1992: A Look Back at the Harris Execution and the LA Riots: One Angeleno’s Perspective

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This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the resumption of executions in California after the U.S. Supreme Court “unabolished” the practice. The proximity of the two events was coincidental, at least at first glance. But 25 years later, the forces that led to the street violence following the Rodney King verdicts and to the upswell of public support for resuming executions seem inescapably interrelated. The events of that month are seared in my memory—the smell of my city burning as I stepped outside during non-curfew hours, the voices of nuns praying at a vigil outside the Los Angeles Federal Building on execution eve, the overall sick feeling in my stomach whenever I thought of either event. But the experience would prove to have a profound effect on my life.

On the day the riots began, I found myself at a printing plant in Compton, California, just a short distance from where rioters had pulled Reginald Denny from his truck. I was the owner of a small publishing company, and I was there performing a press check for one of our magazines. When I heard reports of the street violence at Florence and Normandie, I hurried back to Torrance, a little nervous being a white guy alone in my Astro van. Though I was angered by the jurors’ decision in the Rodney King case, I was dumbfounded by the images of violence I witnessed on television. Didn’t these rioters understand that the acts of violence perpetrated on Rodney King by police officers were no justification for the merciless beatings of white people?

A little more than a week earlier, I had asked myself a very similar question as the State of California prepared for its first execution in more than two decades. The inmate was Robert Alton Harris, who was sentenced to death for the cold-blooded murder of two teenagers in San Diego. But violence was not a foreign concept in his life. An article in the Los Angeles Times on Harris’ childhood highlighted the cycle of violence that began–literally–with his birth and continued through his execution. (A later article told an eerily similar story of the life of David Mason, who would become the next person to be executed in California’s gas chamber.)

As it turned out, the weekend before the Harris execution was when Christians celebrated Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The irony of conservative Christians–most of whom supported the death penalty in California–commemorating the travesty of Jesus’ execution while gearing up for Harris’s, did not escape me and I took the occasion to call into a conservative talk show to remind listeners of Jesus’ words on the cross. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” he said of his executioners. My comment did not go over well with the radio host. Undaunted, I made plans to publish an editorial cartoon juxtaposing the two executions. I contacted my local Torrance newspaper, the Daily Breeze, which reserved a quarter page for me on April 21, the scheduled execution date. My only problem was finding an illustrator to render my concept on short notice. Since I worked in the graphic design industry, I knew a lot of artists, but unfortunately, they were mostly supporters of the death penalty. In desperation, I called an African-American client who owned a print shop in South Central. Alas, he too was in favor of executions, though he told me his wife was opposed. With little time remaining before copy deadline, I turned to Adobe Illustrator to help me render the side-by-side illustrations of the crucifixion and the gas chamber at San Quentin. Underneath the two images I inserted another of Jesus’ sayings, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least, ye have done it unto me.”

On Monday, April 20, 1992, the day before the execution, I attended a vigil at the Federal Building in Westwood along with other members of Death Penalty Focus, an abolitionist group to which I belonged. It brought me some comfort to be among like-minded people on this day, though not everyone there was on our side. While Mike Farrell, (now president of DPF) spoke to the assembled crowd, a heckler with a bullhorn repeatedly chanted his chosen mantra, “Misplaced compassion!” Putting aside conventional wisdom to ignore hecklers, Farrell stopped his talk and addressed the interloper directly, pointing out that there was no limit on the amount of compassion that humans can exhibit, and that we can show compassion for murder victims and their families as well as for the families of people about to be executed. Another intruder at the Westwood vigil was a motorcyclist who elected to ride his bike menacingly through the crowd assembled on the lawn next to the building. Disturbed by this intrusion, I stood in the path of this motorcyclist, fully intending to confront the rider. Before I could though, I felt a hand on my shoulder. For a brief moment, I thought that it was Jesus, who had rebuked Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane with the words, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” In actuality, the intervening hand was that of Bob Myers, the former Santa Monica city attorney (and now a DPF board member) who had been fired for refusing to jail homeless people. Bob said not a word to me but the message was clearly delivered and I stepped out of the way.

After we received word that the execution had taken place early Tuesday morning, I returned to Torrance, determined to spend the day in fasting and contemplation. I sent my employees home, with pay, and put a message on the company answering machine saying that we could not conduct business as usual on such a day. When the Daily Breeze came out with my amateurish cartoon on the op-ed page, calls began coming in from Christians offended that I would associate the Lord’s image with that of a convicted murderer.

But Robert Alton Harris’s troubled life and his life story did have a positive effect on at least one person, me. Learning about the abuse he endured as a child helped me put into context the child abuse I had suffered at the hands of my father. My childhood trauma began with my first memory: the sight of my brother bleeding profusely from a leg wound caused by a pair of pruning shears Dad had thrown at him for not coming when called. It continued for years in the form of verbal taunts and threats of violence Dad directed at his lazy, good-for-nothing son who would never amount to anything. With the help of some fleetness of foot and a bathroom door with a lock on it, I largely escaped physical harm. But the emotional toll was considerable and I was a troubled soul for many years. The abuse came to a head at age 17 on Christmas Eve when, rather than run from Dad, I elected to wrestle the belt away from him. Two days later, on the day after Christmas, Dad tried to put me in a detention home, despite the fact that I was a National Merit finalist, captain of our Bible quiz team, the fifth best math student in New York State, worked 30 hours a week at the supermarket, and never drank, smoked, or used drugs. Fortunately, a family psychologist assigned to the case intervened, uttering a phrase I will always remember, “There’s nothing wrong with this kid.”

Still, while my childhood was indeed difficult, it was nowhere near the series of traumas Harris went through as a child. Though my father’s constant taunts and threats took an emotional toll on me, I was never hospitalized and I was never sexually abused. And unlike Harris, I didn’t suffer from intellectual disabilities. Maybe my life wasn’t so bad after all.

The Harris execution helped me recognize the folly of using executions as a response to violence. It also helped me come to terms with my troubled childhood and my strained relationship with my father, which had lingered for 18 years after I left home. One day, DPF sponsored a seminar on the relationship between child abuse and later violence. I learned that 97 percent of prisoners on California’s death row had been abused as children. At the seminar, a psychologist named Daniel Jay Sonkin presented strong evidence linking childhood abuse with violence and criminal activity. But he also told stories of people who had overcome abuse, and his book, “Wounded Boys: Heroic Men,” would later prove to be quite therapeutic for me.

Intrigued by what I heard, I asked Sonkin if there was anything that stood out about the children that had been able to overcome child abuse without becoming violent themselves. He cited two factors. One was above-average intellectual ability. The other was the presence of a support structure, such as a family member or teacher. As I pondered the supportive role that my older sister had played in my life—often intervening at her own peril when Dad was out of control—and the nurturing I had received from several high school math teachers, I thought to myself, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It took some time, but I began to realize that responding to my Dad’s mistreatment of me as a child with hatred and animosity toward him 18 years later was just as foolhardy as answering violence with more violence. At holiday time in 1992, I wrote a letter to my family expressing that it was time for me to put the past behind me and forgive my dad for the mistreatment I suffered as a child. Although I was not home for Christmas that year, I had a watershed telephone call with my parents expressing my desire for reconciliation.

In the years that followed, I learned things about my dad that I never knew as a child. After my mom passed away in 1997, he came to Los Angeles to spend some time with me. I took him with me to a DPF event at Loyola Marymount University. Sister Helen Prejean, who had just finished writing “Dead Man Walking,” was the featured speaker. I introduced Dad, a World War II army vet, to Mike Farrell, who had played an army officer on TV. Later, Dad told me about his experiences in the Pacific theater during the war. After the bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered, American officers were put in charge of Japanese cities and towns. There were not enough officers to go around, though, so Dad, a 22-year-old sergeant, found himself in charge of a small town. The American-educated mayor of that town sought Dad out, requesting food for his starving people. Dad asked his fellow GIs to contribute MREs for the townspeople to eat, but they pushed back, not eager to help what they regarded as the enemy. Dad reminded them that the war was over, and that these were civilians. The GIs relented, and Dad brought the mayor some food. Before Dad’s unit left that town, the mayor presented Dad with a teapot and set of cups as a thank you gift. I was amazed to hear this story, since it presented a side of my Dad that I never would have thought possible as a child. I asked him what became of the teapot. He said that he brought it back to the states on the boat and that my sister had it. That teapot and cups now sit on my shelf in San Francisco, an emblem of reconciliation that is possible between two warring nations—or a father and his son.

In 2000, I accepted a post to teach a five-week publishing class at Rochester Institute of Technology in my hometown. For the next four years, I would spend five weeks staying with Dad, an experience I referred to as Childhood 2.0. He went out of his way to make life comfortable for me, doing my laundry, buying me gifts, and generally being the father I never had as a child. “Dad still beats me,” I would tell my siblings, “but only at golf.” When Dad passed away a few years later, I related my experience at his funeral service. Many people were moved by the story and several were envious of me, since they never had the opportunity to experience reconciliation with their parents the way I had. I can’t help but wonder whether I would have had that opportunity had it not been for the life and death of Robert Alton Harris.

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