LA on fire: the first night of the 1992 riots

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With police and fire staying out of the area, a man watches the massive fires burn in the area of Florence and Normandie avenues, the flash point of the riots. I shot this just after dark.

I was a little more than two hours into my shift on April 29, 1992, when the verdict came in. About 77 miles (110 miles by car) southwest of Bakersfield, in a predominantly white, affluent suburban city northwest of Los Angeles called Simi Valley, four Los Angeles police officers – three white, one Latino and white – were acquitted of charges stemming from the violent beating a year earlier of Rodney King, a black motorist who had led them on a high-speed car chase. It was one of the most closely-watched trials and eagerly anticipated verdicts in Los Angeles history, due exclusively to a now common happenstance that was a rarity for its time –  a citizen, George Holliday, had captured the beating on videotape from the balcony of his apartment. The video shocked the world, was played thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of times throughout the world in the ensuing year, and reignited long-simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles.

My shift was routine that day, and even after the verdict was announced at 3:15 pm, I continued with my regular assigned duties. I had no idea that in about four-and-one- half hours, I would be driving, alone in a white Toyota Corolla, through a firestorm that was south central Los Angeles. It wasn’t until about 4:30 pm or 5 pm that I got paged to radio the Bakersfield Californian newsroom. Yeah, paged. Yeah, radio. We didn’t have cell phones yet. We communicated with the various desks via two-way radio and pager. The editor told me they wanted me to head to downtown Los Angeles, to Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, where it was believed people would be gathering to protest the verdict. Sure, I responded, I’ll head back to the office to pick up the reporter. Well, the editor explained, there will not be a reporter going with me. I’d be going alone. This was essentially a “scouting mission,” I was going down there just in case something happened. Nobody had any idea what was coming. I sure didn’t. I was 33 years old, and 33-year-old photojournalists are invincible. Or is it stupid? Either way, I headed down to Los Angeles, alone in that white Toyota Corolla with the number 60 attached in big stickers on the rear fender. Had I known what would begin almost immediately after I started the two-hour trip down Highway 99 toward downtown Los Angeles, I never would have agreed to go alone. OK, I’ve convinced myself. Let’s make that 33 and stupid.

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I drove down this street toward the plumes of smoke. The street was mostly empty – few cars, no people – but it led me to an inferno of numerous burning businesses and automobiles.

At around 5:30 pm, reports of disturbances at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in south central Los Angeles began coming in. I had no idea what was going on down there, I was just driving. I did not know that in the course of the next hour-plus, the disturbances at Florence and Normandie would progress to the flash point of the riots that would take the lives of more than 60 people and burn down dozens of businesses. Those that didn’t burn were looted, then burned. I did not know that an ill-prepared Los Angles Police Department was so taken by surprise by the spreading violence at the intersection that they pulled out of the area and that an unimaginable violence-fueled anarchy would take over the area and quickly spread. I did not know that news photographers were being attacked and assaulted, that motorists were being dragged from their cars and beaten. And, of course, I did not know that at 6:46 pm (check out this fantastic timeline from the Los Angeles Times), about 45 minutes before I would drive into the very same intersection, Reginald Denny, a white truck driver making a delivery in the area and unaware of the dangerous and volatile situation, was dragged from his truck and so severely beaten he would have died if several citizens had not intervened and rescued him. The horrifying video, shot from a helicopter, would stun the world, just as Holliday’s video of the Rodney King beating had.

My only source of information was the broadcasts of Los Angeles’ two news radio stations, KNX and KFWB. But I could not access a clear signal until I was over the Grapevine, the passage that cuts through the mountains separating the San Joaquin Valley from the Angeles National Forest, so I was able to only get sporadic bits of information until I got closer to the LA basin. When I was able to get clear radio signals, I learned that there was significant unrest in the area of Florence and Normandie avenues. The newspaper regularly covered the Lakers at the time, and I was somewhat familiar with the area, since it was close to the Forum, where the Lakers played, so I scrubbed the Parker Center trip and headed to Florence and Normandie. Again, I was aware there were disturbances, but was not remotely aware of how volitile things were. I got off the 110 freeway and headed down Florence toward Normandie. As I drew closer, the area seemed relatively calm. People were out on the streets and it seemed more like a party than anything else. There didn’t seem to be any violence at this location. Obviously, it was a lull. I also noticed no police of any kind, and this tricked me into a false sense of security. I had no idea that the police had been so unprepared for any unrest they had been pulled from the area for their safety. It was getting dark, probably around 7:30 I guess. Nobody accosted me, but I still resisted the urge to get out of my car and try to shoot photos.

I drove through the intersection, I guess it was too dark to see the bloody remnants of the Denny incident, and a few blocks past Normandie, made a right hand turn and headed down that street. I don’t remember what it’s named. As I drove that street, I noticed, on the sidewalks, groups of police officers, about 10 or 20 per group. I figured they were in the area in case things got out of hand. Again, I had no idea they had been pulled out of the area, and apparently weren’t staging, they were waiting for instructions. As I drove that street, I saw plumes of smoke about a half-mile, maybe less away. So I drove toward the smoke.

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Looters enter a store in south central after busting through the doors. This was one of the few buildings in the area I photographed that had not been set on fire.

And it was there that I was confronted by fire, lots of fire. Few people, no police, no firefighters, just building upon building burning in the darkness. Somebody had lit up the whole area. I stopped my car and decided to get out to take a few pictures. I saw no people, and figured it was safe. Within seconds of getting out of the car, gunshots rang out. They were close. Was somebody shooting at me? Or was somebody just shooting and it coincided with my getting out of the car? Didn’t matter. I jumped back in the car and moved along. At one point, I heard glass smashing and watched looters rushing into a store. This one wasn’t on fire. I was across the street and shot a few frames, then got out of there. As I drove in this area, it was eerie. All these burning buildings, with virtually nobody to be seen. I shot what I could, then realized I had to head back to Bakersfield. Newspapers at the time had these nice agreements with each other where visiting photographers could use their darkrooms and transmitting equipment to send pictures to their home paper. There was no such thing as digital! But I knew that on this night, that would not be possible. Every newspaper in the city undoubtedly had their hands full. My only option to get pictures back was to head home. I probably spent abut an hour photographing. That was it.

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Driving through streets of burning buildings, with no people or firefighters around, was eerie.

I got back to the freeway and headed north. I stopped when it was safe, near Burbank, and called the desk to tell them what I had. In the meantime, the story was the biggest in the world. LA was burning! They did not need my scouting report. As I was driving home, teams of Californian reporters and photographers were heading to Los Angeles. It was back in the day when we chased big stories – really chased big stories – and we would have people in Los Angeles for the several days the riots lasted. Almost every staff photographer was dispatched. When I returned to the paper that night, I was met with another surprise. Because I traveled to LA alone, they needed a story. They asked me to write a first-person account of what I witnessed. I agreed, and it was the first story I had written since moving to the photo department from the sports staff 11 years earlier. Only one of my photos ran, the one of the looters. By the time I got back, the story was so huge, and the developments were so rapid, that more timely and incredible pictures were moving from the wire services. By today’s standards, any pictures were likely outdated when they hit the morning papers. But that was journalism in 1992. Today, a story like this would provide nonstop images for 24-7, both from professionals and citizens.

 

 

Incite that violence! Spread that hate! Wait. Who? Me? Well that’s a first

If you work in journalism long enough, you’re going to be called just about everything by just about everybody. It comes with the territory, and if you don’t start out with a thick skin, you’ll soon develop one. Most of the time, you ignore it. But in this environment supercharged with a nastiness many of us have never seen before, sometimes you get shocked. Like when the nastiness comes from people you’ve known most of your life. People who were not just friends, but close friends. It happened to me today, when I was accused on social media by a high school pal of both spreading hatred and inciting violence.

And what exactly did I do? Well, I produced a slide show. I had a rare Friday off, and used it to make my own statement about what might lie ahead following the election. And I did so through use of the most powerful communication tool in the history of mankind – the still photograph. I no longer work in daily newspaper journalism. I’m a college instructor nowadays. I teach on two campuses; California State University, Bakersfield, where I’m a lecturer in communication studies and media arts. And Bakersfield Community College, where my courses are photojournalism, multimedia reporting and media and society.

Both campuses are heavily Latino. The Latino student makeup of CSU Bakersfield is 49 percent, and the Latino student makeup of Bakersfield College is 62 percent. So with certainty, a  percentage of those students are DREAMers, and are among the 800,000 young men, women and children who have known the United States as their home for most or almost all of their lives, yet are subject to deportation under President-elect Donald Trump’s deportation plan, which he has doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on during his campaign. Some of these DREAMers are known to me, many others are not. And I’m worried sick about them. Could something this cold, this callous, this utterly without compassion actually happen to these kids and young adults?

So I spent the day culling historic images from The Library of Congress, purchased a piece of music and produced a video showing what it looked like the last time the United States rounded up and relocated human beings in a “humane” manner. You know, back in 1942. My intent, of course, was to show through history what we as a nation are on the precipice of repeating. I see it as a cautionary tale. Spreading hatred? Inciting violence? Well, check it out and by all means, you tell me.

Update: Damacio Diaz sentenced to 5 years in prison in police corruption case

Update: Damacio Diaz was sentenced to five years in prison by a federal judge in his highly-publicized police corruption case today in Fresno. The sentence was substantially more lenient than the 17 to 22 years federal prosecutors asked for. You can read The Bakersfield Californian’s story here.

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Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film “McFarland USA” in February, 2015. Photo: John Harte

Original post from May, 2016:

Damacio Diaz, one of the three “running Diaz” brothers who helped build the McFarland High School cross country dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s and whose adventures were a key story line in the inspirational Disney film “McFarland USA,” has admitted to an array of charges stemming from a federal police corruption investigation and will almost certainly spend time in federal prison, according to published media reports.

Diaz, who went on to become a detective with the Bakersfield Police Department and was employed for 17 years, was arrested in November, 2015 and charged with 16 counts in a federal indictment. He resigned three months ago, on February 24. According to a Bakersfield Californian article published today and written by Steven Mayer and Christine Bedell, “Diaz admitted to a litany of crimes while he was working as a cop, including taking bribes, large-scale distribution of methamphetamine, working in partnership with a known drug dealer, stealing evidence and providing police intelligence to criminal partners.”

Federal prosecutors are recommending lenient sentencing for Diaz in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in their continuing investigation of the case. However, the amount of time Diaz might have to serve in prison has not been disclosed, and it will be up to the federal judge who handles the case to accept or reject the deal. Some of the charges against Diaz carry lifetime prison terms. The willingness of federal prosecutors to offer leniency for such serious crimes seems to indicate that the corruption scandal, in their view, might extend well beyond just Diaz and his former partner, who, according to The Californian, is expected to also be charged.

The Diaz arrest and admission is yet another devastating blow to the community of McFarland. The success of the cross country program has been a source of pride for the small agricultural community located 20 miles north of Bakersfield, which in the 1980s  endured unspeakable heartache and tragedy. Those included a cross country practice accident that took the lives of two members of the girls team, the death by heart attack of the school’s football coach, a Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teenagers from McFarland and neighboring Delano, the accidental deaths by drowning and a car accident that claimed two other teens, and a mysterious and unsolved cancer cluster that afflicted and claimed the lives of several children living in a several-square block section of McFarland.

The story line involving the Diaz brothers in the film “McFarland USA” highlighted the cultural differences between McFarland’s residents and the community’s burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants and their children. In the film, and presumably in their real lives, coach Jim White wants the Diaz brothers to run on the cross country team, but meets stiff resistance from the Diaz brothers’ father, who insists that they must work alongside him in the fields before and after school. The Diaz family also provided one of the film’s funniest scenes, when coach White, played by Kevin Costner, joins the family for dinner and is fed almost to the brink of unconsciousness by Mrs. Diaz. The film, while not accurate in many respects, still reflected positively on McFarland and has been well received by its residents. Many of the athletes who competed for coach White have had successful careers as adults. The other Diaz brothers, Danny and David, work as educational administrators.

The charges against Diaz – and the speculation that the scandal might run deep inside the Bakersfield Police Department, according to statements made by Diaz’s attorney – come at a time when law enforcement in Kern County is facing tremendous national and international scrutiny. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the world’s best investigative journalism outlets, published a series in which it declared police in Kern County to be the deadliest in America. Several of the cases highlighted were Bakersfield police cases.

 

Time to retire one hell of a camera

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My Canon EOS 1D Mark II N. One hell of a camera.

Well, old friend, the time has come. And what a run it has been. We threw down some serious images these past 10-plus years. I was making so much money when I bought you in 2006, or was it 2005, that I plopped down the $4,000 you cost without a second thought, as easy as spending a couple of bucks on a cup of coffee. It’s a little different now, and it took me three years to pull the trigger on purchasing your replacement. My income is about half of what it was when I bought you, but my happiness is double, so we’re doing fine. Fair trade off. In digital camera time, 10 years is probably a hundred, maybe even more, and you just grew a bit outdated. Not being able to effectively use you indoors or at night sporting events was too much of an obstacle to overcome. And that 8-megapixel CMOS sensor, so groundbreaking for its time, has grown a little long in the tooth. But you were a pioneer, and the stunning cameras we have today would not have been possible had you not come first. You are not my oldest camera, but you are the one I used the most, and by far the best. The good news is you have virtually no resale value, so it makes no sense to sell you. So you get to hang around, enjoy your retirement, and I’m sure you’ll even get a little work as a backup now and then. I’ll even let my photojournalism students feel what it is like to work with a real photo beast. So you’re not done quite yet. You were one awesome photography tool, my friend.

Damacio Diaz of McFarland cross country fame admits to police corruption and drug charges, faces federal prison

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Damacio Diaz, right, shakes hands with Tomas Valles as the team readies for the start of the Southern section championships in the 1987 season.

Damacio Diaz, one of the three “running Diaz” brothers who helped build the McFarland High School cross country dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s and whose adventures were a key story line in the inspirational Disney film “McFarland USA,” has admitted to an array of charges stemming from a federal police corruption investigation and will almost certainly spend time in federal prison, according to published media reports.

Diaz, who went on to become a detective with the Bakersfield Police Department and was employed for 17 years, was arrested in November, 2015 and charged with 16 counts in a federal indictment. He resigned three months ago, on February 24. According to a Bakersfield Californian article published today and written by Steven Mayer and Christine Bedell, “Diaz admitted to a litany of crimes while he was working as a cop, including taking bribes, large-scale distribution of methamphetamine, working in partnership with a known drug dealer, stealing evidence and providing police intelligence to criminal partners.”

Federal prosecutors are recommending lenient sentencing for Diaz in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in their continuing investigation of the case. However, the amount of time Diaz might have to serve in prison has not been disclosed, and it will be up to the federal judge who handles the case to accept or reject the deal. Some of the charges against Diaz carry lifetime prison terms. The willingness of federal prosecutors to offer leniency for such serious crimes seems to indicate that the corruption scandal, in their view, might extend well beyond just Diaz and his former partner, who, according to The Californian, is expected to also be charged.

The Diaz arrest and admission is yet another devastating blow to the community of McFarland. The success of the cross country program has been a source of pride for the small agricultural community located 20 miles north of Bakersfield, which in the 1980s  endured unspeakable heartache and tragedy. Those included a cross country practice accident that took the lives of two members of the girls team, the death by heart attack of the school’s football coach, a Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teenagers from McFarland and neighboring Delano, the accidental deaths by drowning and a car accident that claimed two other teens, and a mysterious and unsolved cancer cluster that afflicted and claimed the lives of several children living in a several-square block section of McFarland.

The story line involving the Diaz brothers in the film “McFarland USA” highlighted the cultural differences between McFarland’s residents and the community’s burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants and their children. In the film, and presumably in their real lives, coach Jim White wants the Diaz brothers to run on the cross country team, but meets stiff resistance from the Diaz brothers’ father, who insists that they must work alongside him in the fields before and after school. The Diaz family also provided one of the film’s funniest scenes, when coach White, played by Kevin Costner, joins the family for dinner and is fed almost to the brink of unconsciousness by Mrs. Diaz. The film, while not accurate in many respects, still reflected positively on McFarland and has been well received by its residents. Many of the athletes who competed for coach White have had successful careers as adults. The other Diaz brothers, Danny and David, work as educational administrators.

The charges against Diaz – and the speculation that the scandal might run deep inside the Bakersfield Police Department, according to statements made by Diaz’s attorney – come at a time when law enforcement in Kern County is facing tremendous national and international scrutiny. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the world’s best investigative journalism outlets, published a series in which it declared police in Kern County to be the deadliest in America. Several of the cases highlighted were Bakersfield police cases.

The Bakersfield Californian articles report this story in depth. Click here to read yesterday’s story by Steven Mayer and click here to read today’s by Mayer and Christine Bedell.

The Guardian series declaring Kern County police the country’s deadliest

Twinkies, Hawaii and messages in the sand: The story of Sylvia and Herlinda

The real “McFarland USA” beach scene, from the album of Silvia Diaz

Photos from the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA”

A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

Update: Show the world what has happened to my son

McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

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Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film “McFarland USA” in February, 2015.

 

My last photographs of Merle Haggard

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I photographed Merle Haggard a lot during my 28-year career as a Bakersfield Californian photographer. One of Bakersfield’s native sons and arguably the greatest country musician and song writer of his generation, Haggard performed in Bakersfield often, and also visited frequently from Redding, California, where he lived, for social functions, to visit friends and even for medical treatment.

Haggard died today, on his 79th birthday, and even though he was in failing health, his loss has hit this town and the entertainment industry hard. A cause has not been listed, but he had been battling with double pneumonia since late last year.

Oddly enough, despite the number of times I photographed Haggard, I never really got to know him, unlike Bakersfield’s other giant of country music, Buck Owens, whom I became quite friendly with. I’m sure we said “hello” to each other a time or two, but the circumstances of the various shoots – usually his very busy schedule and the fact that he did not live in Bakersfield – never gave us an opportunity to talk. But he was a great photo subject, friendly and polite, and best of all for a photographer, completely at ease and even oblivious to the camera.

And, of course, I loved his music. I was a fan long before I was a photojournalist, and remember many a night as a teenager in Taft, California, cruising around in my friend Bill Wheeler’s Datsun pickup, listening to Merle Haggard songs for hours.

Some of the Haggard assignments were routine, mostly a few shots of his many concerts he performed at local venues, big and small. But some took on more importance. One, which I wrote about last year on this blog, was “Together Again: Buck and Merle and the Great Country Music Summit of 1995,” a high profile reunion of Owens and Haggard, along with Dwight Yoakam. Another would be the final time I would photograph Haggard as a staff photographer for The Bakersfield Californian. It was Haggard’s first concert after he underwent lung cancer surgery two months earlier. It was Friday, January 2, 2009, two months before I would leave the newspaper, and it was a busy afternoon and evening. It started with Haggard being given a star in front of Bakersfield’s historic Fox Theater, where he played a few times, and concluded with a concert at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, before a packed house, of course. It was not easy for him, and he had to stop a few times, freely talking to the audience about the surgery and his challenging recovery.

These are the pictures I shot for The Californian that day.

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Two months after his lung cancer surgery, it was a big day in his home town for Merle Haggard, who was honored with a star outside the historic Fox Theater and performed his first post-surgery concert at the Crystal Palace.
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Merle Haggard glances toward the crowd that assembled outside the Fox Theater Friday afternoon to watch the unveiling of his star.
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A smiling Merle Haggard acknowledges the crowd that was on hand for the unveiling of his star outside the Fox Theater Friday afternoon.
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Merle Haggard looks at his star outside the Fox Theater after it was unveiled Friday afternoon.
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Merle with his wife, Theresa.
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Several dozen fans turned out for the dedication ceremony.
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Merle Haggard takes the stage at the Crystal Palace for his first performance since undergoing lung cancer surgery. Behind him is his son, Binion.
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Merle Haggard performs for the first time since his lung cancer surgery.
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Merle Haggard and his son, Binion, during Haggard’s first concert following lung cancer surgery two months earlier.
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The Buck Owens Crystal Palace was packed for Merle Haggard’s first concert, on January 2, 2009, following his lung cancer surgery.
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Merle Haggard removed his hat and spoke candidly to the audience at Friday’s show. He talked about the honor of receiving a star outside the Fox Theater and about his recent lung cancer surgery, saying “It still hurts.”