Twenty years after the L.A. riots, neighborhoods still healing

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone, who covered the riots in 1992, returned to the neighborhood this week. He spoke to Lawrence Tolliver about that time.
CBS News

(CBS News) LOS ANGELES - No one who was there or watched it on TV will ever forget the rioting in Los Angeles that began 20 years ago this Sunday. The mostly-black community of South L.A. erupted after a jury acquitted four white police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black motorist stopped for speeding.

Six days of violence killed 55 people, injured thousands, and shocked the nation. CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covered the riots in 1992 and returned to the neighborhood this week.

When Los Angeles was seized by chaos and violence 20 years ago, the city's deep divisions were brutally exposed.

A TV helicopter watched overhead as white truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his cab and beaten. A radio reporter was standing nearby.

"He is bleeding, he is trying to get back into his truck," said Bob Brill of UPI Radio at the time.

Charlie Beck, then a police sergeant, had just arrived home from work. "It was almost seven o'clock at night. Reginald Denny was being dragged out of his truck," he said.

"You saw that on television?" asked Blackstone.

"I saw it on television. No police cars were responding," said Beck.

Denny managed to pull himself into his truck and drive away, passing Lawrence Tolliver's barbershop.

"And you thought he was a redhead?" Blackstone asked Tolliver.

"I thought he was a redhead because of all the blood that was all over his face and all over his hair," he responded.

Tolliver wondered where the police had gone.

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"They were just standing back," he said.

Beck, now L.A.'s Chief of Police, said the force was caught unprepared.

Driving down Western and seeing massive flames on both sides of you," said Beck. "It's surreal. It's like "Apocalypse Now.""

More than 1,500 businesses were looted or destroyed. Many of the ransacked stores were owned by African Americans.

But for Tolliver's barbershop, there was some protection: A sign on the door that said "Black Owned".

"It's still there. It's a reminder," said Tolliver.

"And a reminder for you of -- ?" asked Blackstone.

"Of a time that, you know as I look back, it was a terrible time. But because of that time, there was progress made," said Tolliver.

In South Los Angeles, the progress isn't always easy to see. Incomes remain low and the unemployment rate is high -- around 20 percent. The area schools rank right at the bottom on standardized test scores.

But the area has 20 percent fewer liquor stores and 50 percent more major supermarkets than in 1992. Gang violence has diminished. And the police force -- once mostly white -- now looks more like the city it patrols.

"There was a huge divide between the police department of this city and the African-American community. How long did it take to close that gap?" Blackstone asked Beck.

"Twenty years (laughs). And we're still closing it," said Beck.

Added Tolliver: "The police are no longer the occupying force that they were."

Tolliver is so impressed by improvements in the police department that three years ago he convinced his son to join the LAPD. For his part, Chief Beck has a son, a daughter, and a son-in-law on the force.

"All three of my kids work in South Los Angeles," said Beck. "We're not just a part of that community -- we are an integral part of that community."

Among the changes in this community in South Central L.A., the population is largely Hispanic rather than African Americans. While there have been improvements, much of the money promised after the riots never arrived and empty lots have remained as scars 20 years later.

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  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.