A Broken City: Remembering The L.A. Riots

Twenty years later, first-person accounts of the Los Angeles riots from Angelenos Titus Murphy, Ted Soqui and Rhonda Mitchell, who first told their stories to L.A. Magazine.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Back here at home, today, of course, marks 20 years since the city of Los Angeles erupted in six days of rioting. It happened a few hours after a jury acquitted four L.A. police officers in the beating of the black motorist Rodney King. We called up a few Angelenos who were recently profiled in Los Angeles Magazine to hear their recollections of those devastating days.

We begin with Ted Soqui, a freelance photographer who was working for the L.A. Weekly newspaper at the time. That day, he was buying film at a camera store.

TED SOQUI: I didn't know it would be the last film I'd be able to buy for a long time, but the manager, (unintelligible) store we are now closed. And I thought I heard something and I go, why - you guys are a 24-hour camera store. Why are you closing? He goes, well, somebody just drove by and just shot up the store. And, like, the sound I heard was gunfire.

RAZ: For the next five days, Ted Soqui spent nights developing photos in his garage. Other photographers were being beaten, so Ted figured out a way to keep a low profile.

SOQUI: So I'm thinking, OK, take off my press credentials. I took a paper bag, because everybody was carrying bags, and they were looting or - and I just figured I could blend in if I carry a bag. I put a hole in it, and I would cover the hole with my hand. And if I saw something, I'd remove my hand from the hole and take a quick picture, you know, to work in a situation that could get you killed or beaten up or both.

RAZ: Also that day, Titus Murphy was driving through the mayhem of South Central L.A. with his girlfriend when they happened upon a truck driver, Reginald Denny, and he was badly beaten. He was cowering in the back of his truck, and there was no one at the wheel. After Titus saw him, he ran to his car and told his girlfriend he was going to drive the truck to the hospital.

TITUS MURPHY: And as I was running back to the truck, I noticed there was a tall figure running towards the truck as well. He went to the driver's side, so I ran back to the passenger side and stood on the runner boards, and I asked him, what are you going to do? Because I thought I would have to fight this guy. And I guess he was thinking the same thing as I was that he would have to take me out. Then at that moment, he told me he was a truck driver and I thought, wow, that's it. Let's go.

RAZ: They drove toward Daniel Freeman Hospital. And when they got there, Titus ran for some nearby paramedics.

MURPHY: And he came over to the truck. They placed him on a gurney, laid him on his back. And as soon as they laid him on his back, he started having convulsions, blood coming out of his mouth like it was under pressure. Just coming out of his mouth about a foot above his head. Right then, that's when they realized that, wow, we saved his life because a minute or two later, he was going - he would pass away.

RAZ: Rhonda Mitchell was working as a 911 operator for the city of Los Angeles at the time. She was actually at work when she heard the verdict on the radio.

RHONDA MITCHELL: I was so disappointed, I was so angry, and I just unplugged my headset, and I just sat there for a minute. The verdicts came down that afternoon. And at 6:00 a.m. the next day, I was back at work and fielding 911 calls from people that were sounding very desperate. Their businesses were burning, or they were being looted, or they were hearing gunshots. And most of my response, which is really sad, and it was really - it was that the police couldn't respond.

RAZ: A few days in, police set up a command center in the heart of an area that had seen heavy riots and violence, and they asked Rhonda to go.

MITCHELL: And I said, oh, yeah. Sure. I'll go. And they said, we want you to wear your uniform. And I said, absolutely not. So I ended up going and working the command center, but I did not wear my uniform.

RAZ: There was something else that happened that night, April 29, 1992, a small miracle. That if it happened at any other time, would probably go down in L.A. sports history as one of the great moments. I remember it because I was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The Lakers still have a little (unintelligible).

RAZ: That night, the L.A. Lakers were about to be eliminated from the NBA playoffs. The fact that they had even made it was something of a miracle. At the beginning of the season, Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive and that he'd step aside from basketball. But somehow, the Lakers still made it to the playoffs without him.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

RAZ: The Portland Trailblazers destroyed the Lakers in games one and two. Game three was to be the end of the season. But with heart and courage, the Lakers took the game into overtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're going into overtime.

RAZ: And with six seconds left, Sedale Threatt hit a free throw, putting the Lakers up by two. The crowd at the Forum went wild. I love L.A. blared from the loudspeakers. Twenty-five thousand people chants: We love it. We love it. We love it. With five seconds left, Portland's Clyde The Glide Drexler went for a three pointer.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He will take a three, and it almost went. (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible) Lakers are still alive.

RAZ: The Lakers stayed alive for a few more days. And in that arena that night, for those few moments, L.A. felt like there was nothing that could tear it apart. And only when my dad and I walked out of the Forum, still flying high from that victory, could we see that it was an illusion. The city was on fire, and it was tearing apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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