It was a day that marked the beginning of one of the deadliest, most destructive race riots in the nation’s history, and one in which Watson’s spur-of-the-moment decision to take part made him one of the enduring faces of the violence.
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He was at home that day like thousands of others when he heard the news that was racing across Los Angeles: A jury with no Black members had acquitted four police officers in the videotaped beating (pictured) of Rodney King, a Black man stopped for speeding nearly 14 months before.
“I got caught up in the emotions like everyone else,” Watson says 20 years after a riot that would leave 55 people dead, more than 2,300 injured and himself forever recognized as one of the attackers of White truck driver Reginald Denny, who himself became the enduring image of the innocents victimized during the chaos.
Watch King and the L.A. Race Riots here:
South Los Angeles, where the riot began, has changed considerably two decades later, as has Watson. But many things remain the same.
While racial tensions fanned by the verdict and the general feeling of disenfranchisement and distrust of police among LA’s black population have moderated, residents of the city’s largely Black and Hispanic South Side complain that the area still is plagued by too few jobs, too few grocery stores and a lack of redevelopment that would bring more life to the area.
One place in particular that time seemingly forgot is the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where Denny was attacked on that dark day the riot began. It remains a gritty corner that’s home to gas stations where men rush up to incoming cars and pump fuel for spare change, as well as a liquor store with more foot traffic than any other business in sight.
“Have things changed? Not really. People are just more mellow these days,” Frank Owens says with a smile. The unemployed landscaper sat on a bus stop bench near the intersection recently, visiting with friends before going across the street to buy lottery tickets at the liquor store and joke with its owner, James Oh.
Much like Los Angeles as a whole, the neighborhood’s Latino population has grown while the black population has declined.
In this part of town, high school dropout rates are higher than for the city as a whole, and only 8 percent of the area’s residents have college degrees, compared with 30 percent for all residents of Los Angeles, according to American Community Survey estimates from 2006 to 2010.
More than three times as many households in the area reported yearly incomes of less than $20,000 during the same period than homes with yearly incomes of more than $100,000. That’s in stark contrast to the city as a whole, where there were more households with incomes above $100,000 than those with incomes of less than $20,000.
The economic disparity, coupled with racial animosity and distrust of the police created the powder keg that was the neighborhood on April 29, 1992, Watson says. Then word of the King verdict set it off.
“The riots were the last spark,” said Connie Rice, a director of the civil rights group Advancement Project and an attorney who has brought numerous civil rights lawsuits against the Los Angeles Police Department. “People had had enough.”
As the liquor store at the intersection of Florence and Normandie was being looted and white passersby were fleeing a barrage of rocks and bottles, Denny stopped his big rig to avoid running over someone.
He was quickly dragged from the cab and nearly beaten to death by Watson and a handful of others. As the attack unfolded on live TV, Watson stepped on Denny’s head after Damian Williams smashed the trucker’s skull in with a brick.
Rioting spread across the city and into neighboring suburbs. Cars were demolished and homes and businesses were burned. Before order was restored, more than 1,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Almost a quarter century had passed since the tumultuous urban riots of 1968, and even longer since LA’s Watts rioting in 1965. The magnitude of this new racial paroxysm shocked a nation that thought it had moved on.
Today, Watson still struggles to explain why he took part in the destruction. Known as Keith to his family and “KeeKee” to friends, he was a 27-year-old ex-Marine with a wife and a job who came from a good family. His father had been his neighborhood’s block captain, no less, and he acknowledges his family didn’t raise him to be a troublemaker.
“I guess you could say, you know, looking at my background and whatever, how could I have gotten caught up in it?” he mused on a recent sun-splashed morning as he sat on the front porch of the home he grew up in, located just a few blocks from the intersection.
After a long pause and a sigh, he continues: “You know, honestly, it was something that just happened, man. I never even knew Reginald Denny. Just the anger and the rage just took hold to where I nor anyone who was out there that day was in their right frame of mind.”
Watson was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to time served for the 17 months he spent in jail before his case was resolved.
But that day was a rage, he and others in the community say, fueled by years of high unemployment, abuse and neglect by police, and rising tension with recently arrived Korean store owners.
“We wanted jobs around here, we wanted respect and we didn’t get none of that. And then the police just harassed us all the time,” says Sharon McSwain, who for 22 of her 45 years has lived within walking distance of the intersection where Denny was attacked. He was saved by a black truck driver who rushed out to help after seeing the brutal beating on television.
Tensions in the community had been running high before the riot, fueled in part by the case of a Korean grocer who shot to death a black teenager she had accused of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The grocer, Soon Ja Du, was convicted of manslaughter for killing 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, but received a sentence of only probation and community service.
Like King’s beating, the shooting had been captured on videotape, by Du’s store surveillance camera. The images stoked the anger.
The store shooting occurred just two weeks after George Holliday stood on the terrace outside his San Fernando Valley home and videotaped four LAPD officers kicking King, using stun guns on him and delivering more than 50 blows from their police batons.
On April 29, 1992, it seemed Holliday’s videotape would be the key evidence leading to a guilty verdict against the officers. When they were instead acquitted, violence erupted immediately.
Police, seemingly caught off-guard, were quickly outnumbered by rioters and retreated. As the uprising spread to the city’s Koreatown area, shop owners armed themselves and engaged in running gun battles with looters.
“I think we did the right thing,” says attorney David Kim, who had gone on Korean-language radio to encourage people to take up arms because the police weren’t protecting them.
Not that violence had been totally unexpected.
In the weeks before the verdict, nearly a dozen black community leaders had been meeting regularly with then-Mayor Tom Bradley, discussing what to do if there was an acquittal, the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray recounts.
When the verdict was announced, some 150 volunteers fanned out across the city, urging calm, says Murray, retired pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and now a religious studies professor at the University of Southern California. They were successful in some instances and likely would have been more so if police had backed them up, he says.
King himself, in his recently published memoir, “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption,” says FBI agents warned him a riot was expected if the officers walked. They advised him to keep a low profile so as not to inflame passions.
He did until the third day, when he went on television and made an emotional plea for calm, famously asking, “Can we all get along?”
In the aftermath, much of the blame was placed on Police Chief Daryl Gates, who resigned under pressure soon after.
Before the uprising, Gates had been hailed in national police circles as an innovator, widely credited with helping pioneer both the modern police special weapons and tactics team and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program that partners police with schools.
Until his death in 2010, he angrily defended his actions, accusing his officers of failing to carry out a plan he said was in place to stop any trouble. He was particularly critical of his command staff for leading the retreat.
“The captain, lieutenant, deputy chiefs, commanders – they all screwed up in my judgment,” Gates, who had been chief for 14 years, told The Associated Press in 2002.
Whoever was to blame, Gates remains a polarizing figure in LA’s black community, where words like Gestapo, Nazi and racist are routinely used to describe the way he ran the LAPD.
After the riot, a number of reforms were instituted, including limiting a police chief to a maximum of two five-year terms. Stricter guidelines in the way the LAPD investigates civilian complaints and disciplines its officers were also implemented after both federal officials and an independent review board concluded the department had for years been guilty of a pattern of civil rights abuses.
Anger toward the department as a whole is less intense now.
“Cops are still cops,” says Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles. “They do lots of things we don’t like but this idea you’re under threat of assassination or torture or beating, it’s just not as present anymore.”
“There is no figure on the scene in this region that has the vitriol, the racism and the open disregard for the citizens of this city that Darryl Gates had,” Harris-Dawson adds.
Violent crime fell citywide by 76 percent between 1992 and 2010, according to Los Angeles police statistics.
Meanwhile, tensions between the black and Korean communities have lessened over the years, according to both sides. Rioters targeted and caused $400 million worth of damage to Korean-American businesses, many of them liquor stores that residents said were blights on the community. Language barriers and cultural differences were also key.
Tom’s Liquor, on the corner of Florence and Normandie, was once notorious in the neighborhood for selling hardly anything but booze and for allowing drunks to congregate out front.
The Korean-born Oh, who took ownership three years ago, says he has gone out of his way to treat all his customers as special and to learn the names of his regulars.
“It’s just common sense to communicate with people, to understand each other, to know each other’s cultures,” Oh says.
Since taking charge, Oh says, he has asked the drinkers to leave, painted over the graffiti and expanded his inventory to include a selection of food, baby items and other goods he says people have told him they are hard-pressed to find in the neighborhood.
About a mile from Florence and Normandie things have gotten better. A popular strip mall has sprouted, developed by Magic Johnson and others. It boasts a Starbucks, a grocery store, several name-brand shops and a Jamba Juice where $4 fruit smoothies were selling fast on a recent day.
Many problems still persist in nearby neighborhoods, however.
Some businesses never returned after they were destroyed, including Maria Muniz’s father’s welding workshop. Unable to buy new equipment, he never reopened. Eventually her parents divorced and her mother took a job in a sweatshop.
“I don’t know what would have been of our lives if the riots hadn’t happened,” says Muniz, who now works for Community Coalition.
Watson, meanwhile, has gotten on with his life. He’s become a successful businessman, having “taken lemons and made lemonade,” he likes to say with a laugh.
He has two daughters in college and for years has operated his own limousine business. Following a drug possession bust a few years after the riot he has stayed out of trouble and now helps keep watch on his neighborhood, just as his late father once did. He has spent most of his life in the neighborhood, returning to the house he grew up in last year to care for his elderly mother.
His limo customers, he says, have included everyone from a Saudi Arabian princess he chauffeured last year to people from the neighborhood celebrating birthdays and weddings and, as more Hispanics have moved into the area, quinceaneras.
“You get a sense of pride and accomplishment when you can help a person’s evening or event and you see the smiles and the love and the joy on their faces,” says the burly Watson, breaking into a smile himself.
Asked if he feels badly about what he did to Denny, he says simply that what happened to the trucker that day was “unfortunate.”
“But I can’t take it back. There’s nothing I can do.”
Watson did apologize personally to Denny some years ago, the only one of his attackers to do so. Another time he offered to send a limo to pick him up and take him to Florence and Normandie, then somewhere afterward where the two could have a drink and talk.
He says Denny, who lives quietly in Arizona these days, declined. The trucker has shunned interviews for years, and repeated attempts to contact him by mail, phone and in person for this story were unsuccessful.
“He chooses to remain in private,” Watson said. “And we respect his privacy. So be it.”