The Rodney King beating set off a spark within Los Angeles' black community, and when the four officers charged with assaulting him were acquitted, that spark exploded into the worst riots our country had seen in decades, or possibly ever.
Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard, a former husband and wife news reporting power duo, caught some of the most important footage to come out of the April 1992 LA riots in their helicopter far above the disintegrating City of Angels. The Huffington Post spoke with both Tur and Gerrard, now divorced, about their unique vantage point, what they feel went wrong and how they found themselves live-broadcasting the horrific beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny at the now famed corner of Florence and Normandie in South Los Angeles.
HuffPost: What was the sequence of events that led to you being in your helicopter capturing the (now famous) Reginald Denny beating on camera?
Marika Gerrard: At that time, we were working with KCOP and KNX news radio, so we had our own assignment desk and we were pretty much able to assign ourselves whatever we wanted to cover. So we were prepared. We were sitting in the hangar waiting for the verdict and when the verdict actually came out, Bob happened to have just walked out of the hangar into the bathroom. I had to run out and bang on the bathroom door yelling, "Let the riots begin!" We were absolutely positive that it was not going to be taken lightly by the community.
Bob Tur: When I told my contacts at the KCOP assignment desk that we were getting ready to take off to cover the impending violence, they told me, "Don't bother going until 10 o'clock and tell the city that everything is calm." I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had a two-way radio in my hand, and I threw it across the floor. They were so out of touch with the community. And that really underscores one of the contributing factors to the LA riots: political correctness blinded a lot of people. It's almost like a malignancy that white people suffer from. So I was told not to fly, but I ignored it, and we took off and flew the helicopter to South Central.
Prior to the LA riots, we went down there and talked to cops and gang members and we were told by the gang members, "We're going to kill white people and Hispanics and Buddha Heads," and I believed them. We flew over South Central in the area controlled by the Crips, between 83rd Street and Normandie, and it wasn’t long before we saw the very first violence. It began with looting and then it spread out to the street. About an hour or so later, we saw people throwing rocks and bottles at passing automobiles.
How did filming the Reginald Denny beating alter the course of the riots at that time?
Gerrard: I think what it showed really clearly was that the police were not going to do anything. If it's something as horrific as someone being beaten to death live on TV, and the police are not showing up, well it sure gave a powerful message to the community. So the violence started there and then it became a loot-fest. It also pointed out to people that there's a thin line in civilization. If enough people decide not to do what's right -- not to obey the law -- then there's not enough police to contain it.
Tur: People individually are smart. Mobs are incredibly stupid and dangerous. The impact that the video had is it saved lives. It saved Mr. Denny's life. It saved the lives of countless people -– this confirmed by the LA County's D.A. office –- because we warned people to stay out of the area. Yet, by televising in real-time that the police were not going to show up, it caused a billion dollars of damage in looting. The only thing that can stop a riot, and it has to be done early on, is violence. What was required of the police was to have gone at Florence and Normandie and, on live TV, shoot at least one or two people, sending the message that this will not stand.
But understandably, the police did not want to be seen on live TV shooting people. Because they weren't going to be backed up. Nobody was going to stick their neck out. The only people that stuck their necks out for the city were the reporters covering the story.
What did it feel like to be a reporter at that time?
Gerrard: One of the things that keeps going through your mind as you cover a story like this is, "How is this possible? How is this my city?" And you're looking around and seeing major fires everywhere, smoke everywhere. And you're starting to wonder, "How is this going to end?" But then we would drive home for an hour's rest to the Pacific Palisades, and it's like nothing's happened.
Tur: We didn't stop flying for three days. We only stopped long enough to make sure the kids were okay and to take a shower and get back out there. It was three days of rough work and under dangerous, difficult conditions. We were not immune to the violence down below. We were shot at. We took $154,000 worth of damage to the aircraft.
Watching the violence take place on the streets below was horrific. It was a horrific time and we felt helpless. It just showed really how quickly things can devolve. We're seeing some of the very first signs of it in Florida right now with the Trayvon Martin case. That’s why George Zimmerman has been charged. If he was not going to be charged, there was no way he could have been convicted. It was done just to cool down racial tension and I totally understand why.
How different does Los Angeles feel to you now? Or could you imagine the riots happening in the way they did, but tomorrow or next week?
Gerrard: It's very disheartening to me that 20 years later, it's almost like nothing's changed.
Tur: Riots could absolutely happen. The Los Angeles Times recently published a puff piece about the differences between then and now and it was such a disservice to the community. I was just at Florence and Normandie this morning and twice while down there, I was threatened. I had one guy come up to me who saw the camera and said, "you better not be back here when I get back or you're going to die." I had another guy come up and preach Jesus to me and tell me I was going to go to hell for bringing negativity to the 'hood.
Gerrard: Things have gotten worse because when we started in this business in 1978, you could go down to the inner city with a camera and a news crew and they saw you as a reporter; you didn't get bothered. I remember being in the projects at 11 o'clock at night and walking back by myself to the car to get a camera battery. I had a press pass around my neck and these four gangster-looking guys are walking towards me and they stopped me and said, "Hey do you know Connie Chung?" [laughs] And I look at them and I said, "Oh yeah I do." And they said, "Oh cool!"
Tur: It has changed. The media no longer has the respect of the community. And rightfully so.
Gerrard: They're not seen as going down there to help. They're seen as going down there to exploit.
When you were filming the Denny beating, did you think you were watching someone die?
Tur: Yes. Marika actually said on the intercom, "I never thought that I would be shooting the very bookend to the iconic Rodney King video. "
Gerrard: But the weird thing is because I was looking at it in black and white through the screen, it didn't really hit me until I landed and looked at it in color. I did not think he survived. It was just such a horrible thing to watch. But there was so much going on and you're so busy trying to do your job. At one point my dad called us on the phone in the helicopter and said, "Land the helicopter. Get my daughter out of there!"
You mentioned the helicopter being shot. Was there a point when you thought you were going to have to just leave the area?
Gerrard: No, but I do remember hearing Bob say, "They're shooting at us," and I remember thinking, "They're not shooting at you! They're shooting at me -- I'm in the open door way!" Anybody that shoots camera will tell you that you get this false sense of security like you're watching TV. That is why camera people are always getting shot. They stand up and think, "They can't see me."
You've talked about what it felt to be reporters at this time, but what did it feel like to be parents? You guys were doing such important and risky work but you were in one helicopter as the parents of two children at the time.
Gerrard: In retrospect, it was a really stupid thing for me to be doing -- potentially putting my kids in danger of being orphans, but it didn't even occur to me. I was young enough to have a sense of immortality. That is one of the benefits of having kids fairly young.
Do you remember how you explained what was going on to your children?
Gerrard: We had to talk to them a lot because afterwards, when Bob was testifying. We had a lot of death threats and police driving by our house, supposedly, to make sure we were okay. We tried to emphasize that we thought what we were doing was important and that we would keep them safe.
We talked to them a lot about what was happening in the city from the time they were little kids. They were up in the helicopter with us some of the other times that we saw police attacking suspects and so they had unfortunately -- or fortunately -- a very healthy disrespect for authority [laughs]. Being journalists, we had a lot of run-ins with the police. Our kids have a strong sense of justice but they also were very skeptical of authority.
Bob, you were the first person to find OJ's Bronco … and some feel that the OJ trial outcome was retribution for the Rodney King verdict. How do you feel about that?
Tur: OJ was payback. The evidence was undeniable, and yet, he was acquitted.
Gerrard: It was an emotional reaction to what had happened in the community -- what the LAPD had done -- they created this monster.
Tur: The LAPD really was a paramilitary force and was so good at following orders, that when the LAPD ordered their officers to retreat during the riots, they all did. If they weren't such a paramilitary force and so used to following orders, many officers would have stayed behind and said, "Screw that, I'm going to rescue Reginald Denny, I'm going to save lives." They didn't like it, but they did what they were told. They resent being called cowards and the LAPD officers aren't cowards. They followed orders.
That was the problem: lost common sense, following orders to the letter and losing your humanity. It was us versus them and that is what helped create the Los Angeles Riots.
There's a reason why all those police officers, in full view of the public, believed they could beat Rodney King as viciously and as long as they did without any fear of prosecution. It is still that way. Until you have a police force that can think for themselves and have a sense of community and humanity, these things will happen time and time again.
You both make an appearance in VH1's new documentary "Uprising: Hip Hop And The LA Riots." Have you seen it yet?
Gerrard: No, not yet!
Tur: There's a part with Henry Watson standing at the intersection talking about a revolution, saying something to the effect of, "It's a revolution, and in a revolution people die." He is a coward. He is a big coward because people die as long as it's not him. He was trying to kill a man that was bleeding to death, with ninety-seven fractures in his skull. He was not a revolutionary. I hope you print this. The man is a coward.
It wasn't a revolution. These guys didn't even know the Rodney King verdict at the time. They were questioned by homicide detectives after being arrested, and they didn't even know about the verdict. All they knew was that the police weren't there; the police had deserted the city. So, there you have it.
BROWSE PHOTOS OF THE MAJOR PLAYERS FROM THE LA RIOTS:
All captions and photos by Associated Press.
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