Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Angels of Los Angeles

IV.    Vows of Voluntary Sacrifice
We freely offer up our appetites, wealth, and pride to relieve the suffering of the world, for the sake of our neighbors and God’s joy.

  1. I will accept with grace any suffering for myself resulting from my affirmations, rejections and witness; I will do all in my power to reduce the suffering in the world, including the suffering of victims and my adversaries in confrontation.
Reginald Denny and the LA Four
*Watching the live TV newscast in their homes, Titus Murphy and Terri Barnett, Lei Yuille, and Bobby Green saw the rock-wielding rioters rip the semi-truck driver from his cab. One man held the driver’s head to the ground with his foot while the others kicked at his body and hit him with a hammer and chunks of concrete. Reginald Denny was knocked unconscious by the blows to the head and one of the attackers pranced victoriously over Denny, flashing gang signs at the news copter.

Twenty years ago on the 29th of April 1992, South Central and Southeast Los Angeles exploded in six-day riots killing 53 people and wounding thousands in wide spread violence and murder. The looting and arson cost nearly one billion dollars and destroyed over a thousand buildings. Long simmering anger over inequitable poverty, segregation, lack of educational and employment opportunities, police abuse, interracial violence  and unequal  services ignited into open rage in the poorest sections of L.A. the day the court acquitted four of black Rodney King’s white and Hispanic police assailants.

It was into this South Central inferno that Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, unwittingly drove. Seeing his brutalization by black youth on the live helicopter news feed, four separate African-American strangers sprang from their couches several miles away in the neighborhood to rush to Denny’s aid out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie.

Lei Yuille and her brother Pierre jumped in a car and sped to the scene just a few blocks away. "I saw a wrong being done against someone who was innocent,” said Lei later in several interviews. Her brother had urged, “We are Christians, we need to go help him!”

Two miles away, Titus Murphy and Terri Barnett, devastated by the television coverage decided, “This is crazy, somebody has to get that guy out of there!”

Also a couple miles from the riot, Bobby Green reported feeling like he too was being beaten. Green knew it didn’t matter that he was black and Denny white, or that he, like everyone else in South Central, was furious about that day’s outcome with the not-guilty acquittals for the LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating trail. "[Denny] was a truck driver, just like me…That could have been me laying down there. I would want somebody to help me.”  

(credit: Ted Soqui)
Despite being further shot at, hit with bottles, spat on, pick-pocketed and photographed, Reginald Denny somehow regained enough consciousness to drag himself back into his battered semi-truck, bleeding copiously with 91 fractures to his skull, eyes swollen shut.

Lei Yuille was the first of the four rescuers to reach Denny. She’d lost her brother in the crowd but ran to the semi-truck and climbed onto the passenger-side running board, directing Denny as he attempted to drive slowly away with a shattered windshield. Terri Barnett and Titus Murphy pulled alongside in her car and Yuille yelled at her to get out in front of the creeping truck and clear a path to the hospital three miles away. Barnett zigzagged across all three lanes, blinkers flashing, horn blasting.

Bobby Green, the fourth rescuer and a truck driver himself, dodged projectiles and had his belongings snatched while climbing up into the driver’s side to take over for Denny. Yuille got in to hold Denny (who soon suffered a seizure) and Murphy jumped up on the passenger’s side running board navigating for Green who couldn’t see out the battered windshield. Thousands of rioters ran alongside, hurling objects and screaming at the team of rescuers. Cars were swerving at them across the roadway.The police in the neighborhood were ordered to stay away for fear of the mob.

One car pulled up beside them crammed with people shooting and brandishing sticks in the air. Murphy, clinging to the outside of the truck as navigator realized, “If I don’t pretend I’m part of the mayhem, they’re going to attack us.” So he started pounding on the truck hood like he was attacking it. “I wanted them to think I was with them. It worked—they veered off and left.”

Five minutes later they managed to reach the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital where Denny slipped into convulsions. The paramedics told the four Angels of Los Angeles that had they responded to the scene only a few minutes later Reginald Denny would have died.

Green, Yuille, Barnett & Murphy (Scott C. Shulman)
As positively as this story turned out, the rescuers also bore the cost of their actions. Green, Yuille, Barnett and Murphy exemplified today’s vow of voluntary sacrifice when they accepted the risk of harm and suffering in order to stay true to their calling to compassionately reduce an individual’s suffering in this world. While these rescuers received some recognition around the country, they had to live cautiously for years in their own neighborhoods, considered to be race-traitors for saving a white man (which later led to the arrest and imprisonment of several of the young black men involved—the opposite result from the white LAPD acquittal that sparked the riots that day). Some of the rescuers eventually moved away for fear of reprisal.

Similar stories happened later that same April day when Rev. Bennie Newton rushed to the scene of another assault by the same mob and covered badly beaten Fidel Lopez with his own body, shouting "Kill him and you have to kill me, too." Elsewhere, Greg Alan-Williams did the same when the motorist in front of him, Takao Hirata, was beaten unconscious and pulled from his car by rioters.

After undergoing years of rehab, but still suffering permanent speech and mobility handicaps, Reginald Denny brought the April 29, 1992 story full circle into reconciliation when, after the trial of his assailants, he offered each family a sign of forgiveness, including a later appearance on TV making peace with attacker Henry Keith Watson.

As you make today’s vow of voluntary sacrifice, thank God for these examples of costly compassion: “I will accept with grace any suffering for myself resulting from my affirmations, rejections and witness; I will do all in my power to reduce the suffering in the world, including the suffering of victims and my adversaries in confrontation.”

*This story was compiled by this blog's author based on various news reports, articles and interviews from the L.A. TimesLos Angeles Magazine, Time, and others.

For Reflection and Action:
 Even though well known, read Luke 10:25-37 with the story from L.A. in mind.
  • Who are the hated “Samaritans” in your life (rich, poor; black, white; police, gangs; Christians, Muslims; soldiers, pacifists, conservatives, liberals)?
  • What stories of similar sacrificial mercy have you heard? Where have you had the opportunity to step in and reduce suffering (even for an enemy)?
  • Whose suffering is God calling you to step in and reduce “doing all in your power”? What negative consequences might you suffer for this?
Prayer Focus
 God our protector,
Though it may lead us through the valley of the shadow of death,
You call us to, “Go and do likewise.”
Provide us the courageous resolve to reduce suffering around us.
May it be so in Jesus name.  Amen

April 29, 1992 TV footage of Reginald Denny's assault:

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