LOS ANGELES – On the third day of the unrest, I interviewed one of the young men who attacked trucker Reginald Denny, whose brutal beating was caught on video and replayed on TV screens around the world.
The story was published in The Wave and distributed over wire services as the first report on the events that led up to the unrest at Florence and Normandie avenues.
Hearing other reporters talk of “notorious street gangs” and “senseless violence,” I wanted to know why things grew so intense there.
Walking down the streets near the intersection, I happened upon a young man who took me to a building where about 20 young black men stood staring at me as I walked inside. For a moment, they refused to answer my questions. And then one young man walked forward. He had just come out of the street helping to push burned-out cars and sweep broken glass.
“It wasn’t a racist thing,” he said. “We’re gonna let them know how we feel. We’re cool now, but if we’re not satisfied, we can start it up again. Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”
The young man explained how on April 29, about 3:30 p.m. – just minutes after reporters announced the verdicts on television – he and four other young men first attacked a Korean man, the son of the owner of Pay Less Liquor and Deli on Florence at Dalton, a couple of blocks west of Normandie.
The incident came a week after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin gave five years probation to Soon Ja Du, a Korean merchant who shot a 15-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins, in the back of the head over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Police found Harlins dead on the floor with $2 in her hand.
The jury convicted Du of voluntary manslaughter but Karlin said the merchant deserved leniency because she reacted out of fear from previous incidents in her store. Karlin gave Du 400 hours community service and ordered her to reimburse the family for Harlins’ funeral expenses. The prosecutor had requested the maximum 16 years.
The combination of the Du and LAPD verdicts was too much to take, the young man said. The Korean merchant at Pay Less did not kill anyone but was always disrespectful, he explained.
“He wouldn’t even put your change in your hand,” he said of the storeowner’s son. “He just threw it on the counter.”
The young men left Pay Less Liquor and started throwing rocks at a passing police car driven by two female officers they called “Cagney and Lacey.” The policewomen called for reinforcements and chased the group to 71st and Normandie, where other youth were throwing rocks at passing motorists and approaching police cars.
One of the young men, who was 15 at the time, quickly became the center of police attention at that intersection. Four officers used a “swarm technique” on the young man to cuff him, an officer later told me, and began pulling the boy’s arms and legs and putting their knees on his back – less than an hour after the King verdict.
The image infuriated an already angry crowd.
“It looked like Rodney King all over again,” said J. Kakawana, a local businessman who is seen on videotape trying to calm the 71st Street crowd. “They weren’t gonna let that happen.”
Two more men were arrested – Cerman Cunningham and Mark Jackson – after challenging police actions against the teenager. Jackson is the bother of Damian Williams, charged later with attacking Reginald Denny and seven other motorists.
A videotape shows about a dozen police cars leaving 71st Street and heading south on Normandie, the three young men handcuffed inside. About 50 people run behind the police cars about two blocks to Florence. The police cars turn east, leaving the crowd in the middle of the intersection.
One man points at Tom’s Liquor and shouts, “Get that —. A Korean owns that ——.” A young man starts pointing at cars. The videotape ends with victims pulled from the targeted vehicles and beaten as they curl up on the ground.