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.
King's videotaped beating on the night of March 3, 1991, triggered the riot a year later when the officers who beat him were acquitted of all charges. During the ensuing violence, he went on national TV to plead with people, "Can we all get along?" In the years since he has been arrested numerous times, mainly for alcohol-related crimes, and has made several attempts at rehabilitation, including an appearance on television's "Celebrity Rehab." He received a $3.8 million settlement from the city but recently told The Associated Press much of that money was lost to bad investments. He's currently on a tour promoting his just-published memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption." Caption by Associated Press. On April 13, 2012, Rodney King poses for a portrait in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Holliday, a plumber, was awakened by a traffic stop outside his San Fernando Valley home on the night of March 3, 1991. He went outside to film it with his new video camera, catching four officers beating and kicking black motorist Rodney King. The video's subsequent broadcast led to worldwide outrage and criminal charges against the officers. When they were acquitted the following year, the riot broke out. Holliday declined to discuss the 20th anniversary of the riot. A friend, Roby Massarotto, told The Associated Press he is busy working on a documentary about the making of his famous video. Caption by Associated Press. George Holliday points to the spot along a roadside in the Lake View Terrace section of Los Angeles where he videotaped Rodney King being beaten in April 1992, during a news conference, Saturday, April 26, 1997. (AP Photo/E.J. Flynn)
Denny, the white truck driver who drove into the epicenter of rage and was pulled by several black men from his cab and nearly beaten to death, underwent numerous operations to repair his shattered head, put an eye back into its socket and reset his jaw. After the beating, he publicly forgave his attackers and even met with one of them on Phil Donahue's television show. Since then, he has remained steadfastly out of the limelight, living quietly in Arizona, and declining interview requests. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press on the riot's 20th anniversary. Caption by Associated Press. During taping of the "Donahue" show in New York, Monday November 8, 1993, Reginald Denny, left, the truck driver beaten in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and Henry Keith Watson, charged with Denny's beating and recently acquitted, are shaking hands, as show host Phil Donahue, center, looks on. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)
Green was one of the riot's greatest heroes. The black truck driver was watching the violence unfold on television at his Los Angeles home when he saw Denny being attacked and quickly headed to the scene. He helped push Denny back into his truck's cab and then drove him to the hospital, saving his life. Later, despite threats and insults from the community, he went on to testify against Denny's attackers. He and his family have since moved to a suburb east of Los Angeles and he did not respond to messages for comment. On the 10th anniversary of the riot, he told the Los Angeles Times: "I can tell my kids that color is on the outside, not the inside. To me, I turned justice around and showed them that all black people ain't the same as you think." Caption by Associated Press. This fictionalized account of Green's story re-enacts the events and the story about Denny's trucking company's attempt to hire him.
Watson was one of several men videotaped attacking white truck driver Reginald Denny at the beginning of the riot. He was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to time served for the 17 months he spent in jail before his case was resolved. Watson, who later apologized to Denny, is a successful businessman who operates his own limousine business in Los Angeles. He has two daughters in college and recently returned to his childhood home, near the site where Denny was attacked, to care for his elderly mother. Caption by Associated Press. On April 19, 2012, Henry Keith Watson poses for a portrait on the corner of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles, where Watson and others dragged truck driver Reginald Denny from his cab and beat him severely on the first night of rioting. ( (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Williams (right) was the attacker seen on videotape smashing Denny in the back of the head with a brick. He was convicted of mayhem, assault and other charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released after four years, he was convicted of the 2000 murder of a Los Angeles drug dealer and sentenced to 46 years to life in prison, where he remains. Miller was convicted of robbing Denny during the beating and sentenced to 27 months of probation. He was shot to death in a Hollywood nightclub in 2005. Williams, who was videotaped going through Denny's pockets as he lay on the ground, pleaded guilty to beating and attempting to rob the truck driver. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Caption by Associated Press. he four men charged in the beating and robbery of truck driver Reginald Denny during the Los Angeles riots appear in an Los Angeles courtroom, May 14, 1992, from left to right are Henry Keith Watson, Damian Monroe Williams, Gary Williams, and Antoine Miller. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Du is the Korean grocer whose killing of a 15-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins, in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice, raised tensions in the black community when it came just two weeks after King's beating. Tensions escalated even more when she was convicted of manslaughter but sentenced only to probation and community service. Many in LA's black community still say that played almost as big a role in triggering the riot as King's beating. Du, who still lives in Los Angeles, did not respond to a phone message for comment. Caption by Associated Press. Soon Ja Du, 51, left, leaves court with har husband Billy Hong Ki Du Tuesday in Los Angeles, Nov. 24, 1992. (AP Photo/Chris Martinez)
Gates had been Los Angeles' chief of police for 14 years when the rioting erupted and was pressured to retire shortly afterward. Until then, he had been nationally respected for pioneering such innovations in policing as the special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs that partner police with schools. But he was also a polarizing force in the city's black community over perceived racism and remarks like one he made that blacks were more likely to die when placed in police chokeholds because their arteries did not reopen as quickly as those of "normal people." Gates, who blamed his command staff for letting the riot get out of control, died of cancer in 2010. He was 83. Caption by Associated Press. File photo of Chief Daryl Gates.
Koon was the police sergeant in charge when Rodney King was beaten. A 14-year veteran of the LAPD who had been commended repeatedly for his work, he has always maintained that King's arrest was handled properly. In his book, "Presumed Guilty: The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair," Koon blamed the riot on the news media and city officials. Acquitted of criminal charges, he was later convicted of violating King's civil rights and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Koon, 61, retired after the King beating and lives in an LA suburb. Caption by Associated Press. Los Angeles Police Sgt. Stacey Koon, left, and his attorney Daryl Mounger walk down a courtroom hallway as officer Ted Briseno follows, rear, as they arrive for the second day of their assault trial in the beating of motorist Rodney King in Simi Valley, Calif. on Friday, March 6, 1992. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Powell is the officer seen on the video hitting King more than 40 times. Acquitted of criminal charges, he was convicted of violating King's civil rights and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Powell, who lives in the San Diego area, has said he will no longer discuss the incident. Caption by Associated Press. Los Angeles Police Officer Laurence Powell sits in a Los Angeles courtroom Friday morning May 23, 1992 waiting for the start of a pretrial hearing. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Wind, a highly regarded rookie cop until the King beating, is seen on the videotape striking King with his baton. Acquitted of all charges, he was still fired by the LAPD and struggled in subsequent years to find work. He eventually enrolled in law school and has moved to the Midwest. Caption by Associated Press. Former Los Angeles police officer Timothy Wind arrives at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Monday, August 10, 1992 for arraignment on federal charges of violating the civil rights of motorist Rodney King. (AP Photo/Chris Martinez)
Briseno, who stomped on King's back during the beating (he claimed to keep him on the ground so the beating would stop), broke ranks with his fellow officers and sharply criticized their actions. A fellow police officer quoted him as saying immediately after King's arrest that the situation had been mishandled by Koon, the sergeant in charge. During his criminal trial he testified that Powell, who struck King the most, was out of control and that the beating was excessive. Acquitted of all charges, he struggled to find work afterward, at one point taking a job as a security guard. He has moved to the Midwest. Caption by Associated Press. Los Angeles police officer Theodore Briseno, demonstrates during court testimony Friday Apri 3, 1992 in Simi Valley, Calif., how motorist Rodney King put up his hands after exiting his vehicle at the conclusion of the high speed chase last March. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)