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A Rescuer's Tale: Fight, Then Flight

Bobby Green is proud he helped save Reginald Denny. But his brave act also led him to leave L.A.

April 22, 2002|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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