Who Is My Neighbor? (Reflections on the L.A. Riots)

Who Is My Neighbor? (Reflections on the L.A. Riots) May 9, 2017

screenshot courtesy, YouTube
screenshot courtesy, YouTube

A guest post from Rebecca Lister

This past week marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. On NPR’s Here and Now, I was listening to the host, Robin Young, as she interviewed the four African American strangers who saved a white truck driver from being beaten to death on that day. Fueled by the acquittal of four white police officers in the brutal beating of African American taxi driver Rodney King, the riots personified all that was wrong in the policing of Los Angeles. I recalled watching the news coverage in 1992 in astonishment and outrage. I remembered seeing shaky video footage of the man, Reginald Denny, being pulled from his truck cab; I see him kneeling in the street with blood pouring from his head, blinding him; I am horrified as he is knocked down and stomped on; I feel intense pity, seeing him reach out his arms to feel where he was…it was awful. This event in history was a lot like 9/11, in that most people recall when they first saw the footage of the riots. If we are not careful, however, we focus all our attention on the ugliness, rage, and senseless violence of that day, instead of the beautiful story of four ordinary, “B-Flat” people—later referred to as “Good Samaritans.” Their names should not be forgotten, nor should what they did on that dark day.

These four people—Lei Yuille, Bobby Green, Terri Barnett, and Titus Murphy–saw the reports on TV about what was happening on the corner of Florence and Normandie in L.A. Each decided to brave the riots and rush to the chaotic scene to help the stranded truck driver, Reginald Denny, who was being brutally attacked by an angry mob. Though none of them had planned how to help Denny, each one of the four “Good Samaritans” knew they had to do something. Lei Yuille, a nurse, was the first to arrive at the scene at Denny’s red truck. She initially helped the bleeding Denny by “being his eyes,” guiding him through the maze of cars and people as he tried to drive the rig. Later, Yuille helped treat his wounds after Bobby Green took over driving the truck. Green, himself a truck-driver, hopped in to take over the driving from Denny. Terri Barnett drove her car in front of Denny’s truck; her boyfriend, Titus Murphy, also jumped into the rig and hung outside of the passenger door, yelling directions since Green could no longer see through the broken windshield. Four strangers who had never planned to be heroes somehow worked in perfect synchronization to lead the truck to the hospital. In a report on L.A.’s NBC4 News (April 25, 2012), Murphy said, “It was like we were meant to do that. It’s like we were on a mission. Everything just fell in place, just like it was supposed to.”

I am inclined to believe that the actions of these four people were divinely orchestrated. In the Here and Now interview, Titus Murphy said that as soon as he saw the live TV report of Denny’s beating, a voice in his head told him to “get up”—both he and his girlfriend, Terry Barnett, felt they had no choice but to act. While Lei Yuille was watching the coverage with her family, someone in the room said, “Lei, we’re Christians, we have to do something!” She immediately left, not thinking of the dangers that lay ahead. Bobby Green later said, “I was doing my duty as an Angel of God.” All four of these people were listening, not just to their consciences, but to the voice of God. Even more impressive is the fact that they acted.

To me, this is the most effective, the most selfless method of political activism there could possibly be. These four people were not leading thousands of people in a glitzy peace march. They did not make signs, yell catchy slogans, or get themselves arrested for a cause. Instead, each of them got off their couches, got in their cars, and got into the fray–not for themselves, but for someone they did not even know. While protest marches have value, it is not usually long lasting. Protest actions are what bring about true and long-lasting change in racial relations.

The idea of referring to Reginald Denny’s four rescuers as “Good Samaritans” is entirely appropriate. The parable of “The Good Samaritan” is found in Luke 10:25-37, and is yet another example of Jesus’s ability to communicate a concept through a skillfully told story. It is an answer to “Who is my neighbor?” and it is an answer from which many of us shy away. Jesus implies our neighbor is everyone. At first glance, this command sounds just fine. What if, however, we were to change the title role of the story to “The Good Muslim”; or perhaps, “The Good Republican”; or even “The Good Billionaire Reality Show Host;” how do we feel then? What if the Muslim in the story were to forget the danger to himself and stop to help us? What if “The Good Republican” cradled our heads and bandaged our wounds? What if “The Billionaire Reality Show Host” took us to a hotel and paid for further medical care? Would we not feel agonizingly grateful, no matter what type of person we assume they are?

Those four guardian angels felt that Reginald Denny was a neighbor in desperate need on that day in 1992. They knew he was white, but they made no assumptions about him. They saw he was a man who needed help—a man who might even be killed—if they did not step in. It is necessary that we as a society start remembering who are neighbors are and know that loving our neighbor might literally save our lives one day.

In the 2012 interview, Titus Murphy said “There’s only one race and that’s the human race. All this other stuff we’re doing, we’re just wasting our valuable time.” Amen.

Here and Now – April 28, 2017; the interview with Robin Young can be heard at

NBC4 News –April 23, 2012; Chuck Henry is the reporter; Mary Harris wrote the article that accompanies the TV spot.–148613585.html


Browse Our Archives