From beginning to end, the devastation of South Central Los Angeles was the most extensively televised civil disturbance in U.S. history—fittingly, in a way, since the incident that indirectly precipitated it had also been seen all over the world. The horrifying home-video footage of the March 3, 1991, beating of black motorist Rodney King by white Los Angeles policemen was aired again and again. Gavel-to-gavel coverage of the seven-week trial of the four police officers charged with the beating was televised live in Los Angeles; excerpts were broadcast around the country. Then came the acquittal and, soon after, the riots, unfolding with surreal clarity on the home screen as low-flying TV helicopters brought dramatic pictures of looting, beatings and burning.
Although there was chaos and mayhem throughout much of the City of Angels, two searing images were shot on a single street corner—the intersection of Normandie and Florence avenues. There, on the first night of violence, the ubiquitous television news choppers presented some graphic violence: furious assaults on a white truck driver and, later that same evening, on an Asian motorist. But what the camera's eye missed at Normandie and Florence were the Good Samaritans who, at great risk to themselves, rushed forward to help. Here are the stories behind those rescues and the heroes whose actions be spoke humanity's best.
JUST THREE HOURS AETER THE VERDICT, truck driver Reggie Denny, a 36-year-old white man with long blond hair, was en route to Inglewood, delivering rock and sand. Suddenly he was stopped by an angry mob and dragged from the cab of his 18-wheeler. Seven thugs surrounded him. One put his foot on Denny's neck to hold him down. Another picked his pocket. A third man kicked him in the back. A fourth smashed a white object over his head. Denny tried to get up, but a man in a Malcolm X T-shirt first kicked him and then hit him three times in the head with a hammer. Another man bashed him with a brick and then danced wildly in celebration. Someone else took a shotgun out of a black bag, fired it at Denny—and missed. Yet another man ran up and kicked him in the head, karate-style.
No one seemed to mind that a KCOP Channel 13 news helicopter was televising the entire event. In fact, a few rioters motioned at camerawoman Marika Gerrard-Tur to get closer. Millions of people saw the beating live, but only a handful—all of them African-Americans—were stirred to action. Lei Yuille, 37, and her brother, Pierre, 39, were watching television at their mother's house, just a few blocks away. "I saw a wrong being done against someone who was innocent," Lei says. "I couldn't believe what was going on."
To the dismay of their mother, Lei, a consulting nutritionist, and Pierre, an unemployed legal assistant, jumped in his car and sped to the scene. Denny had somehow managed to crawl back into the cab of his truck. Lei Yuille left her brother, ran to the vehicle and climbed onto the passenger-side running board. Denny, dazed and bloody, could barely see through his shattered windshield. "What happened?" Yuille recalls him asking. "I don't understand what happened."
Yuille began serving as Denny's eyes, directing him as he drove toward what seemed like the nearest point of safety: a restaurant. As they began inching down the street, Titus Murphy, 30, and Terri Barnett, 28, rushed up in a blue Honda Civic. They had seen the beating on television and realized it was taking place just two miles away. "We decided, 'This is crazy,' " says Murphy, an unemployed aerospace engineer. " 'Somebody had better get that guy out of there.' "
Then, from out of nowhere, Bobby Green, a 6'2", 230-lb. ponytailed truck driver, jumped on the driver's side running board. He, too, had watched the beating on TV. "He was a truck driver, just like me," Green, 29, says. "That could have been me laying down there. I would want somebody to help me. All truck drivers should stick together."
Green had left his home, three miles away, where he lives with his wife and four children. As he ran up, people threw bottles at him. Somebody snatched his gold chain and watch. "I didn't care," he says. "The only thing on my mind was to get Reggie out of there." He persuaded Drum to give up the wheel and to slide over. "He couldn't see. He couldn't do nothing," Green says. "He just said, 'Thank you for the help.' "
The four rescuers spontaneously decided to take Denny to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, three miles away. It was difficult for Green to see through the truck's windshield, so Murphy guided him from the passenger-side running board as Barnett, an unemployed data-control clerk, led the way in the Honda. At one point an unidentified man helped by stopping traffic so Green could negotiate the huge truck through a tight intersection. At another point two police cars passed by. Both Green and Barnett hit their horns, and Murphy started waving, but the police ignored them and drove on.
Meanwhile, Yuille was in the passenger seat comforting Denny, the divorced father of an 8-year-old daughter. His face was gashed, and his head, arms and clothing were covered with blood. As they arrived at the hospital, he had a seizure. He was rushed inside where, in a 3½-hour operation, surgeons removed two blood clots from his brain. Since then, his condition has been steadily improving—in large part, doctors say, because people Denny never met rushed to his rescue. "He would have died on the spot," a paramedic at the hospital told his rescuers, "if you people had waited a minute longer."
All four say they didn't really think about what they were doing until Denny got to the hospital. "After I finished, I was smiling to myself," Green says. "I felt good inside, like I helped out the community and did a good deed. People who know me couldn't believe I did this. They thought it was too crazy. But I would do it again." They are also hopeful that the city can both survive the destruction and work toward ending racial animosity. "Somebody asked me if it will ever be the same," says Yuille, "I don't think it will be the same, but I'm praying that it will be better." Barnett, who, like Denny, has an 8-year-old daughter, thinks the future rests with the children. "Kids always play together no matter what color they are," she says. "They don't know about prejudice until they get older."
Actor-writer Greg Alan-Williams, 35, was on his way home from the gym near his Inglewood home when he heard news reports that whites were being dragged from their vehicles and beaten. He immediately turned his car in the direction of the riots. "I know what it's like to be the victim of a mob and not know why," he says, remembering being involved in various racial confrontations when he attended a largely white junior high school in Des Moines, Iowa. "It's probably the most helpless and hopeless situation anyone can be in."
It was nearly dusk when Alan-Williams reached the corner of Florence and Normandie. Rioters, most of them drunk, were forcing motorists to "run the gauntlet"—to step on the gas and hope they could make if past the mob. "That mob was the same mob that lynched and killed black folks." Alan-Williams says. "If you were to strip away the skin of that mob, their necks would be just as red."
One of the cars stopped. "I remember thinking, 'Grave mistake,' " Alan-Williams recalls. A black man approached and demanded that the driver—Takao Hirata, 47, a Japanese-American printer born in a World War II internment camp—turn over his wallet. He complied, but cash wasn't enough to get him out of this nightmare. "People began breaking in all his windows," Alan-Williams says. "A guy climbed in the passenger window and was beating Mr. Hirata in the face with a beer bottle." Others were punching him in the head. Soon Hirata lost consciousness. "That's when I moved," Alan-Williams says. "They were opening his door to drag him out. and I just walked up and said something like, 'Come on, y'all, this ain't cool.' "
Just then, a fight broke out between two rioters, giving Alan-Williams a chance to drag Hirata away. Before he got far, a bottle struck Hirata in the face. "I started cursing them," Alan-Williams says. He hauled the bleeding man down the street until he felt him begin to stir. "I asked him if he could walk, and he said, 'No.' I said, 'You have to or you're going to die.' "
Hirata struggled to his feet and locked an arm around his rescuer's neck. As they made their way down the street, Alan-Williams tried to hide Hirata's face, so others wouldn't see that he was of Asian descent. Along the way, he stopped to rest in front of someone's driveway. "They said, 'Don't put him here, don't bring him up here,' " Alan-Williams says. Finally, a police car passed by. Alan-Williams says he yelled out, "Help him; he's bleeding to death. He's hurt badly." But the police drove on. "All I could think about was, 'Fifteen of y'all beating Rodney King's ass is cool because you know that even if he does get up, you can shoot him dead," Alan-Williams says. " 'But when there's only two of you, all of a sudden you're not so brave anymore.' "
Then a black man in a van offered to drive Hirata to a hospital. At first Alan-Williams was reluctant—he didn't want to entrust an Asian to a black man—but when he saw blood coming from Hirata's ears he changed his mind. The man left with Hirata and Alan-Williams went home to his wife, Sylestine, and their four children (from previous marriages). There, he discovered that he had cut his finger. "Then I realized I probably got Mr. Hirata's blood on my cut," he says. "I thought, 'Oh, HIV: We better find this guy.' "
The couple began calling hospitals but got nowhere because they didn't know Hirata's name. So, despite his wife's protests, Alan-Williams drove back to Florence and Normandie to search Hirata's car. There he found the number of Hirata's mother. She put him in touch with Hirata's wife, Missy, a nursing student, who was beginning to wonder where her husband was.
It wasn't until after a night of frantic calling that they found him, in critical condition in the California Medical Center. His eyes were swollen shut, his front teeth had been knocked out, and he had serious cuts on his face and head. But he felt good enough to meet Alan-Williams three days later. He told his rescuer he had grown up near Florence and Normandie and didn't think the attack was entirely racially motivated. "He told me, 'Those are gangbangers, thugs. Those aren't the regular people,' " Alan-Williams says. "He said he has no animosity toward black people."
Alan-Williams, who has parts in such TV shows as Bay watch and Civil Wars, was hailed by some as a hero. But he isn't sure. "It was selfish," he says. "I said to myself, 'If I don't help this man, when the mob comes for me. there will be nobody there for me.' If I stood there and watched this man be murdered, then what sort of justice could I ask for myself?"
LYNDON STAMBLER and ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Los Angeles
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