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LA riots 20-year anniversary: Violence erupts outside church after verdict

April 23, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
What began as a warm spring day in Los Angeles 20 years ago became the start of the most destructive riot in U.S. history and one of the biggest stories I've ever covered for Eyewitness News.

A jury verdict in the infamous beating of Rodney King set off the Los Angeles riots in which 53 people died, more than 2,000 were injured and property damage totaled $1 billion.

For more than a year, the people of Los Angeles had been watching the grainy video of four police officers beating King at the end of a pursuit in Lakeview Terrace. On April 29, 1992, the world was watching when the verdict came in for officers Timothy Wind, Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Sgt. Stacy Koon. All of the defendants were acquitted, except for one count against Powell in which the jury could not decide.

On the day of the verdict, my assignment was to go to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall and interview people about the verdict. Next, we went to First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, where a community meeting had been planned for 7 p.m. on the night of the verdict. The place was packed and hot, and people there were angry.

"It was very, very tension-packed, informed by an incredible degree of disbelief that justice was sought and denied," said Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who was a city councilman at the time.

Ridley-Thomas was one of many civic and community leaders, including Mayor Tom Bradley, who took to the stage that night expressing outrage at the verdict and calling for a proper, non-violent response.

They seemed unaware of the violence at Florence and Normandie avenues and that fires were breaking out close by. I tried to get their attention with my portable TV monitor.

"I was about to give my remarks and you had the monitor in-hand," Ridley-Thomas recalled. "I remember saying, 'What is he saying?' And you were quite demonstrative in trying to get everybody's attention, as if to say, 'You all are in here talking, but outside, this city is on fire.'"

Bradley went on with his speech.

"We don't intend that you should go out and burn down any buildings or break any windows," he said.

There were more appeals for peace.

"Be not dismayed, this struggle ain't over yet," Ridley-Thomas told the crowd. "We are people of purpose, people of dignity."

It seemed to me there was nothing anyone on that stage could have said that would have stopped the violence. The L.A. riot had begun.

After we left First AME Church, we hit the streets to see what was going on. We stopped at Venice Boulevard and Western Avenue, where a J.J. Newberry store was being looted and was on fire.

We went toward the building to see what else we could find out. Smoke was pouring out of the structure when we heard some grim news: someone was trapped inside the building engulfed in flames.

Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department searched as best they could, but the smoke and flames kept them back. They found no one and moved on, but there was someone inside. Four months later, a cleanup crew clearing out the burned-out rubble found a body. It was identified as 20-year-old Nissar Daoud Mustafa.

"He entered before the fire started," said LAPD Det. Olivia Spindola. "Our investigation has revealed that he was a possible looter."

The case is still unsolved.

Those who reported on the six days of violence will never forget it. Looking back through old video brought back disbelief, sadness and fear of those awful days. The city is different now with new leadership and a new culture within its police department, but the past has lessons for us all.

"We are obligated to be ever reminded of seeking and doing justice," Ridley-Thomas said.

It's not just history, it's living memory. True too for King, the man whose televised beating was the catalyst for the riot and whose plaintive appeal for calm helped shut it down.


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