Police, seemingly caught off-guard, were quickly outnumbered by rioters and retreated. As the uprising spread to the city's Koreatown area, shop owners armed themselves and engaged in running gun battles with looters.
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"I think we did the right thing," says attorney David Kim, who had gone on Korean-language radio to encourage people to take up arms because the police weren't protecting them.
Not that violence had been totally unexpected.
In the weeks before the verdict, nearly a dozen black community leaders had been meeting regularly with then-Mayor Tom Bradley, discussing what to do if there was an acquittal, the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray recounts.
When the verdict was announced, some 150 volunteers fanned out across the city, urging calm, says Murray, retired pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and now a religious studies professor at the University of Southern California. They were successful in some instances and likely would have been more so if police had backed them up, he says.
King himself, in his recently published memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption," says FBI agents warned him a riot was expected if the officers walked. They advised him to keep a low profile so as not to inflame passions.
He did until the third day, when he went on television and made an emotional plea for calm, famously asking, "Can we all get along?"
In the aftermath, much of the blame was placed on Police Chief Daryl Gates, who resigned under pressure soon after.
Before the uprising, Gates had been hailed in national police circles as an innovator, widely credited with helping pioneer both the modern police special weapons and tactics team and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program that partners police with schools.
Until his death in 2010, he angrily defended his actions, accusing his officers of failing to carry out a plan he said was in place to stop any trouble. He was particularly critical of his command staff for leading the retreat.
"The captain, lieutenant, deputy chiefs, commanders — they all screwed up in my judgment," Gates, who had been chief for 14 years, told The Associated Press in 2002.
Whoever was to blame, Gates remains a polarizing figure in LA's black community, where words like Gestapo, Nazi and racist are routinely used to describe the way he ran the LAPD.
After the riot, a number of reforms were instituted, including limiting a police chief to a maximum of two five-year terms. Stricter guidelines in the way the LAPD investigates civilian complaints and disciplines its officers were also implemented after both federal officials and an independent review board concluded the department had for years been guilty of a pattern of civil rights abuses.
Anger toward the department as a whole is less intense now.
"Cops are still cops," says Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles. "They do lots of things we don't like but this idea you're under threat of assassination or torture or beating, it's just not as present anymore."
"There is no figure on the scene in this region that has the vitriol, the racism and the open disregard for the citizens of this city that Darryl Gates had," Harris-Dawson adds.
Violent crime fell citywide by 76 percent between 1992 and 2010, according to Los Angeles police statistics.
Meanwhile, tensions between the black and Korean communities have lessened over the years, according to both sides. Rioters targeted and caused $400 million worth of damage to Korean-American businesses, many of them liquor stores that residents said were blights on the community. Language barriers and cultural differences were also key.
Tom's Liquor, on the corner of Florence and Normandie, was once notorious in the neighborhood for selling hardly anything but booze and for allowing drunks to congregate out front.
The Korean-born Oh, who took ownership three years ago, says he has gone out of his way to treat all his customers as special and to learn the names of his regulars.
"It's just common sense to communicate with people, to understand each other, to know each other's cultures," Oh says.
Since taking charge, Oh says, he has asked the drinkers to leave, painted over the graffiti and expanded his inventory to include a selection of food, baby items and other goods he says people have told him they are hard-pressed to find in the neighborhood.
About a mile from Florence and Normandie things have gotten better. A popular strip mall has sprouted, developed by Magic Johnson and others. It boasts a Starbucks, a grocery store, several name-brand shops and a Jamba Juice where $4 fruit smoothies were selling fast on a recent day.
Many problems still persist in nearby neighborhoods, however.
Some businesses never returned after they were destroyed, including Maria Muniz's father's welding workshop. Unable to buy new equipment, he never reopened. Eventually her parents divorced and her mother took a job in a sweatshop.
"I don't know what would have been of our lives if the riots hadn't happened," says Muniz, who now works for Community Coalition.
Watson, meanwhile, has gotten on with his life. He's become a successful businessman, having "taken lemons and made lemonade," he likes to say with a laugh.
He has two daughters in college and for years has operated his own limousine business. Following a drug possession bust a few years after the riot he has stayed out of trouble and now helps keep watch on his neighborhood, just as his late father once did. He has spent most of his life in the neighborhood, returning to the house he grew up in last year to care for his elderly mother.
His limo customers, he says, have included everyone from a Saudi Arabian princess he chauffeured last year to people from the neighborhood celebrating birthdays and weddings and, as more Hispanics have moved into the area, quinceaneras.
"You get a sense of pride and accomplishment when you can help a person's evening or event and you see the smiles and the love and the joy on their faces," says the burly Watson, breaking into a smile himself.
Asked if he feels badly about what he did to Denny, he says simply that what happened to the trucker that day was "unfortunate."
"But I can't take it back. There's nothing I can do."
Watson did apologize personally to Denny some years ago, the only one of his attackers to do so. Another time he offered to send a limo to pick him up and take him to Florence and Normandie, then somewhere afterward where the two could have a drink and talk.
He says Denny, who lives quietly in Arizona these days, declined. The trucker has shunned interviews for years, and repeated attempts to contact him by mail, phone and in person for this story were unsuccessful.
"He chooses to remain in private," Watson said. "And we respect his privacy. So be it."