Witnessing the L.A. Riots leaves many scars and unanswered questions

150 150 Victor Abalos

A rioter hods a makeshift sign 20 years ago (Photo credit: Los Angeles Times)

As a TV journalist working in Los Angeles back in 1992, I saw plenty of signs that trouble was ahead. But I don’t think anybody can honestly say that they predicted what happened on the afternoon of April 29.

At first, I watched it on TV.  I stood just a couple of feet in front of the screen as Reginald Denny was pulled from his car and beaten. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t move. I was angry, confused and scared.  I kept asking out loud, “what’s happening? Isn’t anybody going to stop this?” – questions that still hang in the air for me. 

Two hours later I was in an unmarked news van with a freelance video crew headed down La Brea Blvd. to cover the biggest story of my life for CBS News. I was a field producer working freelance in those days and had received a call from a friend who also freelanced from time to time for the network. 

“Nobody from the bureau wants to go down there. Do you?” 

I couldn’t say no and I still can’t explain why I went so willingly. Maybe it was the news junkie in me. I spent several months in El Salvador in 1986 covering the war as a freelance reporter. 

But this wasn’t war. What I witnessed during the first 36 hours of what has been called The L.A. Riots, The Uprising or The Civic Unrest depending on who’s telling the story, has gnawed at me for 20 years. 

I tried to cover it, teach it and during the next couple of years afterwards, I worked on no fewer than three documentaries trying to explain it. But 20 years later, so many of the so-called lessons of those events that are filling the “news space” now continue to elude me.

I remember the face of the boy – he couldn’t have been older than 12 – who pointed a shotgun at my video crew and me, instructing us very calmly and clearly to put our camera down as we tried to videotape the looting of an electronics store on Western Ave.

I remember interviewing a Salvadoran woman who hid several terrified firefighters in her tiny apartment that crazy first night. A group of heavily armed men forced them to abandon their trucks and equipment at a shopping center fire.. The gunmen made it clear that they wanted the entire center to burn to the ground. The next day, the woman’s apartment building was torched, leaving her and her nine-year-old daughter homeless.

I remember the choir of singers from a Central Ave. storefront church. I wish I could remember what song they were singing as we all stood on the sidewalk watching a group of buildings across the street burn out of control. 

Our city seemed in the grip of temporary insanity, although no one I talked to in the midst of the worse violence seemed confused by what fueled it. The “insanity” lasted about a day and a half until the National Guard and Marines from Camp Pendleton arrived and restored order with a show of force, but the curfew didn’t do much to calm anyone’s nerves.

I know L.A. is different now because of those three days. How could that kind of violence and destruction not affect us? We formed committees and organizations We committed to change. As a city, we never wanted this to happen again.

It changed our police department – for the better I’m sure. I used to cover the LAPD under Chief Daryl Gates and that police department is not the LAPD you know now.

And it forced us to talk to each other – at least for a few months in the immediate aftermath.  There were gatherings, some organized and some organic, that sprang up to bring us together –to grieve for those who died as well as to help us process the fear, apprehension and mistrust the violence triggered.

But someone once remarked that L.A. is a universe of orbiting galaxies that never intersect: The Westside, the Valley, Hollywood, the South Bay. We are little clusters that when taken in aggregate, make up a city. We spend hours every day on freeways that intersect all of these worlds, but how well do we know the communities that flash past our car windows?

The riots pitted African-Americans against Koreans and while much has been done to heal those wounds, our leaders seem oblivious of the current tensions, particularly in South L.A. between African-Americans and Latinos. 

I remember asking the mayor of L.A. in 1991 about the tensions between cultures in our city and he denied it existed. Do our leaders today even acknowledge these conflicts? 

I wonder where that 12 year-old boy is now and what he’s doing. I tried to find the Salvadoran woman and her daughter but learned they had returned to El Salvador. I want to ask them how they think our city changed and how what happened those three days 20 years ago changed them. Meeting them certainly changed me.

Even though the experience affected me so deeply and left me with so many unanswered questions, the work that we are doing as an organization with SAIGU, Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas and others to explore the racial divide and answer some of those questions gives me hope that 20 years later, we are finally moving in the right direction.

Look for more in the coming days at the CAFwd blog highlighting this work.


Victor Abalos

All stories by: Victor Abalos