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Veteran Vegas journalist an eyewitness to racial upheaval

Updated May 31, 2020 - 10:20 am

Norm Johnson readily recites the line: “I drove through hell last night.”

The veteran Las Vegas journalist and PR rep wrote that sentence 55 years ago, after weathering and covering the first night of the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

At times, as unrest boils over across the country, it still seems as though Aug. 11, 1965, really was just last night for the 87-year-old Johnson.

“I really thought I was going to be killed that night,” Johnson said in a phone chat Saturday afternoon. “I literally drove through a mob. When I think back on it, what I remember most is somebody smashing out my window with a two-by-four.”

Johnson recalled the Watts riots as as protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis escalated to violence across the country, including Johnson’s adopted hometown of Las Vegas. The Watts Rebellion, as it is sometime called, was sparked when a pair of black stepbrothers were pulled over by a white California Highway Patrol officer in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. One of the brothers failed a field sobriety test, leading to a scuffle with the CHP patrolman.

The initial scuffle soon involved the brother who was not being arrested. A crowd gathered. Back-up units were called to the scene. The crowd became hostile, then violent, as more police arrived.

Within an hour of the original traffic stop, a melee pitting Watts residents against LAPD officers had broken out in the neighborhood. The unrest went on for six days, leading to 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries and 4,000 arrests.

Johnson had no inclination he would be covering a riot that night. He was working as a sports writer for Copley News Service, which owned about 120 newspapers across the country. That night, Johnson’s assignment was a seemingly routine L.A. Dodgers-New York Mets game at Dodger Stadium.

Johnson brought a friend to that game, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Johnson took a call as Don Drysdale finished off a complete-game, 1-0 shutout. “It was the Los Angeles Police Department,” Johnson said. Unexpectedly, his guest was being called to duty.

“He says, ‘Norm, do you mind driving me to Watts?’ They need a couple of senior officers down there,’” Johnson said. “The only reason I drove us that night was because I had reserved media parking.”

Johnson recalls making a right-hand turn off 100th street onto Main, driving directly into what he describes as “a full-scale riot.”

“We were going through neighborhoods and seeing folks on their porches, then I made the turn onto Main Street and all hell had broken loose,” Johnson said. “We stopped at a phone booth, and it was surrounded, people trying to push it over. The lieutenant fired a shot into a wall and everyone scrambled.”

But not before Johnson was hit with a two-by-four that smashed his driver’s-side window. He sped to the nearest LAPD precinct for medical attention and to call his office to describe what he’d experienced.

“I was bleeding from my face and they handed me a phone,” Johnson said. “They were pulling glass out of my face and I was talking to an editor. All I had in my head was the first paragraph, ‘I drove through hell last night.’ Then I just told what happened as accurately as I could. That was the story.”

Johnson’s piece won a batch of awards from the Associated Press, UPI, the California Press Club and his own company. The story was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

It also led to Johnson moving to Las Vegas the following November, when he took a job as a sports writer at the Las Vegas Sun. He later co-founded the Mint 400 off-road race. As part of Vegas lore, he issued Hunter S. Thompson his press credential to cover the race for Rolling Stone magazine, the odyssey recounted in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Johnson said he moved to Vegas largely because of what he saw that night in Watts. “I thought L.A. would burn down someday.”

The longtime Las Vegan says he hasn’t been near this weekend’s demonstrations. “I hate seeing it,” he said. “I don’t go near these things anymore.”

Santanas speak

House of Blues at Mandalay Bay resident headliner and rock legend Carlos Santana and his wife, Cindy Blackman Santana, have released their cover of the John Lennon classic “Imagine.” The single is from Blackman Santana’s upcoming album “Give the Drummer Some,” set for September release.

The single and accompanying video are a benefit for SongAid, an initiative created by the music and technology industries that donates all proceeds to WhyHunger’s Rapid Response Fund. The song and clip premiered Friday on the Rolling Stone website.

Blackman Santana has been working on the album for about three years. The Santanas have been quarantined in Hawaii, where they have a residence, since March. The Santana band was setting up for more dates at House of Blues and a co-headlining tour with Earth Wind & Fire when COVID-19 hit.

The guitar great says the island quarantine has been restorative. He’s eager to return to the stage.

“At the right time, we will be able to play with a thousand times more energy, fire and passion because we’ve been basically just reading, resting, and eating, and taking walks by the beach,” he said. “I’m ready to just tear it up, in a good way.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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