By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Thirty years later, people who were there still recall the shock and fury they felt when four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of all charges in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King.
The shock and fury quickly turned to violence and vandalism. When it was over six days later, 63 people had been killed, 2,383 had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested, and property damage reached more than a billion dollars.
All of that and more was remembered April 29. The intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues — the epicenter of the violence — was again the focus as a local Black radio station aired a live remote from the intersection and a group of activists conducted a news conference to discuss improved community relations in the ensuing 30 years.
John Hope Bryant, chairman and CEO of Operation Hope, a financial literacy organization that has invested $4 billion in home ownership and small businesses, said he was deeply shaken by the devastation that set the city aflame 30 years ago. Less than a month later, he founded Operation Hope.
Prior to the press conference, Bryant took community leaders on a bus tour of South L.A., pointing out places that were affected by the riots.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke at the press conference, vividly recalling the riots that rocked the city.
“In 1992, this wasn’t just an intersection of two streets. It was an intersection of brutality and hopelessness,” he said.
Lora King, the daughter of Rodney King, also was present.
“It is very easy for us to get along [now], and we’re still asking that question today,” she said. “I first want to acknowledge the pain that the riots came from. We look at it as a violent act and it was a violent act. It was painful. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the riots are the language of the unheard.”
KBLA 1580 talk radio CEO Tavis Smiley and morning host Dominique DiPrima held a six-hour marathon session where clergy, activists, politicians and community leaders shared recollections about the unrest.
“Some progress has been made,” Smiley said. “Now the police chief in this city can no longer serve for life as Darryl Gates thought he was going to.
“We see conversations around the country about doing away with these no-knock warrants. There’s conversations about what constitutes excessive force. There’s civilian review boards in cities across the country. But 30 years later, I don’t know if the police department has the capacity to respect the humanity and dignity of Black life,” he said.
Khalid Shah, founder of the gang interventionist organization Stop the Violence Increase the Peace, feels that police reform has been slow in coming.
“I think there have been some changes, but definitely not enough change,” he said.
Residents who visited the famed intersection April 29 recalled witnessing the devastation that blanketed the city 30 years ago.
“The rioting was a horrible experience and very frightening,” resident Adrienne Diggs said. “The people were frustrated about the conditions in their neighborhood. Even today, many things have not changed.”
Amina Jackson, 47, recalled that 30 years ago she was an undergraduate at Cal State Long Beach.
“I remember I was glued to the TV,” she said. “I had never seen rioting like that in my life. Even the Department of Motor Vehicles in Long Beach was set on fire.
“The aftermath was devastating. I drove my car down to L.A. and everything was burned up. It was like a ghost town. I kept thinking, ‘How are they going to rebuild this?’ There was so much devastation. I wondered how people were going to get their goods and services.”
“At the time, I was a nurse and my sister was having a baby,” recalled Cathy Stamps, who has since retired. “I was coaching her in the hospital. We were watching TV when the verdict came in that the four policemen who beat King had gotten off. It was heartbreaking because it was so obvious that they had beaten him. He was not resisting and he didn’t have a weapon.
“Whenever there is an incident between a community member and police, I always hope that the police will de-escalate the situation,” Stamps added. “Whatever they feel about us personally, I think that once they go to the (police) academy they think there is a certain way in how you’re supposed to treat Black people. That’s a taught behavior. They need rehabilitation in mind, body and soul and I believe there should definitely be police reform.”
Lawanda Hawkins, founder of Justice for Murdered Children, said, “Me, my husband and my son drove to the corner of Manchester and Vermont to try to clean up the debris. We saw buildings on fire. I remember that the wood was so hot it was red.
“The corner of Manchester and Vernont burned all night long,” Hawkins recalled. “We knew that this was our community that was being burned down. We understood that people were mad, but 30 years later, the area looks the same way. The pharmacy was never rebuilt so people had no way to get their medicine.
“I think that things have changed within our police department,” Hawkins added. “Chief Michel Moore is a different cop from Darryl Gates. I’ve seen changes. Today, the police deal with gang intervention. Thirty years ago they didn’t do that.
Community resident Salaam, 73, a self-described “underground activist,” said that he owned a jewelry store in 1992. ”My store survived because it was Black-owned,” he said.
Clutching a well-worn copy of Time magazine. Salaam carefully turned the tattered pages to a photo taken of him by a photographer 30 years ago. The photo was of Salaam raising an upraised fist as the city erupted in flames.
“I was not surprised when the riot broke out,” he said. “It was one of the ways that the community could express their frustration to another community.”
Brother Willie Muhammad, a member of the Nation of Islam who was briskly selling the Final Call newspaper on the corner, reflected, “When the riot broke out, I was locked up in the federal penitentiary. The riot blew me away. When I saw it on TV, all I could think was, ‘Again?’ It was like deja vu because I remember the Watts riot back in 1965.”
Nakita Devila, 46, said she was 17 in 1992.
“I was staying with my aunt and we were mad about the verdict,” she said. “The National Guard came out and told us to stay indoors, but we ran into the streets and started looting.
“I stocked up on milk, cigarettes and food. I was mad and disappointed after I heard the verdict. Those policemen (who beat King) should have been charged just like any other person. Instead, they were let off.”
“Big” Phil Bowel, a former bodyguard for Bobby Womack and the late blues singer Barbara Morrison, said, “The riot was horrifying. Blacks demonstrated that they had had enough of the racist (police) behavior. But during the riots they destroyed their own city,” he said.