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Caught up in violence of L.A. riots, victim has lasting empathy

A photographer was just one of thousands injured during the riots. He doesn't remember his trauma, but as a nurse practitioner he now assists traumatized veterans.

April 30, 2012|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Craig Fujii examines 3-year-old Samantha Phelps, whose father, Staff Sgt. Dane Phelps, has served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and two in Iraq.
Craig Fujii examines 3-year-old Samantha Phelps, whose father, Staff… (Cory Lum )

HONOLULU — Craig Fujii spent the night of April 29, 1992, in two increasingly chaotic L.A. emergency rooms.

On his right temple throbbed a large, ugly lump, striped with swollen veins. His head hurt, he kept saying, over and over.

The young Associated Press photographer had been beaten up at Florence and Normandie.

Someone had yanked off his cameras. He'd been kicked, his glasses smashed.

As he was finally being seen at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, firefighters in bloodied gear rushed in with one of their own who had been shot in the face.

Fujii found this out later, along with other chilling details: that he was beaten about 10 minutes before Reginald Denny, not 10 yards from where Denny had been violently dragged from his truck; that he and Denny seemed to have at least one attacker in common.

Fujii got banged up. He had a concussion and a nasty shiner. It took months for the knot on his temple to recede.

But in time, what he came to feel was grateful.

He was not permanently damaged, not dead. He was just one of the injured thousands, a bit player in a big moment in history.

As such, he could decide how much to let one awful experience take hold of him.

From the start, his mind seemed to be helping him make the choice.

Fujii had been handed what he calls "a crazy gift." He could remember only the edges of what had happened to him.

"If you were just going to replay something over and over, a bunch of people coming at you and swinging at you and hurting you — if you had to replay that over and over in your brain, if you kept seeing it over and over, that'd be horrifying," he said. "The beauty of the way our brains work is sometimes we don't remember things that are horribly bad."


Fujii's memories of April 29, 1992, are like shards of glass — each individually sharp, but far too few to reconstruct into a whole.

He is driving surface streets to the Forum, to shoot a Lakers playoff game, when he hears on KFWB about the crowd at Florence and Normandie. He thinks, it's pretty much on the way, he can go grab a few quick photos, then head on to the game. He doesn't call the office. ("I go cowboy.")

He is standing with others, staring at Tom's Liquor Store. He feels stunned and surprised. But at what? ("Was it a fire? Don't know. Was it people running out of the store? Don't remember.")

He is fumbling in the back of his red Honda Civic hatchback, feeling for his spare pair of glasses. ("If you can't see, is it still a memory?")

He is sitting in the front seat of his car and his face hurts. It hurts so much.

The attack itself? Gone. Leaving the scene? A blank.

So much of what he knows has been filled in by others.

Somehow, it seems, he drove himself to the Associated Press bureau in downtown L.A., though once there he seemed dazed and could not say where he'd been.

"He had this huge welt, like a ping-pong ball," said Scott Robinson, who was filing photos when Fujii walked in. "People kept peppering him with questions, 'Where's your car? Where's your gear?'"

He replied with his own questions, which he kept repeating, caught in a loop:

"What's going on?" "Am I going to be OK?" "Why does my head hurt?"

Robinson answered every few minutes as he took Fujii in search of help, first to a downtown ER crowded with gunshot victims, then to Cedars.

Fujii didn't seem to be hearing him. So Robinson started making things up — telling him of planets colliding, spaceships landing.

It was better, Robinson said, than focusing on what he was seeing and hearing.

"It was like we were in the middle of hell, like the whole world was imploding and we were at ground zero."


After the attack, Fujii was told to stay home from work. He sat in his apartment in Palms, watching TV footage of mayhem on the streets.

He was very much on edge and terribly scared. He felt violence could jump out at him from anywhere.

He also mourned what he saw as the loss of the Los Angeles he loved.

An optimistic 31-year-old born in Long Beach, Fujii had celebrated the idea of the many-colored, open-armed metropolis.

"I have this great memory of when I was a little kid, flying out of LAX and looking around and seeing people from everywhere coming to this city. They spoke different languages. They dressed differently. They had different skin colors. It seemed like such a promising, hopeful place," he said.

"Suddenly it was all taken away, this great big melting pot that is L.A. It sort of felt like the end of the world."

And sitting near him, as if in proof, was a handgun.

He had never shot one, never owned one, always been a pacifist. But when a worried friend called and offered him protection, Fujii was too frightened to resist.

"And here I was, me, with this stinking pistol by my side," he said.

A week or so later, Fujii made the choice to give the gun back.

He immediately felt great relief, he said. "I mean the faster it got out of my house, the more comfortable I was."


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