Alfred Lomas, Wednesday, April 29, 1992
It all started for Alfred Lomas as he was
sitting in a Florencia 13 crack house and across the TV screen flashed an image. That of blond-haired, white-skinned
Reginald Denny lying on his back, arms outstretched, on the black-tar South L.A. intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues.
A big-rig truck driver, Denny had just been dragged from the red cab of his sand-hauling eighteen-wheeler and thrown to the street by a group of raging young black men. One had then placed a foot on the back of Denny’s neck as others took turns slamming an oxygenator into his back, pounding his head in with a hammer, and smashing a concrete block into his face.
TV news helicopters circled, broadcasting the real-time scenes into half a dozen local stations and on to CNN, announcing to the world just after 6:30 p.m. on April 29 that the 1992 Los Angeles Riots had begun.
Before that moment, the Wednesday afternoon air had been warm and sweet, L.A. bucolic. Then the “not guilty” verdicts hit Los Angeles’s airways with all the kinetic energy of one of those old 1930s movies with Extra! editions rolling rapid-fire off the presses.
The events of the day had been set in motion fourteen months earlier, shortly after midnight on March 3, 1991, when four white Los Angeles police officers had beaten a black motorist named Rodney King
fifty-six times in eighty-one seconds with their two-pound, twenty-four-inch, solid-aluminum
Monadnock PR-24 batons.
By chance, that beating too had been caught live on a grainy, smoking-gun video that CNN had then likewise broadcast worldwide, making Rodney King a household name, and the
LAPD the shame of a nation. Now those officers had been acquitted of all ten counts against them but one—which had been quickly dismissed by the judge.
The four officers had been zealous in their work, using their batons to break
Rodney King’s cheekbone and ankle and eleven bones at the base of his skull, damaging his facial nerves and knocking the fillings out of his teeth. Each blow, said Rodney King, felt like “when you get up in the middle of the night and
jam your toe on a piece of metal.”
But the four cops were nonetheless now walking free. Freed by a jury in Ventura County, about an hour’s drive north of Florence and Normandie. Freed in Ventura’s
Simi Valley, a then semirural, overwhelmingly white community, with a black population of 2 percent. Known as Cop Heaven by the cops themselves,
Simi Valley, along with its sister city Thousand Oaks, had a population of about 4,000 active police officers, many of whom were part of the
LAPD’s 7,900-member force.
The new trial venue had been selected by a genius of a judge named
Stanley Weisberg to ensure, he declared, that the trial would be fair and impartial and not influenced by local press coverage. But the new Simi Valley trial location was just twenty-five miles from the scene of King’s beating, and thus part of Los Angeles’s vast media market. By changing the venue, Weisberg had placed the trial into exactly the kind of community where Rodney King’s actions—not those of the four LAPD officers who’d assaulted him—would be scrutinized. And that’s the way it had played out.
In the courtroom, the defense team for the four officers collectively totaled about one hundred years of expertise in representing officers accused of abuse of force. They were the A-Team. In comparison, the District Attorney’s Office had sent in a team from its Class-C farm club. Before long the A-Team was using the video of King’s beating to deemphasize the vicious nature of the crime. They played the video over and over in slow-mo, frame by frame, making the cops’ baton blows
look like caresses and King look like he was resisting, when in fact his body was simply reacting to the blows that he was trying to ward off. Ultimately the jury not only acquitted the officers, it effectively endorsed their behavior.
The image that Alfred Lomas, his Florencia 13 vato locos and his crackhead customers were now watching on TV, however, was not that of Rodney King. They were watching Reginald Denny.
Meanwhile, other unlucky white, Asian, and Hispanic motorists, crossing the same intersection where Denny still lay, were busy ducking
chunks of concrete, rocks, bottles, and baseball bats shattering their car windows. Clusters of young black men then surrounded their vehicles, pulled open doors, dragged out occupants, and robbed and mercilessly beat them.
Earlier, just after the not-guilty verdicts were announced, outraged local residents had run into the street screaming “Rodney King! Rodney King!” Soon a crowd began to form, quickly attracting LAPD patrol cars to the scene. When two officers tried to make an arrest, they were encircled by a crowd hurling rocks and bottles at their patrol car and chanting “Fuck the police.” The lieutenant on the scene responded by ordering his cops to beat a hasty retreat, thereby leaving a void where hundreds of people were now either watching the corner show or were the show themselves. Dressed in L.A. spring garb—that is, thigh-length shorts, jeans, T-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, cheap nylon windbreakers, and baseball caps—they were busy gulping beers, sipping Cokes, and milling about the intersection like it was some kind of urban beach party. “
Fuck y’all, we killin’,” one snarled into the lens of a TV camera. “Cops gonna die,” promised a second. “Tonight it’s Uzi time,” shouted a third.
“Uzi time” was just another way of saying payback time. That’s what all those bats and
looting and burning of Tom’s Liquor and Deli on the intersection’s corner—represented; that and the brutality of living life on the lowest economic rung of America’s increasingly slippery ladder of opportunity. Payback time for Rodney King.
Lomas, a Chicano U.S. Marine Corps veteran and gun-totin’
enforcer of Florencia 13’s drug deals in the age of crack wars and easy
money, had understood that rage. Understood it in the way that one underdog understands another. So he should have been primed to vicariously feel the thrill of the brothers who were acting out their hatred of the LAPD on the head of Reginald Denny.
But Lomas and the others now watching the scene on a crack-house TV were not down with what was happening to the bleeding and now unconscious Denny.
Smashing a concrete block into some innocent guy’s head and then
dancing around in celebration while pointing and spitting on him solely because of his skin color—that was just wrong. Not to mention the guy who’d rolled Denny over and methodically rifled through his pockets,
stealing his wallet and taking off. What kind of shit was that?
Nevertheless, what the twenty-six-year-old Lomas and every gang banger in the room could
relate to was the farce that was the acquittal of the cops who’d beaten Rodney Glen King.
semi-illiterate high school dropout who
worked at Dodger Stadium, King had a
Baby Huey image on the street and penny-ante criminal aspirations. Once a
$200 robbery of a 99 Market—during which he was chased out of the store by its irate Korean owner, who beat him with a three-foot metal rod he’d yanked off a display case—had landed him in prison for a year.
They could feel for King, a guy still
on parole who’d downed a
forty-ounce Olde English 800 malt liquor and was
speeding down the freeway in the outer reaches L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, lost in the music of the night, when his reverie was suddenly interrupted by two highway patrol officers ordering him to pull over.
Scared of being sent back to prison on a parole violation, the twenty-five-year-old King took the officers on a high-speed chase instead. Finally pulling over, he peacefully exited his
white economy-sized Hyundai, only to be
twice zapped with 50,000-volt Taser darts, brutally beaten, and then
hog-tied by the four LAPD officers from the local Foothill Division who’d arrived on the scene and decided to take the collar.
Twenty-seven other responding cops, meanwhile, casually stood around and watched the show while rubbernecking passengers in cars
and buses drifted by, and a plumber named
George Holliday, wielding a handheld video camera, stood on his condo balcony and recorded it all.
The crack-house crew, in short, understood exactly what had happened to Rodney King. They weren’t black, but they weren’t white either. They were Mexican-Americans who’d grown up hard in a gang-infested dump of a neighborhood in Huntington Park, just across Alameda Boulevard from the vast, impoverished, 650,000-strong black and increasingly Latino area known as South Los Angeles—an area better known by the name of one of its sections: South Central L.A. They knew about L.A. cops, and they knew about ass-kicking, L.A. cop–style—which, as Alfred Lomas would later tell it, “
basically consisted of three or four cops handcuffing a person, and just literally beating him, often until unconscious . . . punching, beating, kicking.”
Several actions, if taken by anyone like Alfred Lomas, would essentially guarantee an ass-beating. One was talking back. Another, as Lomas put it, would be “if they had to get out of their patrol car, or if you crossed over into a white neighborhood—that was always a surefire ass-beating.” In short, Lomas and the crew did not need some guy on TV droning on and explaining how what was happening now was related to what had happened to Rodney King fourteen months ago. They knew.
Stacey Koon, he knew too. The veteran LAPD sergeant, who’d directed the Rodney King show as the other indicted cops whacked away, had seen it as nothing particularly noteworthy, just a routine job, well done. Or as he later put it: “We take Rodney King into custody, he doesn’t get seriously injured. We don’t get injured. He goes to jail. That’s the way the system’s
supposed to work.”
And not coincidentally, that was just the way that Alfred Lomas understood both the beating and the system as he’d first watched George Holliday’s video fourteen months earlier.
In fact, Lomas and his crew’s first words as they watched the video were not “
Wow! The cops are beating his ass so bad!” but “Wow! The cops are beating his ass just like they always beat ours, so why are all these people [on television]
acting like this is something new, some big surprise?”
The reality was that the officers had done “
a lot more than just whack Rodney with their batons,” according to now retired LAPD assistant chief David Dotson, who’d been among the first to see the video and read the officers’ reports. “The arresting officers at the scene did not fully report what happened—that they had dragged him across the street, hog-tied, and Tasered him.
And once their report was handed in, nobody said, ‘Wait a minute, King’s injuries are not consistent with what was written in the report [which was falsified], because nobody thought that what happened shouldn’t have happened. They knew what they were doing was wrong and against policy and regulation, but the officers went to trial and said, ‘Well, that’s the way we do things.’ And, in fact, that was the way things were done then in divisions like Foothill”—in divisions with concentrations of poor blacks and Latinos who were moving, unwelcomed, into otherwise white areas and who needed to be taught the rules of the game.
The rules of that game had also been well taught inside the department, according to Dotson. “You told the story you thought would sell, and covered everything else up, knowing nobody would dig into it, because before the tape surfaced nobody thought that Rodney’s beating was anything out of the ordinary, much less a huge scandal or a landmark incident.”
Yet Alfred Lomas felt a twinge of excitement as he watched the King beating video. He realized that the misty clouds shielding the truth about how the LAPD actually dealt with people in L.A.’s ghettos and barrios were finally being lifted.
Now occupying his attention, however, was the scene of
Reginald Denny’s battered body still lying at the intersection, beaten, battered and unrescued. Earlier,
LAPD patrol officers had been present at the location. But when things started heating up, they’d been ordered to flee the scene and
report to a police command center thirty blocks away. As a result, viewers all around the nation started asking a variation of the question Alfred Lomas was now posing to no one in particular: “
Where the fuck are the cops?”