If you were old enough to remember the horrible scenes of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the memory probably most burned into your mind is the ruthless beating of truck driver Reginald Denny. This last weekend marked the 25th anniversary of one of the ugliest domestic events in American history. Over the course of six days, 58 people died, 2,000 people were seriously injured, and over 11,000 citizens were arrested. The man responsible for capturing the most graphic video of the epicenter, Timothy Goldman, happened to be at the wrong place at the right time, and the story of how it all unfolded is pretty interesting.
I was 10 when the LA riots occurred. The images I saw on the television were vivid enough to make me ask a lot of questions I had previously never thought about at that age. Now that I am older and the political climate in America seems to be more on edge than it ever has been in recent years, I find myself extremely intrigued about what exactly happened on April 29th, 1992. This last weekend I saw the hashtag #LA92 trending on Twitter, and my curiosity led me down a long four hour YouTube binge of all things related to the Los Angeles Riots.
I read articles about the strained racial climate in Central LA after four white police officers were charged with beating a black motorist named Rodney King (watch that story here). There were other stories I had not remembered though, like the increased tension between local African Americans and the Korean American community. The murder of 15 year old Latasha Harlins by a Korean shop keeper was another factor fueling the racially charged political climate of Los Angeles. All in all, the social environment brewing in America's largest west coast city was just waiting to burst into flames... and the acquittal of Rodney King's assailants was the spark that unleashed it all.
The first footage I watched was Bob (now Zoey) Tur's famous aerial footage taken at Normandie and Florence in Inglewood. At a time when live news footage from a helicopter was still not commonplace, this video feed showing the disastrous effects of violent rioters will no doubt be considered some of the best journalistic footage from America in the early 1990s. It's raw, spontaneous, thrilling, depressing, and just plain unbelievable all at once. The video below starts with the first attack on a motorist named Larry Tarvin, but it is the second attack on Denny that shows just how hostile the environment had quickly become. Warning, this footage is really tough to watch and it's hard to imagine that such a large amount of violence took place in broad day light in America.
At the 16:07 mark on Tur's helicopter footage above I noticed a random man filming everything up close and personal with a massive 90's video camera. With so many acts of violence, looting, and crime happening around him, it seemed strange to me that anyone would have to guts to point a camera at the rioters committing felonies. As I watched the video unfold, I began to wonder who this guy was and what happened to his footage? We photographers are often faced with the dilemma of do we put down our camera and help those in need or do we keep our eye in the viewfinder and capture the story unfolding in front of us? What was this guy doing in this intersection? Was he exploiting the badly beaten motorist or was he simply making the most out of the situation? As I would come to soon find out, his story is actually pretty remarkable.
The man in the video is Timothy Goldman. At the time, Tim was a young Air Force pilot who was no stranger to this part of Los Angeles. In fact, he grew up in this neighborhood around Normandie and knew most of the people he would come to film on April 29th. Prior to the civil unrest, Timothy and his brother Terry were driving around south central filming random things with his new camcorder. As news broke from the Rodney King trial, people took to the streets and violence began to unfold quickly. Tim and his brother found themselves in the flashpoint of the event and began filming as much of the scene as possible. Early in the afternoon as Timothy was filming, he recorded the New York Times journalistic photographer Bart Bartholomew as he was being assaulted. Timothy wound up helping Bart escape the hostile environment. As journalists and police decided it was safer to retreat from the increasingly dangerous streets near Florence, Tim wound up being one of the few people to actually film the events from the ground. Some of his video from the day can be seen in the video below. It is pretty harrowing stuff.
As I continued searching for more and more of Tim's video footage on YouTube, I eventually found his own channel which contained the video I posted at the top of this article. Tim's story as told by ABC's Primetime show is extremely fascinating. Although he and his brother grew up in the same house, they both took very different paths in life. Tim graduated high school and enlisted in the Air Force while his brother turned to a life of crime. As Tim filmed the riots on April 29th, his brother Terry abandoned Tim and began taking part in the looting. In a weird twist of fate, Tim actually filmed his own brother committing crimes right in front of him. Another interesting element of Tim's riot footage is that this footage would later become the main evidence used for arresting and prosecuting specific rioters.
Even though Tim had some of the most desirable footage filmed in the heart of the civil unrest, not everyone was impressed with his camera skills. Most of his friends and peers dismissed Tim since in their eyes he had betrayed the community. The "snitches need stitches" mentality of inner city gang life soon plagued Tim, and he had to abandon his own neighborhood as people began to threaten his safety. Even Tim's brother Terry received threats and their relationship became strained for many years.
Although Timothy does not regret documenting the events on that horrible day, it does remind me of the ethical question I posted earlier. When something this horrific is happening before your eyes, should you stay and capture the scene or should you run for safety and/or help those in immediate danger? Should the truth be captured and told despite the backlash you personally might receive from the media, your peers, or political groups? Can you as a photographer live with these decisions you make in a split second years after the events end? I'm not a documentary photographer in the most basic sense of the phrase, but the ethics of photojournalism has always been interesting to me. When you hold a camera (and who isn't holding a cell phone these days) and are placed in a position of capturing something important, what are your civil duties? I'm thankful that Timothy captured the footage that he did during the LA Riots, but it's interesting to juxtapose Tim's actions to those of someone like Donald Jones who placed his life in danger to save one of the men being beat in Tim's video. As a photographer, which side would you have taken: capture footage used to bring justice to those who committed horrible crimes or set down your camera to physically save the life of someone in need?
The final video I want to share is a 20 year recap of Tim and Terry as they appeared on CBS's show This Morning.
There has been a lot of attention on the '92 LA Riots this week now that we have passed the 25th anniversary. Boyz in the Hood director John Singleton also released an A&E documentary called LA Burning that follows the events of April 29th. Like most horrible injustices in the world, the cause and effects of the riots are highly debated. For Tim Goldman it was simply luck that he happened to be at ground zero with his camera when the racial tension came to a head. Because of his footage, the citizens of America were able to see a different perspective, a more real and frightening perspective, than those captured by Bob Tur and his aerial footage. Tim's video also helped bring to justice those who robbed and assaulted the innocent people passing through those streets. For someone who wasn't necessarily trained in the arts of story telling and videography, Tim's footage goes to show that sometimes a story is so strong that simply capturing it can make it live forever.