I have a shelf with a few odd souvenirs from what passes for my illustrious career in TV news. There’s a ceramic, ashtray-sized mockup of the Tokyo Dome, from a 1994 series about Japanese baseball. There’s a mason jar full of Tennessee moonshine, with cherries floating in it. There’s a concrete cylinder, artistically painted by an inmate at the Georgia State Prison.
And there’s a plain, rectangular grey brick onto which I inscribed “4-30-92” in green magic marker. It marked the most dangerous day of my career, twenty years ago today.
The previous day, a Los Angeles jury had acquitted four police officers — three white, one Hispanic– for the videotaped beating of African-American motorist Rodney King. That night, rioting (or “civil unrest,” if you prefer) began in LA. The following day, it spread to other cities.
I worked a night shift on April 30, 1992. By the time I’d gotten to work, violence had already broken out in downtown Atlanta. Storefronts had been smashed by crowds of angry folks. The State Patrol ringed the Capitol with troopers and cars. News folk were dispatched to document it.
Helen Lester was one of my go-to nightside photogs, talented and thoughtful and interesting to be around. The desk dispatched us downtown, backing up legions of WAGA dayside personnel already covering the violence. I remember seeing a crowd of people on Mitchell St., a few blocks west of City Hall. There were a lot of angry voices. A few rocks flew in various directions. Aside from smashed storefronts, at least one marked TV news vehicle had an ugly hole in its rear windshield. Police were around but chose not to engage the crowds, for the most part, until the following day.
We cautiously shot some footage before the desk dispatched us to the Atlanta University Center, where Mayor Maynard Jackson was going to give a speech, aimed at calming the city. When we arrived, another crew was already set up. We left.
Helen got into the passenger seat of our marked news car and held a Betacam in her lap. I drove east on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive toward downtown. As we passed the Busy Bee Cafe, we spotted Garnett Sumpter. He was the husband of one of WAGA’s EPs, a familiar face who worked at a mortuary on MLK. I stopped the car, got out and approached him. Helen stayed put.
I was a white guy wearing a white shirt, exiting a white-colored car marked “Eyewitness News.” At that moment in that neighborhood, few people fit that description. At first blush, the vehicle may have also represented a symbol of authority, one of the few in town that wasn’t protected by police in riot gear.
As I walked toward Sumpter, I saw a crowd of people cresting a hill on a sidewalk walking toward me, a half block or so away. Then I saw a juice bottle fly in my direction.
After that, the air seemed to fill with rocks and bricks, all of them in my direction. The crowd ran toward me. I ran to the car.
By the time I got to the car, the rocks began spraying the windshield. Helen was inside, holding the Betacam to her face as the glass broke in front of her. Getting into the car wasn’t an option.
I ran back toward Ashby St. (now Joseph E. Lowery Dr.), but I lacked speed and had no place to go. The crowd overpowered me. I found myself crouched face down on the sidewalk, hands covering the back of my head, pummeled by feet and hands and God knows what else.
I don’t know how long it lasted — less than a minute, pretty sure. I heard somebody say “let’s go, let’s go” and suddenly they were gone.
Later, Garnett Sumpter told me had run to his pickup truck, retrieved a .22 pistol, and brandished the weapon to implore the crowd to move on.
The AJC reported that some 41 people were hurt, most of them reporters, photographers and police. (Back then, the AJC actually found local TV news sufficiently interesting to write about it critically. I pulled a piece about TV coverage from the AJC archive and have posted it here. There’s also a brief piece here about Sumpter’s heroics. Both links require the password “ajc”).
The previous day in Los Angeles, truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten, nearly fatally when a man smashed a large piece of concrete on his head. I remain thankful I didn’t get the treatment Denny got.
My right eye was already starting to swell (it blackened quite nicely the following day). I had abrasions on my forehead. Bruises were forming from the back of my head, down. But I was in better shape than Helen. She successfully avoided injury to her face, thanks to the shielding qualities of her Betacam. But the trauma of the implosion of the windshield in front of her, the rocks flying into the car and hitting her elsewhere, appeared to send her into shock. Sumpter and I carried her to safety to his mortuary, where she was eventually treated by paramedics. She walked unsteadily for several days afterward.
The attack seemed to happen in an instant. Helen’s camera wasn’t powered up when it started. She got no footage of it.
After the paramedics left, another WAGA crew showed up and drove our car out of NW Atlanta. They took me to Grady Hospital, where I had volunteered to do a live shot describing the incident. That night, Shirley Washington interviewed me about it in our newsroom.
The next day was a Friday, and the TV station gave me the day off. That day, May 1, was even worse. The unrest had spread to the AU Center, where Atlanta police aggressively worked to contain it.
The anniversary comes to mind as coverage continues of the 2012 Trayvon Martin case in Florida, another incident of violence that has fueled race-based suspicion and distrust. We haven’t advanced much in the last 20 years.
That night, I saw Helen’s news car in the lot, its windshield and other windows destroyed. The interior was loaded with rocks and bricks. I pulled one out, took it home, and inscribed it with the date. I also kept and never washed the white shirt I wore that day. There’s blood on the collar. The back is covered with footprints. Weird, I know. It’s stashed in a closet.
– During the attack on the sidewalk, somebody swiped my wallet. After removing the six dollars cash and credit cards, the wallet ended up in a mailbox. It was delivered to my home address a few days later via US Mail.
– Within a few days, I got a some letters. One was from a writer who said I deserved to get my white ass kicked, and that the crowd should have hurt me worse than it did. Others were more thoughtful, sympathetic and even awkwardly apologetic.
– About a week later, an Atlanta police detective called and notified me he was investigating my assault case. ‘Did you get any video of it?’ he asked. I said no. He answered with an ‘all right. Let me know if you get any leads.’ I never heard from him again about the case.
– I thanked Garnett Sumpter by inviting him and his wife Sidmel to my home for supper, and giving him a bottle of booze.
– For years afterward, strangers would ask me: Aren’t you that reporter what got his ass kicked downtown?