Los Angeles riot still echoes a decade later
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The verdicts seemed incomprehensible to a city that had seen the videotape of black motorist Rodney King's beating by police countless times.
Ten years ago Monday, a jury in the Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley acquitted the four white Los Angeles police officers who had been caught on home video repeatedly clubbing King, who had led them on a car chase after they tried to stop him for speeding.
The verdict outraged much of the city, and all hell broke loose on the streets of Los Angeles barely an hour after the jury came back.
The riot that began that afternoon became one of the nation's bloodiest. It ended three days later with 55 people dead, more than 2,300 injured and 1,100 buildings destroyed.
That afternoon, television viewers watched in horror as a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, was pulled from his cab and beaten at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, in the mostly black South Central neighborhood. Police evacuated the neighborhood as the riot spread.
The violence and destruction reached a fever pitch as night fell. At the First AME Church in South Central, worshippers gathered to pray for peace as buildings burned and looters emptied stores.
"Those fires in South Central spread to mid-Central, then North Wilshire, then on the verge of Hollywood and Beverly Hills," said the Rev. Cecil Murray, the church's pastor.
"Indeed it was surreal, but it was real," Murray said. "We were planning what to do in case there was an eruption."
Murray said he is still haunted by that eruption a decade later.
"Here on this bend, the house was burning. Families lived there," Murray said, standing on a street near his church. "This child was looking back to his residence, the mother was weeping and the father was shaking his head, asking, 'How could this be? How could this be?' "
'All we could do was stand there'
Protesters also clashed with police outside Parker Center, the LAPD's headquarters downtown, amid chants of "No justice, no peace."
"We are going to tear this motherf---er down right here! That building's gonna come down!" one demonstrator yelled.
"They were throwing things at us, and all we could do was stand there and take it," LAPD Sgt. Greg Dust said.
"It was worse than being in Vietnam," he said. "At least in Vietnam, I could shoot back."
Before the trial, an investigation into the King beating concluded that racism and sexism were widespread in the LAPD. The probe, led by former diplomat Warren Christopher -- later secretary of state in the Clinton administration -- also called for Police Chief Daryl Gates to resign. He refused.
Shortly after the conflagration broke out, Gates left police headquarters to attend a political fund-raiser. He left office a month after the riots amid intense criticism, and a commission led by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster concluded the LAPD had been caught "flat-footed."
The riots also ended the career of LAPD Lt. Michael Moulin. The department blamed Moulin for withdrawing his outnumbered and ill-prepared officers from the corner of Florence and Normandie in the first wave of unrest.
A decade later, Moulin says, "I was scared to death."
"The community was on edge," Moulin told CNN recently. "We had just seen a tape of what most black people believed had been occurring for years and years and years -- although they had no evidence that that was, in fact, the case -- and here we have evidence.
"We have a tape made by an independent person ... of the activities of the Los Angeles Police Department, under cover of darkness, doing to a black man what is against the law to do to a dog -- and they were infuriated," Moulin said.
Greg Alan Williams, who intervened in an attempt to stop rioters from beating a driver in South Central, said police abandoned the streets when the trouble began.
"I'm talking just like, 'Excuse me, there's a man hurt here,' and they looked at me for a second -- and they drove away," Williams, now an actor, recalled.
'Can we all get along?'
The rioting continued for three more days as firefighters attempting to battle hundreds of blazes came under fire by snipers.
King went on television to plead for and end to the violence, asking plaintively, "Can we all get along?" State and federal authorities deployed thousands of troops from the National Guard, the Army and Marines to help restore order in America's second-largest city.
In the aftermath, authorities estimated the damage at more than $1 billion. Longtime Mayor Tom Bradley and District Attorney Ira Reiner decided not to run for office again.
There are no plans by city officials to acknowledge the anniversary, though President Bush plans to mark the date during a White House-sponsored event in California promoting the administration's faith-based initiative and economic growth measures.
Two of the four officers acquitted in the King beating -- Officer Laurence Powell and Sgt. Stacey Koon -- were retried and convicted on federal charges of violating King's civil rights. Officers Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were not tried on federal charges.
Los Angeles officials settled King's claim against the city for $3.8 million. King has had numerous run-ins with the law in the decade since the riots and is currently in a substance abuse rehabilitation program.
In the South Central neighborhood, meanwhile, city officials promised a reconstruction effort after the riots. Since 1992, businesses have invested more than $1.4 billion in south Los Angeles, said Bernard Kinsey, the former chairman of the Rebuild Los Angeles effort.
"I think the message that I'd like people around this country to hear is that Los Angeles is back in a big way, and south Los Angeles has recovered from the worst riot in its history," Kinsey told CNN. "We would offer that what has happened in our churches, what has happened in our City Council and areas in the county government, along with the business community, have been one huge success."
For longtime residents like Murray, that success seems to have come slowly.
Despite that investment and the boom of the 1990s, South Central remains one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Unemployment remains well above 20 percent even after the boom of the 1990s.
"The wounds are in the process of healing," Murray said. "They have not healed, but there are isolated moments where you can note progress here on this hill."
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