I’m supposed to be writing something about baseball right now, but I am unable to do so.
Sure, I’d love to see the owners and players come to a financial agreement that would allow them to report to a second “spring training” this month and start the season early next month.
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Yes, I feel awful that a lot of people I know who work for the Phillies have been required to take pay cuts because of the pandemic-forced work stoppage and the anticipated loss of revenue from having a shortened season without fans.
But my thoughts are stuck elsewhere. They keep me up at night and take me back to a time in my life from 28 years ago. They take me to the West Coast at the end of April 1992. They take me back to five days that changed my life forever but did not change the country I live in nearly as much as I had hoped.
I was 28 and the Phillies were in Los Angeles on the second leg of a West Coast trip when the verdict in the Rodney King beating case was handed down. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, as the Phillies prepared to play the opening game of their series at Dodger Stadium, a predominantly white jury acquitted four white police officers of all but one charge in the 1991 beating of King following a high-speed chase.
By game time, the smell of smoke was in the air. By game’s end, the California National Guard had been called in by Gov. Pete Wilson as the city burned and stores were looted. The events being broadcast around the city were every bit as sickening as the inexplicable King beating.
The civil unrest and anger continued to spread the following day. As the Phillies learned that they would be moving on to San Francisco rather than playing in L.A., Tim Dwyer, then an Inquirer sports reporter and later the Inquirer sports editor, informed me that he was headed out to cover the mayhem. He had been on the police beat at the Boston Globe and he knew his way around L.A. He gave me two minutes to retrieve a notebook and pen from my room and off we went into the incendiary streets of L.A. for three straight days.
That’s where my life changed because I met so many good people doing great things in the absolute worst of circumstances. I met some looters along the way, too, and I felt their anger about what had happened in the King case. It was there that I first heard the expression, “No justice, no peace!" chanted by angry protesters.
In recent days, I’ve looked back on some of the stories I wrote for the Courier-Post and they reminded me of those beautiful people I encountered.
One of my favorites was Harriet Blair. She was a 30-year-old African American high school English teacher who invited me and everybody else on a burned-out South Central Los Angeles street to a barbecue picnic where they were going to sing gospel songs in an effort to start the healing.
“It’s hard here,” she said. “Even the kids in the junior high schools and the high schools are getting into what’s going on in the streets. I have kids in my classes in the gangs. You can’t just go up to them and say, ‘Quit it.’ It’s too real for them. I just think it’s going to take a lot of prayer to end all the craziness.”
What a beautiful woman. I bet she has impacted a lot of lives. I wish I could talk to her now.
The next day I met 13-year-old George Mireles as he helped clean up the charred debris from all the stores that had been burned to the ground in his neighborhood.
“This is my neighborhood,” he told me. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I’d ride my bike in this shopping center. Now there’s nothing here.”
Mireles said he knew some of the looters and arsonists.
“I would see them and they were happy about it,” Mireles said. “I said, ‘How can you be happy with what you did to the neighborhood?’ ”
He was a teenage voice of reason in the midst of all the chaos. I bet he grew up to be quite a man. I wish I could talk to him now.
The looter I remember best was 23-year-old Alphonso Benjamin.
“It wasn’t right what they did to Rodney King,” Benjamin told me. “What has happened here doesn’t bother me. I’m not finished yet. If [the L.A. police officers] want to play like that, then that’s how we’ll play. If they want to beat up our people, then we’re going to beat up on them.”
He was holding a camera he had not paid for and his anger was still rising.
“Even if they send those police to jail, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize for the burning of any of that stuff. They’re lucky it hasn’t been worse. I didn’t pay for anything I have on me. Everybody is getting what they wanted.”
I didn’t understand Alphonso Benjamin’s point of view 28 years ago and, to a great extent, I still don’t. Benjamin was in the minority that day among the people on the street. Most of the residents were justifiably angry about the acquittals in the Rodney King case and devastated by the destruction of their community that followed.
Twenty-eight years later, however, I understand the anger more than ever. I’d like to believe that some things have changed for the better, but then I see Ahmaud Arbery hunted down by two white men for no reason in Georgia, and two months go by before charges are filed against Gregory and Travis McMichael. And, of course, I was reminded of my time in Los Angeles because George Floyd, while in handcuffs and pinned to the ground, was smothered by since-fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
It was Chauvin’s heinous knee that lit the latest fuse of civil fury from coast to coast and in towns big and small. That should never be forgotten.
The most poignant words from 28 years ago were spoken by Rodney King, who drowned in 2012 but left behind a daughter, Lora, who has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department for better community policing and on a variety of other social issues.
“Can we all get along?” Rodney King asked 28 years ago as Los Angeles burned.