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Good guys who did the right thing during the Rodney King riots
Edward James Olmos
Olmos was preparing to take American Me to Cannes when the riots broke out. After watching the televised images in shock, on Thursday the Boyle Heights-born actor went to seven TV and three radio stations urging people to stop looting. AS he turned off Western onto Sunset en route to KTLA, a youth was shot, falling directly in front of Olmos’ red turbo Porsche, blood oozing from his head. The boy’s friend was screaming, “We wasn’t doing nothing! We wasn’t doing nothing!” After the ambulance took him away, Olmos continued on to KTLA, where he implored viewers, “If you have any loved ones, don’t let them back on the street.” Asked what he was going to do next, Olmos said, “I’m just going to grab a broom and start sweeping.” At the next station, he elaborated: He would clean the sidewalk in front of the First AME Church.
And a 5 a.m. on Friday, accompanied by friends Danny Haro and Fernando Cubillas, he began sweeping. Soon, a truckload of Community Youth Gang Services members arrived, followed by a woman across the street, who came out with her broom. “Within an hour, we were 100,” Olmos says, “and we were 600 in two hours. We covered eight square miles the first day, and by the next day, there were tens of thousands sweeping the streets.”
What’s most amazing, he says, is that “I never asked anyone to join me. I just said I was going to go out and sweep.”
Bertila Pozo and Family
The rat-a-tat-tat of automatic-weapon fire rang through the night as Captain Carl Butler and five firefighters of Task Force 50 rolled up to the shopping center at Vermont and Vernon. Looters were streaming in and out of the ABC Market, despite the danger of collapsing walls. So Butler’s men threw up an aerial ladder with a hose, to shoot water into the fire.
Suddenly, an old Cadillac roared up. A gangbanger later identified as Trynon Lee Jefferson, nicked “Psycho,” stuck an AK-47 in Butler’s face. “He was the wildest-looking thing I ever saw…I knew I was going to die,” Butler recalls. As a hostile crowd taunted and three other gunmen menaced the firefighters, Butler handed the assailant his $3,000 radio, and the men ran for their lives, leaving behind the hook and ladder with hoses still blasting. Terrified, the men pounded on Pozo’s front door, and the El Salvadoran seamstress, who supports her two daughters by sewing pillows in her tiny two-story house, gave them refuge. With nine-year-old daughter Vittian serving as translator, they awaited help until an LAPD SWAT team arrived 45 minutes later. A patrol car escorted the men back to their bullet-riddled truck, where they resumed fighting the fire. Butler’s radio was recovered two days later, when police shot Jefferson after he’d ambushed three police officers.
Unfortunately, the story does not end there Shortly before dawn on May 1, Vittian aroused her sleeping family to warn them she smelled smoke. The wind had blown burning embers from a fire at a nearby furniture store onto their roof, and the Pozos escaped with only the clothes on their backs.
The last week of April was Ogino’s first anniversary as manager of the Ralphs supermarket at Olympic and Western. He celebrated by keeping his store open while others around him burned to the ground. Ogino, who is of Japanese ancestry, was born and raised in Silverlake and began working as a box boy at Ralphs when the was 18. “I’ve been working in stores like this my whole career,” he says. “It probably helps that I relate to their neighborhood.”
So, as he realized, despite the turmoil, that he had customers lining up to buy milk and eggs, Ogino says, “I sent the female employees home, and the male employees—10 of us—took over.” He stacked shopping carts into a barricade for protection and directed customers to line up along the front of the store, letting them in a few at a time. “You could tell who really intended to shop and who just wanted to cause trouble.” The Boys Market down the street was cleaned out, the Mobil service station across the street was torched and there were even a few short periods where the situation became so dangerous that Ogino had to shut down, but he was always able to reopen. For a while, he says, “we weren’t sure if we were going to make it.”
The Reverend Cecil L. Murray
Two weeks before the riots, Mayor Tom Bradley convened a group of black community leaders to strategize what to do if the King Jurors reached “an unpopular decision.” It was decided that Murray’s First AME Church would be control central if trouble came. “It was a prophetic meeting,” Murray says.
On the first night, fires threatened the building. Told that firemen would come only if guaranteed protection, Murray and 100 volunteers stood guard for nearly three hours. Then, for days, some 5,000 volunteers worked out of the church, which became “sort of a clearinghouse and logistical center.” Even Ted Koppel broadcast a community forum from the church basement.
For several nights, the church provided a haven for person made homeless by fires, until the Red Cross provided other shelter. And when things finally calmed down in South-Central, the First AME became a most visible hub for the distribution of emergency food and clothing from all of the city. “Our volunteers came from every ethnicity, from every state west of the Mississippi,” Murray says proudly. He believes that good will come from the ashes if “our community can be made new, built on a new understanding, with new indigenous leadership.”
When he saw on TV how bad things were getting, Kim took home the computers from his Sam Tuo Bookstore at Olympic and Normandie for safekeeping. He knew that if looters came, they would be likely to take those than the 100,000-plus paperback books—Sam Tuo is L.A.’s largest purveyor of Korean-language books.
But he also knew that a fire could wipe him out. If they throw something in, he thought, we have to be here to throw it back out. So he and his employees began a 24-hour-a-day watch over not just Sam Tuo but the entire little shopping center—even though the other merchants were too afraid to join them. He rented a moving van and parked it in front of his store, and when nightfall came, the men took turns upstairs on the walkway. Twice, in the middle of the first night, he recalls, carloads of looters came and were scared away. “I would say, ‘Please leave. I have guns. I don’t want to shoot.’” He never took the guns outside, “but if they came in my store, yes, I would shoot—this is my store.” Finally at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, the National Guard came. And even though Kim and his cohorts kept up their watch, “it was the first night we had a good sleep.”
Bobby Green, Lei Yuille, Terri Barnett and Titus Murphy
Yuille, a nutritionist, was horrified at what she was seeing live on television. A white trucker, Reginald Deny, had just been pulled from his 18-wheeler and beaten senseless. “My brother verbalized that we were Christians and out to go help that man,” Yuille recalls. So the two of them drove two and a half miles to the now-infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie. At the same time, a few miles away, Murphy, an unemployed aerospace worker, and Barnett, an unemployed data-control clerk, reached the same conclusion. It took them 15 minutes to make up their minds to venture down there, because no one was around the babysit Barnett’s eight-year-old daughter, Mimi. Finally, they just told her to lie down in the backseat. Green had just gotten home from work when he, too, saw the footage. “He’s a trucker, and I’m a trucker,” he says. “I knew I had to go.”
Yuille was the first to arrive—alone, because she’d lost her brother in the crowd. By that time, Denny had struggled back into the red cab, his eyes swollen shut and blood streaming from his face. She climbed on top of the fuel tank and directed him as he attempted to drive away. Then Barnett pulled alongside, and Yuille yelled at her to drive in front and clear a path. She began driving a zigzag pattern across all three lanes, her flashers blinking and her horn blasting. Her friend, Murphy, decided that he had better jump into the truck and drive.
At that moment, Green ran up on the river’s side and climbed into the cab. As he drove, Yuille got in and cradled Denny’s bleeding head, while Murphy took her place on the running board, giving directions to Green, who couldn’t see out the shattered windshield. “At least 1,000 people were running alongside, screaming and throwing things,” Murphy recalls, “and there were cars coming at us diagonally.” It took about five minutes to deliver Denny to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital. Upon arrival, he went into convulsions, and the paramedics told Murphy that if they’d been only a few minutes later, he would have been dead. “I never thought about the fear,” he recalls. “I just knew we had to get him to the hospital. It was like we were on a mission.”
Photographs by Scott C. Shulman