April 26, 2012
He was at home that day like thousands of others when he heard the news that was racing across Los Angeles: A jury with no black members had acquitted four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black man stopped for speeding nearly 14 months before.
"I got caught up in the emotions like everyone else," Watson says 20 years after a riot that would leave 55 people dead, more than 2,300 injured and himself forever recognized as one of the attackers of white truck driver Reginald Denny, who himself became the enduring image of the innocents victimized during the chaos.
South Los Angeles, where the riot began, has changed considerably two decades later, as has Watson. But many things remain the same.
While racial tensions fanned by the verdict and the general feeling of disenfranchisement and distrust of police among LA's black population have moderated, residents of the city's largely black and Hispanic South Side complain that the area still is plagued by too few jobs, too few grocery stores and a lack of redevelopment that would bring more life to the area.
One place in particular that time seemingly forgot is the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where Denny was attacked on that dark day the riot began. It remains a gritty corner that's home to gas stations where men rush up to incoming cars and pump fuel for spare change, as well as a liquor store with more foot traffic than any other business in sight.
"Have things changed? Not really. People are just more mellow these days," Frank Owens says with a smile. The unemployed landscaper sat on a bus stop bench near the intersection recently, visiting with friends before going across the street to buy lottery tickets at the liquor store and joke with its owner, James Oh.
Much like Los Angeles as a whole, the neighborhood's Latino population has grown while the black population has declined.
In this part of town, high school dropout rates are higher than for the city as a whole, and only 8 percent of the area's residents have college degrees, compared with 30 percent for all residents of Los Angeles, according to American Community Survey estimates from 2006 to 2010.
More than three times as many households in the area reported yearly incomes of less than $20,000 during the same period than homes with yearly incomes of more than $100,000. That's in stark contrast to the city as a whole, where there were more households with incomes above $100,000 than those with incomes of less than $20,000.
Manuel Pastor, professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at University of Southern California, said economic distress caused by the departure of manufacturing industries and high unemployment and widespread distrust of the police department set the stage for the outrage following the King verdict.
"It's a question of if you throw a match and there's no tinder there will be no fire. If there's a lot of tinder you need a match. And there was lots of tinder," Pastor said. "There was lots of economic frustration, there was racial tension in the air."
Then word of the acquittals set it off.
"People had had enough," said Connie Rice, a director of the civil rights group Advancement Project and an attorney who has brought numerous civil rights lawsuits against the Los Angeles Police Department.
As the liquor store at the intersection of Florence and Normandie was being looted and white passersby were fleeing a barrage of rocks and bottles, Denny stopped his big rig to avoid running over someone.
He was quickly dragged from the cab and nearly beaten to death by Watson and a handful of others. As the attack unfolded on live TV, Watson stepped on Denny's head after Damian Williams smashed the trucker's skull in with a brick.
Rioting spread across the city and into neighboring suburbs. Cars were demolished and homes and businesses were burned. Before order was restored, more than 1,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Almost a quarter century had passed since the tumultuous urban riots of 1968, and even longer since LA's Watts rioting in 1965. The magnitude of this new racial paroxysm shocked a nation that thought it had moved on.
Today, Watson still struggles to explain why he took part in the destruction. Known as Keith to his family and "KeeKee" to friends, he was a 27-year-old ex-Marine with a wife and a job who came from a good family. His father had been his neighborhood's block captain, no less, and he acknowledges his family didn't raise him to be a troublemaker.
"I guess you could say, you know, looking at my background and whatever, how could I have gotten caught up in it?" he mused on a recent sun-splashed morning as he sat on the front porch of the home he grew up in, located just a few blocks from the intersection.
After a long pause and a sigh, he continues: "You know, honestly, it was something that just happened, man. I never even knew Reginald Denny. Just the anger and the rage just took hold to where I nor anyone who was out there that day was in their right frame of mind."
Watson was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to time served for the 17 months he spent in jail before his case was resolved.
But that day was a rage, he and others in the community say, fueled by years of high unemployment, abuse and neglect by police, and rising tension with recently arrived Korean store owners.
"We wanted jobs around here, we wanted respect and we didn't get none of that. And then the police just harassed us all the time," says Sharon McSwain, who for 22 of her 45 years has lived within walking distance of the intersection where Denny was attacked. He was saved by a black truck driver who rushed out to help after seeing the brutal beating on television.
Tensions in the community had been running high before the riot, fueled in part by the case of a Korean grocer who shot to death a black teenager she had accused of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The grocer, Soon Ja Du, was convicted of manslaughter for killing 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, but received a sentence of only probation and community service.
Like King's beating, the shooting had been captured on videotape, by Du's store surveillance camera. The images stoked the anger.
The store shooting occurred just two weeks after George Holliday stood on the terrace outside his San Fernando Valley home and videotaped four LAPD officers kicking King, using stun guns on him and delivering more than 50 blows from their police batons.
On April 29, 1992, it seemed Holliday's videotape would be the key evidence leading to a guilty verdict against the officers. When they were instead acquitted, violence erupted immediately.