With numerous instances of police brutality and unjust killings making headlines all around the United States, the recent murder of Walter Scott, an African-American father of four who was shot in the back while running from a white patrolman, comes just prior to a somber anniversary for another instance of ugliness between law enforcement and the community. 23 years ago, Los Angeles was under siege due to a number of factors – most notably the beating of Rodney King and slaying of Latasha Harlins. In our latest #HSTBT, we explore the incidents and key figures surrounding the permanent black eye on American history known as the L.A. Riots.
April 29, 1992 might not register on a global level like other dates that live on in infamy, but for residents of Los Angeles, it’s a day and a period of time that proved to be one of the ugliest for a city often synonymous with sunshine, luxury and decadence. Marking the official date of the start of the LA Riots – which lasted six days and holds the bloody distinction of having the largest death toll (53) since the New York City draft riots of 1863 – the recent string of police on civilian crime in the United States only heightens the anniversary and the harm it had on the City of Angels.
While the name “Rodney King” has become synonymous with police brutality and the notion of “vitality” long before that was a word used in our everyday lexicon, there were several other people with roles in the riots – from the officers involved, to the crimes committed by seemingly regular people in the wake of – that have all seemed to fade away as the years passed. Simply put, what has happened to them?
Today, George Holliday might be the guy you call to alleviate any number of problems you could encounter with your plumbing. But back in 1992, he was just a 31-year-old immigrant from Canada/Argentina who had moved to the U.S. in 1980 and was living with his wife in an apartment complex in suburban Lakeview Terrace. That night, he awoke to sounds of helicopters and police sirens, so he reached for his Sony Handycam. His footage which depicted Rodney King being savagely beaten by four members of the LAPD – Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno – proved to be like the visual evidence needed to put faces to what many already thought to be pervasive abuse problem by the LAPD.
According to The Los Angeles Times, “After he gave the eight-minute video to KTLA, his name was trumpeted in the newspapers and plastered across television screens and repeated on the radio. George received a couple of death threats in the mail—’Be careful when you start your car in the morning,’ one said; the other was an envelope full of drawings of daggers—and often when people recognized him they’d say: ‘You’re the guy who caused the riots.'”
The original tape was sold to KTLA for $500 USD and he earned a couple thousand more for licensing the video to filmmakers, including Spike Lee for Malcolm X.
Holliday still lives and works in the San Fernando Valley. He told The Los Angeles Times a decade ago, “I know that my name appears in the history books. To me, that’s the coolest part of this whole thing.”
Following the events of the police beating which caused Rodney King to suffer a broken cheekbone, a fracture at the base of his skull, and a broken a leg, he went on television and famously asked of the world “can’t we all get along?” That same night, President George H.W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office and outlined the federal response to the riots.
Three years after the beating, King was awarded $3.8 million USD in damages despite acknowledging that he was driving under the influence and on parole for armed robbery the night of the incident. He managed to stay out of the public eye until 2001 when he was arrested and charged with being under the influence of PCP.
Rodney King died at 47 years old in his swimming pool in Rialto, California. He was discovered by his fiancee, Cynthia Kelly, who had served as a juror in King’s lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles in 1994.
“I am saddened by the death of Rodney King,” said Bernard Parks, a Los Angeles city councilman who served as LAPD chief from 1997 to 2002. “Although his beating will forever be thought of as one of the ugliest moments in the history of the city of Los Angeles and its police department, the victimization of Mr. King and the circumstances that followed created an atmosphere that allowed LAPD and the city to make historic disciplinary and community-based reforms that have made for a better police department and a better city as a whole.”
Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind & Theodore Briseno
On March 26, 1991, the officers responsible for the attack on Rodney King entered a plea of “not guilty.” Following a three-month trial in the predominantly white Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley, three of the officers were acquitted of all charges. The jury, which had no black members, deadlocked on one charge of excessive force against Powell, and a mistrial was declared on that charge. Powell’s attorney, Michael Stone, argued that the unedited tape itself proved that King was more aggressive than he appeared to be than on the “edited” version.
Despite being cleared by the State, two of the officers – Koons and Powell – were each sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for federal civil rights violations. According to The Los Angeles Times, “Koon does not talk about his personal life because of continued death threats, said his lawyer Ira M. Salzman. ‘He’s a committed family man, Salzman said. “And he’s moving forward with his life as best as he can.'” Powell, who worked with computers while he was in prison, later worked in the computer retailing industry.
Despite his past, Wind was hired as a community service officer for the Culver City Police Department in 1994 and held the position until 2000. He later enrolled at law school at Indiana University and graduated with a degree in 2003.
While Theodore Briseno was the only officer who testified against the others, he was fired from the LAPD in 1994 despite attempting to keep his job.
If the footage George Holliday shot of Rodney King being savagely beaten was the precursor to the riots, it was the aerial shots of Reginald Denny being pulled out of his truck and attacked with a brick that many will remember during those fateful six days.
Denny was 33 years old at the time – a construction worker for Transit Mixed Concrete – who had just exited the Santa Monica Freeway in his red, 18-wheeler which was loaded with 27 tons of sand. Without a radio in the cab, he had no idea that he was headed straight for the budding epicenter for discontentment due to the acquittals of Koon, Powell, Wind and Briseno.
Forced to stop his truck in the middle of the street at the intersection of Florence Avenue and Normandie Avenue in South Central, Los Angeles, he was pulled out and thrown onto the concrete. One man, Henry Watson, stood on his neck, while another, Damian Williams, used a cinder block to bash Denny’s skull – fracturing it in 91 places and causing severe brain damage. According to TIME, “He [now] works independently as a boat motor mechanic in Lake Havasu, Ariz., where he moved after the 1993 trial of his assailants and an unsuccessful lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles. Friends say he has gone on with his life and has even begun to drive again. ‘He’s doing better,’ says one local who knows Denny. ‘It’s slow for him, but he’s getting better.'”
Henry Watson & Damian Williams
Fifteen years after the riots, Henry Watson described himself at the time by saying, “‘I’m not your typical gang member.” As TIME noted, Watson was a 27-year-old ex-Marine and while he had done time for robbery, most in the neighborhood said he had avoided any trouble afterwards, and was a hardworking father.
“It was rage and anger, not just about Rodney King, but the injustices that were going on during that time,” Watson explained, though he claims that nobody really intended to kill Denny. “Nobody specifically sought out Reginald Denny to cause him any harm. He got caught up in the moment, just like everyone else.”
Watson was convicted of misdemeanor, simple assault after a jury was unable to reach an agreement on felony charges. Today, he operates a limousine service and still lives in the same neighborhood.
Damian Williams was 19 at the time of the attack. Two weeks after, he was taken into custody by 100 state and federal officers and ultimately ended up serving four years of a 10-year sentence for mayhem (although he was acquitted of attempted murder). After he was released from prison in 1997, Williams was arrested and charged with murder in 2000 for the slaying of Grover Tinner. He was sentenced to 46 years to life while his accomplice, Tyrone Killingsworth, received 130 years for pulling the trigger. He is currently serving his sentence at Pelican Bay State Prison, according to California Corrections Department officials.
Soon Ja Du
Thirteen days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins walked into Empire Liquors in South Los Angeles to buy a carton of orange juice which she put in her backpack (and which police estimated she was planning to pay for because she had two dollars in her hands).
Soon Ja Du, the wife and mother of the normal staff at the liquor store, confronted Harlins about what she perceived to be a case of shoplifting. Following a physical altercation that saw punches and a stool thrown, Harlins turned to walk out of the liquor store. Du retrieved a handgun from underneath the counter and fired at Harlins from three feet away – striking her in the back of the head and killing her instantly.
Despite claims of self-defense, two witnesses and the security camera footage showed that Harlins was walking out of the store with her back turned at the moment Du fired the weapon.
On November 15, 1991, a jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Carrying a maximum sentence of 16 years, Judge Joyce Carlin sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. Carlin commented, “This is not a time for revenge.” Du’s store burned in the rioting and never reopened.