Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Los Angeles, April 29 – May 4, 1992

April of 1992 seems like paradise now, in certain ways. The economy was bouncing back nicely, thank you, even if it wasn't yet fully obvious. We users of Prodigy, Compuserve and AOL were all yapping incessantly on our BBSes, and we were about to try out that newfangled "e-mail" thing. "Are you on e-mail?" people would soon be saying. Bill Clinton had only just clinched the Democratic nomination. (That Arkansas governor! Did you know he was a Rhodes Scholar, too?)

But the year before, in March, a man named Rodney King had been tasered twice and then beaten half to death by a pack of Los Angeles police officers. The beating was secretly caught on tape (via an enormous Sony Handycam) by plumber George Holliday, from his apartment balcony. The grainy video was made public, and it was shown on TV over and over. Nobody could believe how terrible it was, or even that Rodney King had lived after having suffered "11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken [bones and teeth], kidney damage [and] emotional and physical trauma" (according to the complaint he eventually filed against the city.)

Rodney King was on my mind a lot when the news first came out about Mark Duggan, the father of four who was shot to death by police in Tottenham last Thursday. Like the violence against King, the death of Duggan was the match that lit the fuse of a bomb that spread violence across a whole metropolis. How and why this happened in Los Angeles seems to connect in a lot of ways with the catastrophe in London.

The initial part of the story of the Los Angeles riots was rather different, though.

Just over a year after the attack on Rodney King, on April 29th of 1992, the criminal trial of his assailants came to an end, and all four of the officers involved were acquitted of having used "excessive force" against him. The whole nation gaped in disbelief. Even then-President George H.W. Bush, who appeared to be cultivating an air of total cluelessness most of the time, was openly incredulous at this news. And then all hell broke loose.

At the time, my ex and I were living in a second-floor loft at Pico and 4th Avenue, pretty much across the street from Jewel's Catch One, the landmark nightclub. That is to say, in the south part of Los Angeles proper, a mostly black and Latino neighborhood. We had this little business, designing and manufacturing overpriced tchotchkes for the home. We designed house numbers for Crate and Barrel, we sold absurd little photo frames to Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.

I was four months pregnant, and beginning to lumber a bit.

Just a few hours after the acquittals, a truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled out of his truck at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where a mob promptly beat him to a pulp and bashed his skull in; his injuries were worse than even Rodney King's, and the whole sorry scene was caught on camera by a helicopter hovering above, and broadcast live. Nobody could tear himself away from the TV that day, so we were all watching helplessly as it happened. Here is something that many may have forgotten: Reginald Denny, a white guy, was rescued by a black guy named Bobby Green, Jr., who saw the beating taking place on live television, realized that it was going on nearby and rushed out to help.

But things would only get worse and worse from there.

Most of our friends were protesting the verdict, with varying degrees of civility. (I, alas, was too pregnantly incapacitated to participate in any demos.) Ellie, a charismatic gravel-voiced dyke and auto mechanic who contrived despite her long blonde hair to be the butchest thing going, joined the mobs that were overturning police cars and whatnot downtown. Other friends were making furious phone calls to every politician and news outlet and writing howling protests of every description.

On the second day we stood and looked out the window for a very long time and saw the most surreal things. Our place faced mostly north, but the smoke from the south was visible all around us by then. Its plumes drew nearer and nearer until the whole sky darkened with soot, turning a lurid, opaque rust color. A car full of shouting boys raced down Pico, their fists thrust outside the windows.

We went out anyway, just to the market and to do errands. In such circs. there is no way of knowing how or when it's become too dangerous to venture out; you just go about your life, in hopes that the chaos won't find its way in somehow. Because of course the farmers' market in Santa Monica is open, of course it is, and Ralph's too. So it was that we drove through Koreatown, just to the north of us, and it was full of tension, in a way that was gnarlier than the tension around our place. The shops and little businesses in our own neighborhood were all but abandoned, but here the bigger, more prosperous retailers were not going down without a fight. This probably was the scariest scene of all: a Korean retailer (or so we supposed) on the roof of his electronics place, dressed head to foot in camouflage gear (including matching cap, with bill) and brandishing a great big shotgun. What was more incredible? That he'd "dressed up" for this thing, or that he'd chosen to wear green camouflage gear in order to patrol a concrete roof? The real answer: that suddenly there was a Korean guy with a huge shotgun on the roof of this building on Olympic Boulevard.

The looting and burning began in our neighborhood that day. This would grow increasingly weird; a big woman brought her three little kids with her to do a spot of looting at the liquor store across the street. There was a lot of broken glass around, and clearly the authorities were completely overtaxed, nowhere to be seen, so these little kids looked very vulnerable to me, and I was afraid for them. Yet there was a party atmosphere out there, too, a terrible excitement. These kids—the youngest must have been six or seven—came out of the store, loaded down with bags of stuff. The mom stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and popped open a bag of stolen potato chips and ate them placidly as she walked along. Not only was she not scared, she was totally calm. Having fun, even. An astonishing, indelible sight: a tall, majestic woman in a kitenge and matching turban, sashaying down the middle of the street with two six-packs of malt liquor. Less than a quarter of a mile away, a whole huge shopping center was in the process of burning to the ground.

"Slim," I said, "if they set this place on fire, I am for sure going to fall off that ridiculous emergency ladder and break my legs and have such a miscarriage." So we decided to drive to Pasadena, where we spent the next 24 hours glued to the television in my sister-in-law's apartment, paying particular heed to the news helicopter footage, from which we tried to determine whether or not our place was burning.

A friend described the scene from a high window at Sepulveda and Santa Monica Boulevard, well to the north of the fires and looting. You could watch the arsonists' progress on the horizon as they torched a building, he said, then five minutes later another building a little north, then five minutes later another… nobody really knew how far it would go.

People were hauling their loot down the street; huge televisions, even furniture. The most memorable, an enormous round dining table that this guy was struggling to roll along on its edges, over the asphalt. Much of this loot looked like more trouble than it was worth, and as if it would arrive at its destination, wherever that was, in a very sorry state. A lot of the images of the London looting have a similarly senseless, almost ridiculous quality. They remind me of Louie Anderson's comment on the LA riots; he said some friends had invited him to "go looting" and he was all "eh, I'm tired." Then his face became animated. "But get me somethin'!"

Mark Duggan, alas, won't be coming back to pacify London the way Rodney King did Los Angeles. Appearing on TV on the third day of the riots, he said: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? … It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything. We’ll, we’ll get our justice… They won the battle, but they haven't won the war… Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out." By the end, 57 people were killed, and many thousands injured. It took nearly a month before the last of the soldiers left my battered city.

Civil disturbances like these begin as a genuine reaction to injustice, from a sense of grievance that has been simmering for a long time. The feeling of oppression manifests itself in different ways. For one thing, there's this materialist idea that a person is to be valued by his possessions, and it doesn't much matter how he acquires them. The "valuable" people are protected by the authorities, and those without "worth," as in "net worth," are not entitled to that protection. "Haves" and "have-nots," we say. The people who count, in their fancy cars and houses, as opposed to the people who don't, who are liable to be beaten in secret by the police. There is actually quite a lot of truth to this assessment, speaking as someone who has lived in wildly varying environments and circumstances.

There was such a similarity of feeling in the comments from residents of Tottenham, who also seemed to believe that the police treated blacks as nobodies, people without dignity or rights. "Have-nots," in short.

But then maybe you go and grab all this stuff and it's not going to fix you. Not if you steal it out of a broken window, and maybe not if you steal it in a boardroom either, come to that. We all know this deep down, I believe, and, in 1992, I got such a strong feeling watching this poor kid with his enormous half-wrecked dining table that those who participate in looting understand the emptiness of greed better than anyone. Can the roots of the reduced crime rate in Los Angeles have been set down in those dark days?

We experienced the riots from a dual perspective: as citizens enraged by the Rodney King acquittals, and as residents of a neighborhood that was badly hit by their violent aftermath. The feeling of rage and futility was so palpable everywhere you looked, the moment those verdicts were read; this was the prime mover of the Los Angeles riots. Then, opportunistic, chaotic elements mixed in with the political elements, and in time the looting and destruction crowded out and muddied the political impetus of the riots. The frustration, the feeling of the government abandoning and harming us all had created a widespread atmosphere of "we don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn."

Burn, at least, until it is understood that this was not okay, not for any of us.

When it ended, after the National Guard and the Marines had been brought in to restore order, the hangover of all time arrived on Pico Boulevard. It was the 4th of May, a Monday morning, fittingly; a day of reckoning. People seemed to find themselves outside, forming little crowds and just sort of milling around, looking, talking. Dotting each block, where there had been businesses just a few days before, there were now blackened shells. Every single thing that could be stolen had been stolen from every little shop for blocks in either direction. This was especially sad because a lot of the owners of these places were just local kids; one, for example, had started the loveliest little antique/vintage gift shop and they ruined this guy (no insurance) and he was not the Man, not by a long shot.

It was a sunny, quite innocent-looking morning. And it was like, what the HELL. People came shyly out with garbage bags, brooms. It was sad, but there was also a relieved feeling. Everyone set to work to clean up and be together and just think. This is our home, we were thinking. Now what?

Nineteen years later almost, the baby in question is now in college and home for the summer. Her BFF, Kara, told me last week that she'd visited Jewel's Catch One for the first time. She liked it so much, she said. "Everybody used to go there, was the thing about it," I recalled dreamily. "Black, white, gay, straight, tourists, locals, everybody, and everybody would dance, no matter what."

"That's exactly what it's like, still!" she said.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

Bottom photo via Ripper777.

37 Comments / Post A Comment

Annie K. (#3,563)

Just excellent, Maria. You always are.

deepomega (#1,720)

Thanks, Maria. Was hoping to find a piece comparing London to LA riots and obviously you were the person I should have been looking to.

I actually just finished reading a really great book about the history of crime and cops in LA and there was a great bit comparing the Watts riots to the Rodney King riots – how the LAPD failed to learn its lessons, and it's actually a total fuckup of policing that it got as bad as it did.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@deepomega Was the total fuckup LAPD's policing in general or how they failed to address the LA Riots. I am curious what tactics or lack thereof they engaged in. I was under the impression that the police were worried about their own safety and basically withdrew to protect neighborhoods that were not rioting.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Lockheed Ventura: I'll admit this is totally coming from one source that I'm repeating, so: grain of salt! But basically the lesson in 1965 was that the police couldn't figure out the right way to project authority without also seeming like they were fucking with the trial. They moved the trial out of LA (which hadn't happened in 30 years) but they refused to change police deployment in anticipation of the results. The Chief of Police, Darryl Gates, refused to ask for the National Guard to come in until way later than was reasonable. He didn't give any particular riot-handling orders – e.g., setting up cordons around the rioting neighborhoods. Basically a failure to imagine that anyone might be upset?

E (#14,552)

Amazing. I live in K-town now, work downtown, and I ride public transit in LA a lot of places and I think a lot about the riots and race and class and Los Angeles. Thank you for sharing this.

I feel that rage, that sense that some people matter more, that some parts of LA are left to rot, and some get shined up and cared for… the implications are there are a lot of scary edges, just waiting around for the spark. I think everyone just does their best not to bring it up to the surface most days, but it's always there. It makes me think about Katrina a lot, about who was left to die, and who cared and who didn't

Very interesting. Stunning to look back, to a time I was barely noticing these things (news? who cares, let's play catch) from thousands of miles away. I can hardly imagine living it.

Art Yucko (#1,321)
Dave Bry (#422)

"Anything you want to know about the riots was in the records before the riots…"

This was great, Maria. Especially to read today. Thanks for writing it.

C_Webb (#855)

Maria, I hope Best American Essays Knows about The Awl (I think online sources may have to submit paper copies of candidates). Because yeah, it's a little cheesy, but for this, and for other things, you deserve inclusion, and to win every damn thing.

C_Webb (#855)

@C_Webb To clarify, "cheesy" = NOT YOU, but the "Best American" series. Bleah.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Let's just give her our own prize. This is very real and honest stuff on a subject where everybody right and left is tossing around flaming chunks of attitude and dogma. (Another such piece is James Meek's on the LRB blog.)

MParcells (#375)

I spent some time yesterday trying to think of memorable U.S. riots during my lifetime, and completely forgot about this one. THank you for the reminder, and the excellent depiction of the surreality that always accompanies such scenes.

C_Webb (#855)

@MParcells I heard someone in a bar last night say "Americans don't riot," and I thought, "Ooh, child." I also wonder if there might have been riots had Obama lost in 2008.

Sublime – April 29, 1992 (Rodney King riots)

I've often wondered — and not because I wish it had happened — how Oakland didn't similarly blow up after the Oscar Grant shooting?

deepomega (#1,720)

@Clarence Rosario: It helps that there was a conviction and a lot of compelling cell phone video evidence.

iantenna (#5,160)

@Clarence Rosario i was pretty surprised by this myself. i have no real idea but i do think that OPD was well prepared unlike, as deepomega mentions above, the LAPD. i also think population density played a big part. oakland is huge and there's only like 400k people here.

iantenna (#5,160)

@deepomega well, yeah, but being given the minimum sentence for involuntary manslaughter with time served was a pretty serious miscarriage of justice.

deepomega (#1,720)

@iantenna 100%. But my justice-o-meter is so used to cops being unconvictable that even this moves the needle.

iantenna (#5,160)

wonderful piece, maria. when the mehserle verdict came down here in oakland i had a handful of heated exchanges with friends on the justifications for rioting. despite my anger and frustration i chose to stay home that night because in the end it's always, like, "what the HELL." and we're the people who have to live here tomorrow.

that said, way back in 2000 or 2001 my girlfriend and i, walking home from the movies down on shattuck, stumbled upon thousands of people on telegraph ave who were denied entry to some berkeley frat party. they were moving as a mob down telegraph away from campus breaking into the gap, foot locker, etc as they went. we didn't join in the looting, but we also couldn't help but feel invigorated by the scene, it was joyous and we both strolled down the ave. with shit eating grins on our faces. to admit this now is almost shameful, i mean, come on, a frat party?! but, like so many awful things that happen in an instant, it can be hard to supress your visceral, knee-jerk reaction.

@iantenna Ha! I was at Cal in 1989 when a friggin' People's Park protest turned into a car burning turned into a night of looting:

Later, the King verdict actually touched off another, although smaller, spree of sympathetic rioting as well.

So, yeah, riots in Berkeley.

Since everyone went to school & work as usual, we all had to get home, somehow, in the middle of the day — in our case, we were parked on the 10 with god-knows how many others for the longest time. But what we saw that long, hot afternoon actually gave and gives me hope, especially since I have seen it again, walking home on 9/11, and again, driving home with two kids in the back seat and a tornado on the ground.

In extreme situations, tho there are of course a few freakouts, most people calmly wait their turn, and, en masse, silently head for home. East Angelenos, midtown suits or workaday suburbanites — we all just want to see our family safe, one more time.

The settings may be grim, but the lesson is hopeful: Can't we all just get along?

GailPink (#9,712)

Great read, thanks!

SFer (#22,646)

I never make comments on websites and registered only to say this: Maria Bustillos, you are a national treasure.

caravan70 (#14,582)

It was a very different time… the LAPD was arguably much more dysfunctional (and, now that I think about it, racist) than it is now.

I remember that one thing that struck me while watching the TV coverage at the time was that guys were looting liquor stores and running out with cases of Natural Light when they could have been grabbing bottles of Louis XIII brandy. The thefts seemed indiscriminate – more about getting something, anything, than about what was actually obtained.

Thanks for a great article – brought back many memories, and gave me a lot to think about.

Ames (#22,276)

I hope I make enough money to move my kids to the suburbs so they can one day be as self-loathing as you lot. In the meantime, I'll continue rioting. When I have a moment, I'll be sure to read all of your dissertations. Maybe we can meet for coffee and talk about them.

melis (#1,854)

@Ames I won't have TIME to buy coffee, because I'll be too busy RIOTING even in the future. I don't even have money to comment right now. I'm using my last fifteen cents to write this comment and then I'm going to go start a motherfuckin RIOT.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Ames I'm only gonna move my kids to the suburbs to give me more opportunities to start riots farther afield from the hardened downtown constabulary. And to give the little ones more room for practicing throwing garbage cans.

melis (#1,854)


iantenna (#5,160)

@Ames "Sent from my iPhone", no doubt

@Ames Oh, please tell me you didn't really reproduce?

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@Ames For a gimmick poster, you're not very entertaining. Maybe go spend some time at the AV Club and pick up some pointers. Elegant Victorian Lady, Tarkovsky's Former A.D., and ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER are a few to start with.

C_Webb (#855)

@Clarence Rosario : Maybe we could get the "Be less stupid" as a pop-up?

Ames (#22,276)

@Clarence Rosario

I tried, but you know…last in, first out. Now I just re-post.

Great piece Maria! I was living about 2 miles NW of you ar La Cienega at Olympic and we were wondering how far up La Cienega the fires were going to come. They got as far as a block away at Pico. I was working as a limo driver and driving through it daily feeling as though there was an enormous target painted on me. Here I was – white (appearing) guy in a suit in a luxury car- the very symbol of the "man" they were rebelling against. I actually got a little PTSD about it and woke up at night sweating after dreaming of having been shot. Actually feeling for tue spot where the bullet would be. I couldn't let cars be alongside me for months after because I kept hallucnating that the windows were rolling down and guns were pointed out. Ironically our neighborhood was safer than most b/c we were just inside the city border of Beverly Hills (not that you could tell) and the BHPD were sending patrol cars down each street stuffed with 4 cops each and each with shotguns. But that didn't help when I had to drive through South LA to the airport. Like you, lots of memories spurred by the London riots, and the kicker is – I just got back from London a month ago!

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Tom Juarez@facebook Thank you, Mr. Juarez (Maria here.) I can only imagine what it must have been like to have to drive around in a limousine, yikes. No wonder you got so scared. I remember about Beverly Hills; many would-be looters turned away by the police there. They had something like ten times the policemen per capita that Los Angeles did, as I recall. (And so little has changed. Surely there must be a better way of arranging things??) … thank you v. much for sharing your memories.

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