A Rescuer’s Tale: Fight, Then Flight
Bobby Green is sitting on his couch in suburban Rialto, talking about the night 10 years ago that he saved a man’s life, a moment that made him a hero to most and a traitor to others.
Back then, in the first hours of the Los Angeles riots, Green was sitting on another couch, this one in South-Central Los Angeles. He was watching a black man on live TV smash a brick, then another brick, into the head of a white truck driver, who lay writhing on the pavement. It was happening about half a mile away.
The second brick did it.
“That is e-nough,” Green decided. He jumped off the couch and rushed out the door. It didn’t matter that he was black, or that he, like virtually everyone else in the neighborhood, was mad as hell after that day’s not-guilty verdicts for LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating trial. He raced to the scene and helped rescue Reginald O. Denny from a mob of rioters.
That decision still defines Bobby Green. It gives him a credo, crystallizes what he teaches his children about right and wrong. It’s what he, his wife and his family are most proud of, decorating their living room with seven of his 14 plaques and commendations. It’s the one thing he thinks about every day he starts work.
And ultimately, that choice was the main reason the man who became a symbol of post-riot redemption gave up on Los Angeles and moved away.
Denny has done the same thing, settling in Lake Havasu, Ariz., where he can indulge his love of boating. He declined to be interviewed about April 29, 1992. Long ago, he’d remarked it was “pretty weird” the way America heaped celebrity on a truck driver for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He doesn’t want to look back,” said Shelley Montez, his former wife and mother of his daughter, Ashley, now in high school.
At the time of the riots, Bobby Green was a trucker himself, 29, scraping out a living working part-time. Now he’s the father of five, a man of commanding stature, muscular arms and few words--a man who says he must remember, must embrace those three hours in his past. They mean so much to his future.
“I can tell my kids that color is on the outside, not the inside,” he says. “To me, I turned justice around and showed them that all black people ain’t the same as you think.
“I know I am different from the rest of the people” who rioted. “I saved another man’s life because to me, he was another human being who needed my help.”
Why prove it by pushing your way into the fury of Florence and Normandie?
Memories of Injustice
Green leans back in his comfortable, forest-green leather couch, takes a deep breath, shakes his head. Like Denny, he has a daughter named Ashley. She’s 10, and she has propped herself on the edge of the couch to eavesdrop. Green’s 17-year-old son, Eric, old enough to remember the commotion at home that night, leans against the wall.
The old names begin to flow. Most of Los Angeles today would need a glossary to know their importance, but many people still remember the names as if it were yesterday.
“You know,” Green says, “It started with Latasha, and then the King beating, and then the verdicts. . . .” Anger seeps into his deep voice. “I don’t understand why she got off. Why did Latasha get shot in the back for stealing orange juice?”
“She” is Soon Ja Du. “Latasha” was Latasha Harlins. Du, a Korean-born grocer, fatally shot 15-year-old Harlins in the back of the head after a physical altercation. The fight was prompted by Du’s belief the girl was stealing a bottle of orange juice. A security camera videotaped the scene and was played during Du’s trial. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. But Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin, reasoning that Du was acting out of fear from earlier robberies, sentenced her in November 1991 to five years’ probation.
The case exacerbated long-standing tensions between Korean shopkeepers and their black customers in economically depressed South-Central neighborhoods, and set the stage for something even worse.
“If she had been a black person,” Green said of Du, “she would have been in jail for murder. That’s the kind of justice that’s not right. . . . After Latasha, people started to go crazy. They thought black people didn’t have no justice.”
On March 3, 1991, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and three other white LAPD officers beat black motorist Rodney G. King as an amateur photographer captured the repeated baton blows on video.
By the time the officers’ trial ended, Bobby and his wife-to-be, Vera, were sharing a tiny apartment not far from the house where he grew up on East 62nd Street. “V,” as Bobby calls her, had given birth to Ashley a few months earlier and was working as an office manager on the Westside. Bobby drove a cement truck for $13 an hour--seasonal work, no benefits.
He had just finished a haul that afternoon when he found his older brothers transfixed by the TV at their mother’s house, the family headquarters. He sat down on the couch and watched as verdicts acquitting all four officers of using excessive force were read in a Simi Valley courtroom.
“I was pissed off just like everyone else was pissed off. I was sitting there, me, my brothers and my son, and I couldn’t believe it,” Green said. “It seemed like there was no justice.”
Television soon turned to the street: dusk at the intersection of Florence and Normandie.
A young black man “had the brick in his hand and hit Reggie. Then he hit him with the brick again,” Green said, becoming indignant. “The man is already down and I’m thinking, ‘Why are you going after him with another brick and kicking him?’ ”
Then, Green said, “Something told me to get up.” He told Eric he would be right back. It took him about five minutes to drive to the intersection, where he ran up to Denny’s truck and helped another rescuer, a woman named Lei Yuille, who was struggling to push Denny into the cab of his truck.
“I just pushed him over and started driving,” Green said. No one in the crowd stopped the rescue. “They musta thought I was one of the bad guys too, taking the truck for a joy ride.” Even Yuille had that suspicion.
During the 10-minute drive to the hospital, Yuille cradled Denny’s battered head, telling him, “You’re going to make it.” Two other strangers who had come to the rescue, Titus Murphy and Terri Barnett, turned their Honda’s hazard lights on and shouted steering instructions to Green, who was unable to see clearly through the shattered windshield.
The makeshift entourage dropped Denny off at the emergency room at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital. Green, who knew the area’s trucking yards, drove Denny’s rig back to its Florence and Manchester home base. The three other rescuers never even got Green’s name, describing him later as the “young man dressed in black.”
The intersection scene, captured in graphic detail by a TV news helicopter, had been aired on live TV and radio. Vera was driving home from work “when I hear on the radio that the guy who beat Reginald Denny was driving away in his truck.”
When she got home, Bobby was not there. Eric told her where he had gone.
“I can’t tell you what I said,” Vera jokes now, “but it went something like: ‘What the hell does he think he’s doing?’ ”
By the time Bobby came back, there was no use in arguing. They settled on the couch and watched the riots on TV.
It stunned them when Bobby and the three other rescuers became overnight heroes, their story rising to modern-day parable told by TV host Phil Donahue, countless other media outlets and the reality show “How’d They Do That?” A movie producer paid them a few hundred dollars each for the rights to their story.
At first Bobby wanted to protect his privacy, fearful of too much hostility in the neighborhood, Vera said.
He insisted TV interviewers use only his silhouette. He had more to fear when four suspects in the Denny beating were arrested. The young man he’d seen hitting Denny with the brick, Damian Monroe Williams, faced 17 felony counts carrying possible life sentences.
The Denny case moved through the courts in 1992 and 1993, as tension clenched an exhausted, riot-raw city. Like the Soon Ja Du and Rodney King cases, this trial carried heavy symbolism. Some viewed it as the reverse-race twin of the King beating trial, an example of how the system treats blacks with excessive criminal charges and unreasonable bail.
A tight-knit protest group dubbed “Free the LA 4+”, a reference to the defendants, jammed the court hearings, distributed buttons and T-shirts and held rallies, one of which turned violent.
All the while Bobby had been out collecting awards and accolades: “For his integrity and bravery,” said the California Legislature. “For humanitarianism,” read the gold plate from the Los Angeles Urban League. For heroism, for providing hope in despair, for unselfishness, said Hollywood, a slew of city councils, a bank, and labor unions. The city of Opa Locka, Fla., even flew him and Vera out for a parade. Bobby shook hands with the mayor, who presented him with the key to the city.
Then, as the trial approached, the FBI asked Green if he wanted protection or another place to live. Vera grew fearful. Bobby had already heard the rumbling.
“I had threats, word of mouth; it would get to me from the streets,” he said. “Like, ‘Why did I save another person like that and disgrace our people? Why was I going to court to testify against my people?’ ”
Police escorted him to the courthouse to testify in August 1993, about what he saw and why he helped Denny.
Green told the jury that as a fellow trucker, he felt as though he was being beaten as he watched the attack on Denny.
“I felt like I was getting hurt,” he testified. “I thought he might die. I went to help.”
Green found that the landscape of burned and looted buildings and the anxiety of the trial had soured him on Los Angeles.
“There was nothing left. I wanted better for my family,” he said. For months he and Vera struggled.
“Should I stay? Should I move? Should I give L.A. another chance, to heal up or something?”
They found their answer in the acquittals and scaled-down convictions of the two main defendants who had beaten Denny, Williams and Henry Keith Watson.
The justice that Green had on his mind when he ran out his front door seemed nowhere in sight.
“To me, what [Williams] did was wrong. Just as what is right is right, what is wrong is wrong.”
Green and Vera headed east on the San Bernardino Freeway, vowing to drive as long as it took to find a suburb with monthly mortgages not that much higher than the $500 rent they were paying in South-Central. They were joining the tens of thousands of blacks who left places like L.A. and Compton during the ‘90s for the Inland Empire and the northern suburbs of Palmdale and Lancaster.
Feeling of Running Away
He knew he doing the right thing, but one thought nagged at him.
“It seemed like I was running.”
He felt he had no choice. “I wanted to give my family a better life. What happened at Florence and Normandie, those feelings weren’t going to change soon. I didn’t feel it was safe for my kids.”
They sought the same thing the other rescuers and Denny sought--anonymity. They were successful. Soon after the trial, the rescuers lost contact with each other. They haven’t talked in close to eight years.
“We never became buddies or anything like that,” said Lei Yuille, who still works in the Los Angeles area as a registered dietitian. “We were four strangers, brought together once. . . . I have really tried not to relive it.”
The rights to the movie that was never made expired. “It would have been too violent,” Yuille thinks.
Bobby and Vera last saw Denny at a picnic the summer after the riots, thrown by Denny’s old employer, Transit Mixed. A few weeks ago Vera shuffled through some drawers to show off a photo of her and Reggie. He’s holding a check for $100,000 in donations that had flowed into a company fund for his recovery.
The Greens’ Rialto neighborhood is a cluster of neat suburban tract homes in the racially mixed flatlands of the Inland Empire: cul-de-sacs, midsized trees, lots of chain restaurants and big-box stores. The schools are better and teachers take more time with the Greens’ kids, who every so often take one of their dad’s trophies to show off during a class history lesson.
It’s secure, it’s safe, said Vera, walking out with Bobby to their backyard, plush with a newly laid carpet of sod. He still comments on how odd it is to hear chirping birds.
“It’s nice, peaceful, quiet--ain’t no color lines out here,” he says. He mentions that a police officer who lives on the street is especially friendly.
The reason Bobby Green thinks about the past every day he goes to work lies in the company he works for. It’s called Cemex Co. It used to be known as Transit Mixed, the company that employed Denny.
Every time Green pulls his rig into the firm’s Los Angeles yard he finds a sense of closure in completing the route Reggie never got to finish.
“I think about the bond every day,” he says. “I want to keep our names alive. . . . It’s nice to work for the same company of the man I saved.”
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