LOS ANGELES The fire raged around him, and he raged around the fire.
His cap was backward as he shouted into the rising chaos, not knowing if anyone would listen. He still recalls extending his right arm and pointing at the Los Angeles Police Department’s headquarters, Parker Center, like a general commanding his troops.
And he remembers the order he gave.
“Burn this mother (expletive) down.”
He wore a blue T-shirt with a white peace sign emblazoned from chest to gut. A simple shirt on any other day.
But that juxtaposition – raging African-American protester wearing a symbol of peace – caught the eye of journalists with cameras. His image was captured and distributed around the world. He, alone, was on the cover of Newsweek magazine beside the headline “FIRE AND FURY.” CNN cameras followed him as he taunted and threatened the LAPD; The Orange County Register and Pasadena Star-News (among others) featured his photo on their pages.
Twenty-five years ago, on April 29, 1992, he became an iconic image of the Los Angeles riots.
That night, he says now, he did not fear death.
Mark Craig, the face of rage, was 23 years old.
From achievement to simmering
Don’t make assumptions about Mark Craig.
About his upbringing. About whether he was a hoodlum or a thug, two labels many people used after seeing his picture. About what drove his anger. Or about whether 25 years of maturity and perspective have softened his emotions about the night he refers to as “the uprising.”
Mark Craig’s dad worked at Edison. His mother worked at DuPont. The family’s Monrovia home had a pool in the backyard. Craig was class president in junior high and played football in high school. He drove a ’69 Volkswagen bug. “A completely middle-class existence,” Craig said.
Before the uprising, his encounters with the police were positive.
After high school, he wanted to see the world and raise money for college, so he joined the Navy in 1987.
“My family was proud,” he said.
He was stationed, for a time, at Pearl Harbor. He worked as a machinist on board the USS Worden, a cruise missile launcher. He worked in propulsion and in converting salt water into fresh water to hydrate the sailors. On Jan. 17, 1991, the Worden saw combat in the Persian Gulf for the opening of Operation Desert Storm.
In March of 1991, the Worden was in Hong Kong. Craig said he remembers the ship was able to get television reception, and he saw a news report detailing the beating of Rodney King by members of the LAPD. The incident took place in Lake View Terrace, a few exits down the 210 Freeway from Monrovia.
“It was horrific,” Craig said. “And it was really close to my house.”
He began to simmer.
Craig was honorably discharged from the Navy on July 14, 1991. He had risen to Petty Officer second class. He returned home a hero, a winner of the Sea Service Ribbon, a Southeast Asia Campaign Medal with a Bronze Star, a National Defense Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.
“Your performance resulted in a high level of material readiness in the after engine room and contributed significantly to Worden’s combat readiness in the challenging Persian Gulf operating environment,” wrote Rear Admiral Raynor Taylor in Craig’s commendation. “Your distinctive performance reflects credit upon yourself, your command and the United States Naval Service.”
Within two months, he was a 23-year-old freshman at Citrus College, and he had moved out of his parents’ home into an apartment nearby. He was taking general studies classes and considering law school.
On Nov. 15, 1991, Craig was in his Monrovia apartment watching television when he saw the verdict in a highly publicized case: 15-year-old Latasha Harlins had been shot in the head by a liquor store owner in Los Angeles after she had stolen a bottle of orange juice. Craig watched on television as the jury delivered a guilty verdict. But the judge disregarded the jury’s recommended maximum sentence (16 years) and sentenced the liquor store owner to five years probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.
“That,” Craig said, “was unjust.”
His simmering intensified.
Life-altering shirt change
April 29, 1992, began as a normal day in Craig’s life. He went to classes at Citrus College. He remembers he was wearing a T-shirt with Martin Luther King’s image and “I Have A Dream” on his chest. He came home and turned on the television because he wanted to watch the verdict in the Rodney King beating case. He remembers thinking, finally, justice would be served. He thought that the police, caught beating King on videotape, were going to jail.
As the jury foreman repeated the words “Not guilty,” Craig felt disbelief.
“It was like a slap in the face.”
He and his friends began calling each other. The more they talked, the more their anger grew. They felt like they had to do something, but they didn’t know what or where they should do it.
Craig called his mother. She could tell he was hot.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“I went to war for this?” he said. “I’m going to protest.”
“Be safe,” his mother said.
Before he left, he did one last thing: He put on the shirt that changed his life, the blue one with the giant peace sign. He did it, he said, because, “I’m a peaceful person by nature.”
They piled into his Datsun 280Z, Craig and three friends. There was no back seat, so two of them had to lie down. Craig drove.
The other men were simmering too. Chad McDonald, 45, a friend who grew up across the street from Craig and who now works as a social worker in Riverside, was taking the King verdict personally. “I felt disrespected and unimportant,” McDonald said.
Craig sped south on the 110 Freeway toward the Los Angeles skyline. They got off at Hill Street and considered going to the steps of City Hall. But as they drove they passed Parker Center.
“This is where we need to be,” Craig said. He parked about a mile away from the police station because he didn’t want his car to be blocked or damaged by what he believed was about to happen.
It wasn’t yet 5 p.m., but as they got to Parker Center police were standing side-by-side, protecting their building from a crowd of about 50 people, a mix of African-American, white, Asian and Hispanic.
Craig took note of a particular African-American police officer – “I could see the pain in his face” – and shouted a question at him:
“How could you work for this racist organization?”
Craig picked up a sign he found in the street. He doesn’t remember precisely what it said; something about Police Chief Daryl Gates being racist; something about the LAPD being equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan.
A CBS news van parked nearby and a crowd gathered around that van to watch TV monitors that showed what was happening throughout Los Angeles. The protesters saw a white man, Reginald Denny, pulled out of his truck and beaten by African-Americans. No police came to his rescue.
The televised beating – in all its unflinching horror – inspired the crowd.
The police, Craig said, no longer controlled the city.
From revolution to responsibility
Craig pointed at the police and urged the crowd to surround them. At this point, early in the evening, protesters outnumbered police.
“I felt the revolution,” Craig said.
Craig’s friend, McDonald, walked up and down the police line, screaming into their faces.
“For the first time, we could say whatever we wanted to say,” McDonald said.
The police retreated into their building. They stood behind the glass doors, but they were ready to retaliate.
Protesters responded by throwing things at the glass – rocks, plants, trash cans; anything they could find. They picked up a chant as well: “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”
But as he looked for something to heave, Craig had a dark thought: “If we break the glass, they’re going to kill us.”
And this prompted a second thought: If Craig broke the glass, and somebody behind him died, could he live with himself?
He ran to the door of Parker Center and turned to face the crowd. He raised his hands to signal a cease-fire. He screamed a new order:
“I felt responsibility,” he said. “Someone might die. They didn’t sign up for this. This is not why we’re here.”
The glass didn’t break.
Craig moved away from the doors, leading his people toward the Parker Center parking lot. Protesters knocked over the empty guard shack and Craig jumped on top of the tiny building. As darkness fell, protesters were setting trees on fire; burning American flags. Someone lit the guard shack on fire.
That’s when news organizations snapped Mark Craig’s photo. That’s when he became an icon.
‘Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed’
Mark Craig, the face of rage, is 48 years old.
He has two kids, one in college. He worked for 20 years at Eastman Chemical, where he rose to the position of operational manager. He’s been divorced and has a new girlfriend who works as a lawyer. He ran for the Monrovia City Council in 2001 and finished fourth.
Craig works as a tour guide, leading small groups around the greater Los Angeles area. He stops in Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, the Griffith Park Observatory and the TCL (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre. Sometimes, he passes the corner of 54th and Western, where his protesting image is immortalized in a mural.
Within the year, Craig plans to extend his tours to Yosemite. He wants to show nature to inner-city kids.
“Yosemite is the grandest of all the parks,” Craig said. “It’s a cathedral. When you’re there, you feel at peace.”
Sometimes, tourists will ask him, without knowing who he is, about the events of April of 1992.
“I’m the iconic symbol of the largest uprising in American history,” he tells them.
Twenty-five years later, he has not second-guessed what he did that night.
“Do I feel bad about anything? No,” he said. “That was the proudest moment of my life. I was fighting more for justice here than I was in Iraq.”
He’s written a self-published book, the title explaining his feelings: “Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed.”
He likes to visit the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, where they have an exhibit called “No Justice, No Peace” (on display through August) about the events of 1992.
Craig stands in the background as people stop in front of his picture. He’ll approach them and introduce himself.
“This is history,” he will say, pointing to the magazine cover.
“I’m very proud.”
Read more about L.A. Riots 25 years later: Iconic protester remembers fight for justice as ‘proudest moment’ This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed. Mission Viejo Paper Shredding Company
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