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Revisiting South Los Angeles, 20 years after deadly race riot

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, where truck driver Reginald Denny was beaten in 1992, remains a gritty corner. There is a liquor store there that gets a lot of foot traffic.

LOS ANGELES - Henry Keith Watson remembers April 29, 1992, as if it happened just last week. History won’t allow him to forget it.

It was a day that marked the beginning of one of the deadliest, most destructive race riots in the nation’s history, and one in which Watson’s his decision to take part made him one of the enduring faces of the violence.

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He was at home that day 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.

“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 people who attacked white truck driver Reginald Denny.

South Los Angeles, where the riot began, has changed considerably, as has Watson. But many things remain the same.

‘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.’

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While racial tensions fanned by the verdict 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 is still plagued by too few jobs, too few grocery stores, and a lack of redevelopment.

One place in particular that time seemingly forgot is the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where Denny was attacked. 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.

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“Have things changed? Not really. People are just more mellow these days,’’ Frank Owens says. The unemployed landscaper sat on a bus stop bench near the intersection recently.

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.

During the same period, more than three times as many households in the area reported annual incomes of less than $20,000 than homes with annual 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 the 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.

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 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. 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.

Watson still struggles to explain why he took part in the destruction. He was a 27-year-old former Marine with a wife and a job who came from a good family.

“I guess you could say, you know, looking at my background and whatever, how could I have gotten caught up in it?’’ he said.

“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.’’

He was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to time served for the 17 months he spent in jail before his case was resolved.

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