25 Years After the Riots: The Washington Post's Ruben Castaneda Recalls a Near-Suicide Mission

Ruben Castaneda's press pass, three years after the riotsEXPAND
Ruben Castaneda's press pass, three years after the riots
Courtesy Ruben Castaneda

This is our 10th installment in a series of as-told-to stories from Angelenos who witnessed the first 48 hours of the 1992 riots. Native Angeleno Ruben Castaneda, a reporter at The Washington Post at the time, "wanted to be in L.A. when the verdict came in." He wound up getting an uncomfortably close view of the chaos. Castaneda was with the Post until 2011; he is now on the health and wellness team at U.S. News & World Report. He is the author of S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C.

I’d just had lunch with an ex-girlfriend at Barragan’s, a Mexican joint on Sunset in Echo Park, and was cruising through the western edge of downtown listening to an oldies station when a news bulletin cut in: The cops on trial for beating Rodney King had been acquitted.

The news jolted me with adrenalin: I reckoned something would happen. I’d grown up in L.A. and had worked as a reporter at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner for six and a half years before moving east in 1989 to join The Washington Post to cover the nighttime crime beat. I usually visited my family during the holidays, but I’d been following the case and had timed my trip to the end of the trial. When the trial was moved to conservative, overwhelmingly white Simi Valley, I thought there was a chance of some acquittals, even with the video. I wanted to be in L.A. when the verdict came in.

I parked near a payphone across from the Experience Motel on Olympic Boulevard, an area now home to Staples Center. Then the neighborhood was a seedy red-light zone, home to crack hookers, junkies and hustlers. I called an assistant national editor, who dispatched me to an LAPD press conference at Parker Center. By the time the presser broke up, angry demonstrators were gathering outside police headquarters. I found another payphone and called home to let my parents know I’d be working late. I asked Pop what the TV news was showing. Rioters were pulling motorists out of cars at Florence and Normandie and beating them, he told me. Bingo. I thanked him and drove my beat-up little rental from Ugly Duckling south on the Harbor Freeway.

Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into a gas station near Florence and Normandie to get my bearings. A big sedan full of Crips pulled in on my left, the driver facing me. They were flying their colors, dark blue bandannas on their heads. This was before GPS, before you could look up streets on your cellphone; I was planning on consulting the trusty Thomas Brothers map book I’d borrowed from Pop.

Before I could reach for it, one of the Crips stepped out of the sedan and calmly walked toward me. It was a warm day, my rental didn’t have AC, and my window was rolled down.

“You a newsman?” he said. I have no idea how he knew; maybe he figured only a journalist would be anywhere near the mayhem.

Before I could reply, he reared back and punched me in the face. I flipped the ignition, hit the gas and roared out of there.

Ruben Castaneda in D.C.
Ruben Castaneda in D.C.
Courtesy Ruben Castaneda

The assault didn’t deter me. If anything, it hardened my determination to get to Florence and Normandie. The city was — this part of it, anyway — exploding. The previous May, I’d endured a tear-gassing from D.C. police and embedded with a mob during a civil disturbance that broke out after a black officer shot a Latino man. I was 30, super-ambitious and barely six weeks sober from a nasty crack and alcohol habit. I’d taken plenty of dumb risks to get high. Getting to ground zero of the riot zone seemed to me a risk worth taking.

I maneuvered to a side street near Florence and Normandie, hopped out and, notebook and pen in my back pocket, jogged to Florence. I was on Florence, headed toward Normandie, when I heard screaming in my direction. I turned and saw a black couple on a porch maybe 30 feet away. “You can’t go!” the woman yelled.

I’d been so intent on getting to the corner of Florence and Normandie that I’d engaged in tunnel vision; now, I took a good look at the horrors unfolding around me: Dozens of black men, and some women, were flinging bricks, rocks and full bottles of beers at passing motorists. Across the street, a Latino man, his face bloodied, staggered about. A man with dreadlocks waved a handgun.

The mob had coalesced behind me. Going forward or backtracking would be suicide. “Come up here!” the man implored. I hustled to his porch and took notes. An LAPD cop in a squad car edged up to an intersection, saw what was happening on Florence, and drove away.

Quickly, it was clear that not only was I not safe on the porch, my presence could be putting the couple, James and Barbara Henry, and their son, Jacques, who was watching the news in the living room (at one point crying at the violence), in danger if anyone from the street spotted me. We retreated inside, where we watched TV footage of rioters pulling trucker Reginald Denny out of his cab — at the intersection just beyond the family's front door — and beating him.

A van broke down on the opposite side of the street. From the living room window, I watched a small Latino man get out of the vehicle. He was rushed by five young black men who pummeled him with their fists and gleefully flashed gang hand signals as they left him lying in the street, supine. One of the thugs came back to rifle the defenseless man’s pockets and hit him in the face. Moments later, a speeding car ran over his legs. Though the attackers stood maybe 40 feet away, a righteously angry James Henry, a native Mississippian who was built like a linebacker, marched out, pulled the man to the sidewalk and stood by him.

An hour or so later, after the mob had moved on, some 30 LAPD cops in riot gear inched their way onto Florence. I hustled out when they reached Henry and the injured motorist. I knew one of the cops, George; we’d played pickup hoops together at the Boys and Girls Club in Boyle Heights when I lived in L.A. Plaintively, I asked George, “What took you guys so long?”

George said he and his squad had been at a station for a couple of hours, waiting for orders. In countless TV shows, movies and books, the LAPD had been depicted as a law enforcement juggernaut. But when the deal went down and the streets filled with the enraged and the opportunistic, the LAPD hardly appeared to be in the game.

The next day, I teamed up with Gary Lee, a fellow Post reporter. As we cruised past dozens of burning and looted businesses in Koreatown, I spotted a dozen or so SUVs, trucks and sedans parked in a semicircle in front of the entrance to a Korean supermarket. I pulled over, and Gary and I walked toward the vehicles. Men inside the vehicles and on the rooftop gripped shotguns and rifles. Korean businesses were being hit hard, looted and burned. It was barely five months after a Korean store owner had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting Latasha Harlins, a black teenager, in a South-Central convenience store. The judge had sentenced the shooter to probation and community service, and the rage over that injustice was now playing out in Koreatown.

Many of the looters and arsonists were black and Latino. Gary’s black, I’m Latino. As we neared the vehicles, the panel door of a van opened, and a man holding a shotgun leaned out and stared at us. Walking slowly, I held up my press card and said, “We’re press, news reporters. You aren’t going to shoot us, are you?”

We reached the van. Shotgun Man was edgy. “Where is the LAPD?” he asked. “Where is the National Guard?”

The verdicts came in on a Wednesday afternoon; by the weekend, the National Guard was out in force. Some credited the Guard and the LAPD with restoring order, but it seemed to me the authorities had little to do with re-establishing calm. The rioting had simply played out.


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