25 Years After the Riots: A Photographer Recounts a Dangerous Day on the Job
Photo by Craig Fujii
This is our first installment in a series of as-told-to stories from Angelenos who witnessed the first 48 hours of the 1992 riots. Craig Fujii was a 32-year-old photographer working for the Associated Press when the riots broke out on April 29, 1992. He was caught in the middle of the violence — and became a victim.
As a journalist, you knew something could happen. We knew that the Rodney King verdicts were going to come down, and so you have it on your 24-hour news station, probably KFWB, just listening for what might be going on.
We knew that people were on alert for any kind of problems that might be related to a verdict in this trial, because it was pretty charged. I think I probably had an afternoon-to-evening shift. One event that I knew I was going to cover was a playoff game with the Lakers down in Inglewood. I believe they were playing the Bulls.
What happened was I usually took surface streets going down to South L.A. to get to the Forum. When I heard that there was a commotion down at Florence and Normandie, that's where I went. I don't remember telling anyone I was going over there. I was probably just being a little cowboy. It was on my route, so I went.
Then that's the last thing I remember well.
I have this memory of standing looking at the Tom's Liquor Store with a bunch of other people. It's Florence and Normandie, and people are doing stuff. I couldn't tell you exactly, it's pretty vague. I can't tell you now if there was a fire going on or what, but for some reason we were looking in that general direction. That's pretty much all I remember.
What I do know is I probably went to photograph whatever was going on there across from Tom's Liquor Store. Then I got beaten, and my cameras [were] taken away.
There's actually videotape of me being accosted. I can tell you what happened after kind of piecing it together from videotape that this guy Timothy Goldman shot. I think he lived in the neighborhood, and he was probably well known to people there, so they didn't do anything to him. He shot, and I think he gathered up videotape that other people had gotten.
Certainly I'm an Asian face in South Central, and the only other Asians you saw owned liquor stores. By my dad's reckoning, I'm a fourth-generation Japanese, a yonsei. I'm sure I was a target. I tell my friends that if I spoke English with a heavy accent I probably would have gotten it worse, beaten far more badly.
There had been other incidents, specifically relating to liquor stores, local stores, shopkeepers and residents. It was forever bubbling up. Two groups of people not trusting each other, not getting along.
In the videotape, it's actually a fairly tight shot of me from the waist up. I'm wearing a black patterned, kind of casual shirt. A camera is being taken from around my neck. My press credentials, my LAPD credential is bouncing around. Then I'm on the ground and, again, it's a fairly tight shot of me. And someone's kicking me.
The shoes of the person assaulting me actually belonged to — his nickname was Football, Damien "Football" Williams. He was one of the young men who were charged in the [Reginald] Denny assault, which happened maybe 10, 15 minutes after I was assaulted, based on the timestamp on these videos.
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Somehow, people got me out of there. I got out and drove back to the AP bureau. I was somehow able to do that. I don't remember doing that. Anyhow, I made it back to the bureau, and the people in the bureau said that they figured out something was wrong because I kept repeating myself. I was awake, alert, but I kept saying, 'What's going on? What's going on?'
One of the photographers, he's a freelancer, Scott Robinson, apparently took me to a bunch of different emergency rooms to try and get care, and finally I was seen at Cedars-Sinai and diagnosed with a concussion. I didn't have any broken bones or anything, but I had a black eye and a lump on the side of my face, the right temple, that I had for probably close to a year.
I remember sort of coming to in the emergency room. My girlfriend at the time picked me up and took me home. They basically said you're on sick leave until you get better. I went home to my apartment in Palms and just huddled in.
I was just sitting there glued to the television, watching all of this stuff going on and just feeling pretty horrified. You didn't know what was going to happen next, how big it was going to get, if it was the end of L.A. as we knew it.
It was scary enough that one of my friends, who's a bit of a gun nut, actually, gave me a handgun to keep in the house. I'm not much of a gun person at all, but I had that for several days. I finally returned it and said, 'Yeah, this is probably doing me no good.'"
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