(Photo credit: Los Angeles Times)
If there is one word used most often to describe Los Angeles for the four days following the acquittal of the LAPD officers accused of battering Rodney King, it would be “surreal.”
Those who looted used the word to convey the feeling of being in the middle of a Grand Theft Auto video game as they capitalized on the pandemonium.
“I was 13 and looted that whole day,” when it first broke out said Justin Lafayette, a Los Angeles native who was confronted about his new clothes at school the following Monday by a teacher who saw him looting on the news. Instead of taking him to the principal’s office, his teacher just wanted a first-hand recap of the events.
“It was surreal to say the least,” said Lafayette.
Journalists who were in the thick of it use that word to describe the bedlam that unfolded at the now-infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie and that would later engulf large swaths of South Central Los Angeles.
“A lot of us photographers anticipated that there might be trouble,” said Rick Meyer, the former lead photographer for the Los Angeles Times who had picked up a kevlar helmet and gas mask a month prior.
And for Kelli Crawford, a longtime L.A. resident and attendee at the Parker Protest outside the downtown LAPD headquarters, “surreal” described not only seeing National Guard troops stationed outside the Beverly Center or the plumes of smoke wafting up from the cityscape through her window, but also the mood in the immediate aftermath of the jury verdict.
“This is so naive when I think about it now, but it never occurred to anyone at the time that they would get off,” Crawford, who is also African-American, said with a shake of her head.
“Certainly not all of them and certainly not completely,” she said. “We were almost cocky about it.”
And the use of another word — “we” — is indicative of much of what went wrong in the years preceding April 29th, 1992 that precipitated such a large-scale catastrophe.
In saying “we,” Ms. Crawford is of course referring to the African-American community of Los Angeles as a whole. By her account, not even the Simi Valley-based, minority-free jury would deprive a community hungry for justice in the face of George Holiday’s startling video footage of the beating.
But they did just that. And what ensued was emblematic not only of the racial divide that existed in Los Angeles at the time, but also of a city at odds with those sworn to protect it.
Both rifts were exacerbated in the period between the ’92 riots and the ones that happened in Watts in 1965.
“I was growing up at that time and the biggest takeway was the inability or the unwillingness of the city of Los Angeles to do anything serious about a police force that acted like a paramilitary occupation force and was completely hated and distrusted by the community,” said Marc Cooper, native Angeleno and journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
In the aftermath of the riots, Mr. Cooper wrote an extensive piece on the LAPD for the Village Voice that included extremely candid interviews with five active duty LAPD officers.
He cites a lack of investment in South Central Los Angeles following the 1965 riots, leaving it as an “apartheid city” in many ways. Shifting demographics also account for increased racial tensions as Koreans and Latinos moved into South Central, which previously had been a predominantly black neighborhood.
But it still came back to the LAPD.
“They used to kind of have the feeling that if you ran from them, they were gonna give you some asphalt justice,” said Meyer.
Cooper added: “The inability to reform the department and the inability to get rid of a quasi-dictator like Darryl Gates and the horrifying fact that during the period of Rodney King to the riots itself, there was no communication between the mayor and the police chief,” set the stage for the perfect storm.
When the verdict hit, “there were about two or three hours where it just sat in the air.”
Crawford and her roommate eventually snapped out of their daze and decided to head down to Parker Center from their apartment at the base of the Hollywood Hills on Argyle Street. They heard people were gathering to protest the verdict. One person in her group planned on getting arrested for civil disobediance, which sounded radical on the way there.
It started out peacefully but as more and more “angry” people arrived to the courtyard in front of LAPD headquarters on 1st Street downtown, things started to get tense despite the fact that most people there, Crawford included, had no idea that rioting had broken out elsewhere.
Someone set a trashcan on fire. Another group started rocking a car back and forth. “That’s when things got heated,” Crawford said. It proved to be the tipping point.
“There was construction in the area and the street was torn up,” recalls Rick Meyer, who also paid a visit to the scene. “Suddenly these protestors had something to throw. They turned into rioters.”
And the scene turned into chaos. Crawford and her friends wound up running from police. She still has a mark from a boot that got planted on her back after she fell while fleeing.
It wasn’t until they got back to their place that night that they realized how that same need for anarchy had gripped the entire city in the wake of the verdict.
Justin Lafayette points out, however, not everyone was preoccupied with the verdict or any racial component whatsoever. As he tells it, he and all of his teenage cohorts simply saw people getting away with looting on TV and decided that they wanted a piece of the pie.
“Everyone I was with and every I knew was just trying to come up, trying to get their own,” he said as he remembered an elderly woman standing outside of a darkened Sears collecting clothes that didn’t fit the exiting looters.
“She had a pile up to her chin by the end of the night.”
Crawford remembers watching on television as well and her initial reaction was one of shock and disgust.
“It was this bizarre mix of ‘what are you doing?’ and ‘you know what, go get some,'” she recalls.
It’s no secret that South Central Los Angeles had become an afterthought to the city’s power structure since the Watts Riots.
Promises of economic development being channeled toward the area after 1965 were not fulfilled. Many young people in the area resorted to gangs as the Crips and the Bloods became prominent. The crack epidemic in the 1980s only solidified their foothold.
By the time the 1990s hit, the Cold War was coming to a close, defense cutbacks were ravaging manufacturing jobs in the heavily aerospace-dependent region, causing unemployment to skyrocket.
Combine these economic factors with the sour relationship between the LAPD and the African-American community and you had a powder keg with a short fuse just waiting for a match to get tossed its way.
What transpired elsewhere in the few days following April 29, 1992 is well-documented. From Reginald Denny to the National Guard to the estimated $1 billion in damage done, the city of Los Angeles was in shock.
“The anger consumed the area from which it came and the fire burned itself out, there was no more fuel,” said Rick Meyer, who saw much of the damage from above in his stints taking aerial shots in the LA Times helicopter.
Now that we are 20 years and a full generation later, has anything really changed?
Everyone we spoke with agrees that the Trayvon Martin case has the potential to spark a similar unrest should George Zimmerman be completely acquitted of all charges.
“When people want justice and they don’t get it, they look for other ways to satisfy that need. That’s how riots happen,” said Lafayette.
Cooper thinks much more progress has been made in this interim period, however, than in the one between ’65 and ’92, most dramatically with the LAPD.
“The LAPD today is commanded by very cultural, reasonable people who seek a modicum of civil harmony instead of military dominance, so that trigger is gone,” he said.
“I will say objectively that the LAPD gotten much better as a source of community rather than a source of enforcement,” Crawford echoes.
Meyer thinks the city in general has calmed down considerably.
“Personally, I think people in L.A. are much more mellow and easier to get along with than they were back in the day. I think Angelenos did take Rodney King’s advice,” he said.
Crawford is quick to point out that Los Angeles, and specifically the black community, made it through one of its worst patches in the early 90s between Rodney King, Reginald Denny, the riots, Magic Johnson revealing that he was HIV positive, and then the O.J. Simpson trial.
With a vibrant hip-hop culture, a much larger and more respected standing in Hollywood, and Barack Obama in the White House, black culture is at an apex nationally.
The more troubling triggers today are the economic ones. Four years into a recession, “there’s a lot to be pissed about,” said Meyer.
With an effective unemployment rate of 15 percent in Los Angeles and possibly 20 percent or higher among African-Americans in Los Angeles, the potential for unrest is undeniable after seeing what has happened recently in Greece and to a lesser extent, Spain.
“But here, there’s still enough confidence in the governing institutions for people to believe that things are going to get better and their grievances can be heard,” said Cooper.
No amount of awareness is worth the loss of life and the destruction that occurred in the 1992 riots. But it was indeed a wake up call and so far, Los Angeles has yet to hit the snooze since.
Here’s to 20 more years of progress and making sure surreal doesn’t become reality again.