Twenty Years the LA Riots : A Reporter’s Notebook

It’s been two decades since the city of Los Angeles burned. Scenes of violence, frustration and heroism were beamed around the world. Our city, our home was ripped apart by racial tension, unemployment and lawlessness. For those who lived at the epicenter in South LA and Koreatown it was impossible to escape the brutality of those days. Emotions had been simmering for a very long time. In April of 1992 they came to a full boil, with a devastating outcome. You will recall the six days of rioting. 50 people dead. 2000 injured. Fires. Looting. An ugly stain on the reputation of a city named for the angels.

At the time I was an anchor and reporter at KABC in LA. We all watched the sequence of events unfold. Much of the storyline caught on videotape. The scenes played repeatedly. The first event was the infamous beating of Rodney King at the conclusion of a long police pursuit in Lakeview Terrace. People all across the world saw that beating played; as though it was on a loop. Man down. Batons smashing again and again and again. Those LAPD officers were tried for the beating of that black motorist. Exactly 20 years ago today, despite the videotape, those officers were acquitted. The anger slowly crescendoed. Protests started in Simi Valley. Then looters and fires in South LA. Crowds were gathering. I had just walked off the set after the 6pm news. In the newsroom, the bank of TV monitors told the story of a city exploding. Fires. Looting. Years of distrust of law enforcement reaching a feverish pitch.

KABC management was busy, dispatching photographer crews and reporters. All of us started working the phones, working our contacts and doing what journalists do best- hitting the streets to cover the story. At 6:46pm-we began to see just how grim it was.

Those of us still in the newsroom watched as a truck driver pulled into the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South LA. We gasped. We saw what he could not. Reginald Denny – a white truck driver- was unaware of the crowd of men, mostly black, gathered at the corner -angry over the acquitals in the King beating case. Denny tragically drove straight into harm’s way. Helicopter pictures showed him slowly pulling into the intersection, with halting movements, before he realized he was in trouble and tried to turn around. I remember us gathering around the monitors in the newsroom, everyone screaming- ” Don’t do it ! Turn back!” But it was too late. Denny was dragged from the truck cab and beaten within an inch of his life. Once again, cameras captured it all. And I remember for a moment, the sick feeling, almost frozen in time by the inhumane spectacle unfolding on live television. The violence would only escalate from there.

Over the next 6 days, it seemed that was the last time we paused in the newsroom, for days. A few hours for sleep. A few moments for food. There was a renewed sense of purpose in being a journalist during those days. Surviving on little sleep, we took turns going out into the field. The hotspots were South LA and Koreatown. In a dramatic gunbattle, which lead every network newscast, Korean shopkeepers began firing upon looters stealing their merchandise. Pop. Pop. Pop. Like a scene out of the wild west. A mob mentality had gripped the city. A dysfunctional turf war between the mayor’s office, the police department and the communities caught in the middle, was being debated on news programs around the country. On Day Two, I went with a colleague from Channel 7 and two news camera crews to Sunset Boulevard in the Silver Lake area of Hollywood. We began taking videotape from afar of a Circuit City being stripped bare by looters. Smoke filled the night air, spot fires could be seen everywhere and sirens seemed to wail endlessly. As we focused in on a flatbed truck, where a looter had loaded up with electronics, including a new television set, the TV set fell off the truck into the street. That looter looked up and saw us as he ran into the street to recover the set. Furious, he pointed his semi-automatic weapon to shoot us. For what seemed like an eternity, we stared back, then took safety behind an old Impala, while the off duty officer escorting us- screamed at us “To stay down.. stay down! ” The officer took out his less powerful weapon and faced down the gunman. Ultimately, the looter lowered his gun, and ran off. No shots were fired. But it was very frightening and a close call. I will never forget it.

Slowly over time, the city would start to get its footing back. The National Guard was called in. Rodney King- the man whose beating would ignite the riot – would famously plead for calm. Eventually after many people were killed, businesses destroyed, peace would eventually be restored. But the causes and scars would linger for a long time, like a deep wound. There were commissions formed, decrees imposed, and battered communities slowly repaired relationships with each other . Rebuild LA was formed. The power grid between City Hall and the police department shifted. Today, thanks in great measure to the philosophy of community-based policing and the leadership of Chiefs Bratton and Beck, a more open dialogue exists in minority communities. I am happy to report that crime is markedly lower. And minority communities have better relationships and understanding with each other.

On this infamous day in LA history, for those of us old enough to remember, we will pause and remember where we were, how we felt and what we learned. This reporter will remember her youthful impressions of a city gone mad, the challenge of reporting it and a city that fought to right itself. And how she wept for her hometown after a very, very long day.

 

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