L.A. Riots: Florence And Normandie 20 Years After Rodney King
This story is part of a special Neon Tommy series revisiting the upheaval 20 years ago surrounding the Rodney King trial. See more of our anniversary coverage here.
In the early evening of April 29, 1992, Irwin Small smuggled a white customer out of his South L.A. auto shop in the trunk of a car.
"We had to get him out of there,” said Small, who still runs AC Motoring 20 years after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “And so we stuffed him in the trunk of his own car and drove him out of there.”
Small saved his client from a hostile uproar that could have ended his life. From his shop, no more than 1,000 feet from the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, Small sat front row for the most violent and devastating riot in Los Angeles’ history—more than $1 billion in property damages, 54 deaths and thousands of injured people.
Florence and Normandie was the violent epicenter where it all started on April 29. Hours after the officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted, the South Los Angeles intersection erupted with bottle rockets and structure fires as angry protesters took over the streets.
The upheaval forced the first wave of LAPD officers to retreat, leaving the area abandoned and unprotected. Cars continued to unknowingly drive through the riot’s core only to be attacked by rocks, beer cans and other hard objects.
The notorious beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny at Florence and Normandie became iconic of the riots. When gang members now known as the "L.A. Four" pulled him from his red semi and nearly pummeled him to death, Denny’s story engraved itself in the history of the surrounding community.
In 1992, only two of the intersections’ four corners were occupied by businesses -- a gas station and Tom's Liquor.
Automobile services now dominate the once dilapidated intersection. Soon after the riots, an Auto-Zone was built on the northwest corner, and now Chevron and 76 claim the roads' south corners. Scattered along Florence Avenue next to these modern operations sit small shops run mostly by people who said they weren't around 20 years ago.
The area looks dramatically different then the scene broadcasted that day when a news helicopter aired the uproar live across Los Angeles.
Nearby resident Yvette witnessed her neighborhood fall apart with her own eyes, but from an unlikely place. In the postnatal ward of Cedar Sinai Medical Center, she held her newborn baby and watched from the other side of the TV screen as her community burst into flames.
“I was giving birth when the riots started,” said Yvette, who spoke of her experience under the condition of anonymity.
The following days complicated things for Yvette and her new family.
In the early hours of April 30, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared a state of emergency and established a dusk to dawn curfew for the area south of Vernon Avenue, north of Century Boulevard, east of Crenshaw and west of the city limit. These curfews were enforced by the roughly 6,000 National Guard troops Bradley requested be brought into the city.
“My baby’s birth father couldn’t come to the hospital because of the curfews in South L.A.,” Yvette said. “If you didn’t have an ID with a local address, you couldn’t get in or out of the neighborhood.”
Comparing Florence and Normandie today to the images captured in the 1992 riots suggests great change since that fatal day in late April. But the streets still showcase abandoned businesses bound by chains and empty storefronts with barred windows -- a reminder that unemployment and crime still haunt the community.
Eric Weeks, a 51-year-old native of Philadelphia and longtime South Central resident, said he witnessed the anger of his community boil over after the four LAPD officers were acquitted in Rodney King’s trial.
“I knew something was going to happen... we all knew,” said Weeks, while sitting outside the Hand Car Wash on the corner of Florence and South Halldale Avenues. “We were tired.”
Asked about the community today, Weeks glances both ways down the street, shakes his head with pursed lips and asserts nothing has changed.
“What they say about California is true,” he said. “You come to Cali on vacation and you leave on probation.”
The men arrested in Denny’s case all grew up in the surrounding communities of South L.A. and participated in the city’s lethal gangs. The dubbed "L.A. Four" consisted of Damian Williams, Henry Watson, Antoine Mill and Gary Williams. While two additional men, Anthony Brown and Lance Parker, were also eventually charged in the attack of Denny, the nickname had already caught headlines.
Damian "Football" Williams became the most well known of the group. The 19-year-old was identified by his tattoo in the video as the man who thrust a cinder block into Denny's head, fracturing his skull in 91 places. After a lengthy trial with similar bars of debatable video footage that prolonged the Rodney King case, Williams was convicted of four misdemeanors and simple mayhem.
Williams lawyers convinced the courtroom that he had no intentions of killing Denny and argued him away from charges of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released after four for good behavior, but Williams found himself back in jail after participating in the 2000 murder of an L.A. drug dealer on 71st Street near Florence and Normandie.
It's rumored Tom's Liquor on the northeast corner of Florence and Normandie survived the destruction of April 29 because it was protected by the gang Williams and his crew were a part of--the Eight Tray gang, a branch of the notorious Los Angeles Crips. Tom's only suffered looting and exterior damages, making it one of the only structure on those four corners still in business today.
But Tom’s liquor store, and the community it serves, is still suffering from its reputation 20 years later, explained James Oh, the store’s manager. The store is still forced to close at 10 p.m., reminiscent of the National Guard-imposed curfew, instead of 2 a.m. like other convenience stores in the area.
“Many people who live near here don’t have cars. They depend on my store to get what they need,” Oh said. “The people have moved on from what happened. This is a different neighborhood now.”
Being a Korean-American liquor store owner, Oh shows no acknowledgement of the rocky history his community had with African-Americans during the riots. He says the 15-feet of bullet proof glass separating the cashier from the rest of the store was installed only after customers came to him with concerns for his own safety.
Behind the glass next to travel size bottles of whiskey and a box of Swishers sits a framed picture of Oh in full uniform after his service in Desert Storm. He says customers show him respect because of that picture.
Catty-corner to Tom's Liquor sits Art's World-Famous Chili Dogs’ touting a sign that reads “Since 1939.” The business takes up no more than 600 square feet wedged between a Chevron and an apartment complex, and looks like one of the oldest establishments in all of South L.A.
“When I started working in the neighborhood 14 years ago, the area looked like a ghost town... empty lots and buildings still vacant from the riots,” said Evann Tavarez, who works at Art's Chili Dog Stand at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. “But the neighborhood has really recovered. I’ve seen it myself.”
See below for video coverage of the changing community from ATVN.