1992. It was a tough time to be a Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney in the period after the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed the acquittal of the police who beat him. The police hated us because they went from being our witnesses in most cases, to the defendants in the most high profile case in the country. It wasn't just those police on trial - it was the whole Los Angles County police force, and as criminal prosecutors for the county, our relationship with them was soured by the bright lights of the inquiry. Then there was the public anger at the the DA's Office. When the case was tried in Simi Valley, the land of retired police officers and few black people, the public was rightfully angry, and the verdict proved their point. The city erupted in violence.
In my neighborhood, a racially diverse area called The Miracle Mile, my boyfriend and I and a group of our neighbors: black, white, and foreign exchange students, went over to help the firemen put out the fire in a nearby building, Sammy's Camera. The firemen gave us orders and let us hold the powerful hoses together as we doused the flames. We felt useful and united as neighbors.
During the riots, Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, was pulled from his truck at Florence and Normandy and severely beaten by an angry mob. There was no conviction in that case either. Picking a jury became really difficult because so many potential jurors hated the police, the DA's Office, or both, and held bias toward defendants or witnesses who did not share their skin color.
So it happened one day that I, a DDA with a hankering for some BBQ , decided to drive to Phillips in Leimert Park, a proud historically black neighborhood not too far from the rioting site where Reginald Denny was beaten.
I was feeling like a white neon sign as I waited in a long line at Phillips as the only Caucasian there at the time. I thought about my parents as graduate students at Duke in the 1960's when they had me, and how they had worked to end segregation in Durham, helping to start the first NAACP chapter there and participating in sit-ins. I had been in the first integrated class year in the public schools in Nashville. Here I was in Los Angeles in my 20's. Why had so little changed? There was an old woman asking for change next to the line and I had some money in my pocket - I took it out and walked over to her with my hand outstretched. She pulled her arm back as if she were about to hit me and started screaming,"I don't take money from the white devil!" I felt like I was about to be attacked by her, and I was unsure what the crowd around me would do. Was this my last moment? Here at Phillips BBQ, judged only by my skin color?
As panic took over my mind and body, a large man nearby me in line stepped up to the woman shouting at me and said: "Don't talk to her like that! She was trying to help you! I want my dollar back!" Then a skinny old man with just a few teeth left came to my side and put his arm around me. He said, "Little lady, let me help you get your BBQ." He stood by me while I ordered and paid and then he carried the large tray to my car and placed it inside. He said, "You are a kind lady, and I hope you come back here real soon."
I felt like angels had descended from heaven at that moment and I thanked the dear angel who helped me to my car and assured him I would be back, which was true. But at that moment my heart was beating so fast, I drove out of there without a clear plan of how to retrace my path back home, and the next thing I knew I was on Normandy one of the streets I knew from the Reginald Denny beating, and I was on my cell to my boyfriend telling him the story in fast blurts and that I was lost and on Normandy in South Central.
I did make it home and the BBQ was so delicious, but I savored my faith in humanity even more!
When my Dad, the old civil rights worker, came to visit me a year later from Nashville, I took him to Phillips BBQ. He knew my story. By then the tension had diffused a bit. We were in line behind an Asian guy with a blue mohawk. The BBQ was just as good, and the city was healing. Not to say that race relations in LA improved over night. But big changes were made in the police force, thanks to federal intervention. LAPD became less combative, more responsive to the community, and more representative of the population. As a citizen, a DDA, and a member of the human race, I welcomed the changes.
Lisa Kaas Boyle. Esq. B.A., Vanderbilt University 1986; J.D., Tulane Law School 1990, Deputy District Attorney 1991-1998, Los Angeles Resident 1990-Today