Jeff Kramer gunned his light-blue Dodge Colt down Normandie Avenue in South Central Los Angeles, armed with a king-sized Snickers, a notebook and a few pens. It was April 29, 1992, and he’d just finished filing a man-on-the-street story to the Boston Globe (by pay phone) about the black community’s reaction to a news story that was about to ignite a national debate on race and police brutality: Four L.A. police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King with billy clubs had been acquitted by a mostly white jury.
A year earlier, on March 3, 1991, King had led police on a high-speed chase. He was on parole for robbery—and was later charged with driving under the influence. When he finally pulled over and stepped out of his car, officers clubbed him to the ground with their batons and kicked him for 15 minutes. (King was hospitalized with broken bones, skull fractures and permanent brain damage.) A plumber named George Holliday caught the brutal attack on film from the balcony of his apartment, and a local TV station aired the footage, sending the harrowing scene into living rooms around the country.
Within hours of the acquittal, riots broke out in South Central, at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. People set fires and smashed windows. Buildings and stores were looted and destroyed. Mobs careened through the area, overturning cars and bloodying bystanders. Helicopter footage captured Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, being dragged from his bright red truck cab and beaten with a claw hammer, a piece of brick, and a flurry of kicks and jabs. Sirens and choppers filled the air.
L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley called a local state of emergency and the National Guard was sent in. On the third day of violence, King appeared on TV with a trembling plea: “Can’t we all get along?” The riots lasted five days, racking up more than $1 billion in damages and leaving thousands injured and 63 people dead. Kramer was almost one of them.
'I'm Going to Die Here'
After filing his story to the Boston Globe, his editor told him something was brewing at Florence and Normandie. “She said, ‘Go check it out, but don’t get hurt,’” recalls Kramer, now 55, who lives in upstate New York, where he works as the humor columnist at the Syracuse New Times. But 25 years ago, he was a general assignment reporter chasing the biggest story of the day. As he headed down Normandie, toward the billowing smoke and spasms of violence, traffic halted. A handful of young black men were in the road, and Kramer locked eyes with one of them. “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” he wrote in People magazine a month later, “shock giving way to unbridled joy.”
That guy and his friends mobbed Kramer’s car, shattered his windshield, broke a window, then started in on Kramer, walloping him with punches and demanding he get out.
“I’m a reporter!” Kramer said. “I’m trying to get your side of things.”
“I don’t give a fuck who you are,” he remembers one of the men saying. “Get out of the car!”
Kramer knew he’d be dead if he stepped out of his car, so when someone smashed him, hard, in the temple, he slumped over the steering wheel and played dead. The hits kept coming. Then he felt a sharp, heavy sting in his left calf. And another. He looked down and saw blood dripping down his leg. He’d been shot, twice.
“I remember thinking, ‘I just turned 30 and I’m going to die here. I remember feeling very sad for my parents, more so than myself, thinking how hard this was going to be on them.”
Growing up in Seattle, Kramer dreamed of being a newspaper columnist: “I was one of those people irritated in junior high that there was no student paper,” he says. He studied journalism and played football at Western Washington University, and was the first person in his family to graduate from college. His mother, Jeanette, was a housewife, and his father, Kurt, worked as a sales rep for American Tobacco Company. Kurt also was a Holocaust survivor. He grew up in southeastern Germany, and had witnessed his own father—a successful businessman who’d won an iron cross fighting for Germany in World War I—get arrested by the Gestapo in 1938, not long after Kristallnacht. He was hauled away to a detention center and didn’t come home until six weeks later, on the first night of Chanukah, head shaved and clutching a small tin of gingerbread, a gift for his family. Kurt was 12 when he and his parents escaped Germany, in 1940, thanks to help from a Catholic friend.
“[My father] remembered riding his bike around the morning after Kristallnacht and smelling synagogues burning,” Kramer says. “It was obviously traumatic. I think maybe we were born more aware than many households at how quickly things can change in a country. My dad was always acutely aware of that. He believed people were basically good as individuals but he had a fear of them in groups.”
The riots in L.A. were proving that point all over again, only Kurt and Jeanette had no clue their son was in mortal danger.
After his assailants left, Kramer popped his head up and peered out through the shattered windows of his car. The mob had dispersed. He had a chance to get away. “It was like being in an Indiana Jones movie,” he says. “Do this, now this. I was just trying to get to the next moment.” His car was still running, but he had no idea if he could drive—it was a stick shift and he only had one good foot. He slid his injured leg toward the clutch to see if he could press it down. He could. He pulled a quick U-turn and headed down a side street. Behind him, he heard shouts and then a loud bang—a third bullet sliced into his back.
But he was still breathing, and with his adrenaline pumping he turned down a few more streets until his car sputtered to a stop near four children playing.
“They just stood there petrified. The windows and tires of my car were shot out. I was bloody. I was saying, ‘I need help!’ They stood there, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna die here because these kids are too scared to move.’” Then a handful of neighbors came to his rescue. Marie Edwards called 911 and brought out a blanket and pair of long johns for her son, Keenan Guidroz, to use as a compress on Kramer’s shoulder. They also lowered his seat back and covered him with a blanket, so that when cars drove by and slowed down to gawk at the damage, they wouldn’t see Kramer in the driver’s seat. Half an hour passed and still, no help had arrived, so another neighbor, Lemicher Wallace, wearing only a dressing gown, offered to take Kramer to safety. She parked her large sedan alongside Kramer’s Colt and Guidroz helped him slide into the back seat of the other car. They covered him with the blanket, and drove to the nearest triage station.
“Those people showed incredible courage. I was an enormous liability to them, and they risked a lot to help me. I’ll always be grateful to that.”
Kramer was shot around 7 p.m., and he didn’t arrive at California Medical Center until the early hours of the following morning. The place looked like a war zone: “One guy was getting paddles to get his heart working again. They wheeled a dead guy right next to me. I was able to dictate a story for the Globe! I think it needed a little rewriting but not much,” he says. “You’re thinking, ‘This is really sad, I’m gonna die, but if I don’t, this is what you went into journalism for.’”
Two days later, Kramer left the hospital with his arm in a sling and a .38 caliber slug lodged in his scapula. “Doctors said had it gone a quarter inch more I would have bled to death,” he says. The bullet is still there. “I've had to explain to radiologists under a certain age what the Rodney King riots were,” he says. The .22 bullets that pierced his calf went straight through and left minimal nerve damage.
Getting Back to Work
In the aftermath of the riots, Kramer’s story garnered a lot of media attention. He wrote about his experience in an essay in People in May 1992, and agreed to go on the Maury Povich show and Hearts of Courage, a Canadian series with Alex Trebek (“I was holding out for Ted Koppel or Oprah, but that never happened”).
Then he went back to writing. “I wasn’t gonna let this be my identity,” he says. “I just wanted to get back to working. I don’t think of myself as heroic, but I’m a beneficiary of heroes. All I was trying to do was my job. Part of me was a little embarrassed because of the attention. It’s not really how I would have preferred to get known as a journalist at that time. I’d rather win a Pulitzer Prize!”
In 1993, two of the four officers who beat King, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, were found guilty of violating King's civil rights and sentenced to 30 months in prison. King sued the City of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million in damages. He bought two modest houses, one for himself and one for his mother, and spent the remaining years of his life struggling with drugs and alcohol, shuffling between prison and rehabilitation centers. In April 2012, timed to the 20th anniversary of the riots, King published his memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption. A few weeks later, the man who’d become a symbol of racial tension in America—who’d endured unwanted celebrity and proven the importance of citizen journalism long before the Internet age—was found dead in his backyard swimming pool. King was 47.
Today, Kramer and his wife, Leigh Neumann, live in Syracuse and have two teenage daughters. “I have a nice life now. Especially when I look at my daughters—how easily they could not be here.” He’s spent the last 25 years as a humor columnist for small, local newspapers, writing about politics, the environment and, up next, how hard his wife’s colonoscopy was on him. At one point he riffs, “I was in Boston when the Red Sox lost in ‘86. Compared to getting shot in the riots, the ‘86 World Series was worse—harder on me mentally, you know?” Kramer’s third play, “The Golden Bitch,” is playing at the Catherine Cummings Theatre at Cazenovia College near Syracuse. As he wrote in an email, “My biggest take-away from being injured in the L.A. riots is that civilization is a construct, not a given. We agree to play by the rules until we don't—and it can change in an instant. Anyway forget the riots, and get your theater critics up here to see this play!”
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