald Denny from the cab of his tractor trailer and beaten him unconscious in the middle of the street.
From that now infamous flash point, the violence spread so quickly that when we emerged from First A.M.E. a few miles away, several businesses on Adams Boulevard were burning. As the flames jumped some 40 feet in the air, shotgun-wielding police in riot gear arrived to keep a growing crowd of angry protesters away from the burning buildings and to protect white motorists who were being threatened driving along Adams Boulevard.
It soon became clear that it wasn’t safe for one of my white colleagues, Sally Donnelly, to remain in the area. I was also concerned for my then-wife, Tonju Francois, a fair-skinned black woman who was a producer at KABC Talk Radio. So we got the two women to Tonju’s car and had Sally kneel out of sight in the back seat until they could get out of the area.
After Tonju and Sally were gone, I went back to the confrontation between the angry crowd and the police in front of the burning buildings. At a time when cellphones were rare and expensive, I looked for a pay phone to call in to the office. When I reported what was happening, I was told that there were similar scenes across South L.A. And though there was no social media or Facebook Live, I was also told that the Time publicity office was asking if I could call in to a radio show in New York to give an on-the-scene account of what was happening on Adams Boulevard.
From the pay phone, I called the radio show and recounted how several buildings were burning, and white drivers and pedestrians were being threatened. I also described how the standoff between the police and the crowd was growing more tense.
One young black man was especially agitated, shouting at the police in front of a burning building: “Burn, baby, burn! How you like me now, Mr. POLICEMAN!”
When one officer asked him to move back, he just shouted louder. Then the cop pointed his shotgun at him and ordered him to move back again.
“Oh no! You gonna shoot me, Mr. POLICEMAN! I bet you wanna give me a Rodney King type ass-whipping, don’t you, Mr. POLICEMAN!”
As the officer moved toward the young man, a fellow officer grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back.
That would be the police response throughout the city — no confrontations even as the rioting turned to looting. Later that evening as I cruised through South L.A., teaming up with Lester Sloan, an African American photographer for Newsweek, to report on the damage, we encountered a group of men looting a store as the police sat in a squad car a block away watching, but doing nothing. At one point, a couple of looters directed a sinister glare at Lester and me, perhaps thinking that we were police. Then they realized that we were black and flashed the clenched-fist black power sign. We flashed it back, and they went back to ransacking a convenience store.
As I watched the city burning that night in what would become the worst unrest in U.S. history — more than 50 dead, 2,000 injured, and nearly $1 billion property damage — I couldn’t help but think how much I identified with the young man screaming at the police officers. His screams echoed decades of pent-up anger and frustration over the use of excessive force by police officers against black victims, not just in Los Angeles, but all over the country.
Like most black boys, I was given “the talk” when I was very young about how to survive an encounter with the police. I was also given a version of it again from a female friend when I moved to L.A. in 1988. She called it “The black man’s guide to survival in L.A.” “Rule #1: Do not mess with LAPD.”
The furious response to the King verdict also foreshadowed today’s Black Lives Matter movement, which has prompted a new generation of African Americans to protest police brutality.
On the third day of the riots, King, who had endured dozens of blows with police batons along with being Tasered and kicked, went on television to appeal for calm, asking in a trembling voice, “Can we all get along?”
Five years ago, I interviewed King at the intersection of Florence and Normandie for a special report in Ebony Magazine on the 20th anniversary of the uprising. King, who had been battling alcohol addiction and had frequent run-ins with the law after the beating, had finally published a book, “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.” He seemed to have finally turned his troubled life around. He said he refused to be bitter about the brutal assault on March 3, 1991. But he was deeply hurt by the acquittals.
“The day the L.A. riots erupted in the streets of South Central, it was like the entire city had finally caught up with what had been simmering inside me for months,” he told me. “The riots changed everything.”
Two months after we talked, King was found dead in an L.A. swimming pool on June 17, 2012. He’d drowned with a combination of alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and PCP in his system, an autopsy found. He was 47 years old.
Black people are still protesting police brutality a quarter-century after parts of Los Angeles burned. There are still videos of abusive and murderous police behavior, and officers are still going unpunished for it. The only thing that’s changed are the names. Instead of Rodney King, it’s Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and so many more.
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