Los Angeles, 1992
On Wednesday, April 29, 1992, I was driven all the way home from school. This was unusual; on most days, a friend’s parent or an older student drove me to Pacific Palisades and I took two Santa Monica Big Blue Buses home from there. As the car got to the intersection where we turned right on Ocean near the Santa Monica Pier, KCRW news informed us that the four police officers who had beaten Rodney King on tape had been acquitted. I was angry and stunned as only a child can be. To a White child, the videotape evidence was shocking and clear. In short, I had not encountered the realities that killed Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland. I was indignant.
I was also a child, and I was home much earlier than usual. I began my homework immediately, so my parents must have been home to enforce the homework-first rule, though I don’t remember why one or both of them was home so early. After a while, I got stuck in Algebra and called a friend. She unstuck me and then asked if I’d seen the man being beaten on television. The beating of Reginald Denny was the first I heard of the trouble that was stirring all over the city.
The next day was a school day, and we were all somewhat distracted. We heard about what was going on here and there: prayers at the beginning of Religion class, rumors floating around the student body. We knew there was a curfew; older students were warned to take it seriously. I went to school in the Valley but lived on the Westside, so my classmates were worried about me in large part due to their being unclear on the geography. I was told that there was rioting all morning “in Venice,” our neighborhood, and had to tell friends that it was on Venice… Boulevard, which runs from the beach all the way downtown. In other words, the rioting was not exactly nearby.
I was not allowed to take the bus home that day; my father arranged to have a friend’s mother drive me to their home in the Palisades so he could pick me up from there. My friend and I stood in her living room, watching television. The Emergency Broadcast System alarm went off, declaring that this was “not a test.” She and I looked at each other in alarm. Always, before, it had been a test.
That is the last of my chronological memories of the riots. Somewhere in that period, school was cancelled. I learned the term “martial law.” We went to my ailing godfather’s apartment in Inglewood to bring him food and, like everyone else, he was watching TV coverage, clucking angrily at the screen. His home health aid, William, a man who could say the longest and most flowery grace I’d ever heard to that point, told me how all Black men were mistreated by the police in Los Angeles. He was my window, my introduction, to a more brutal world than the one I had known. My parents’ anger at the verdicts, my godfather’s outrage at the destruction of young Black and Brown lives at the hands of the police, were not nearly as potent as the dispassionate narrative of a lived experience.
The National Guard and Marines were called out. My parents left for a planned weekend getaway, and I stayed at their best friends’ home. There were soldiers at the end of every block and tanks rumbling up the alley. We kids decided to throw water balloons at tourists who had come specifically to see the soldiers in our beach community – riot tourism, which we children found disgusting, even as we sat indoors (we threw water balloons from upstairs windows and doors) in houses within sight of soldiers. Eventually, we decided that they must be hot standing out there, and got permission to offer the soldiers cold drinks. They accepted gratefully. We, the children, liked them.
Further inland, Korean stores were being targeted for looting. In fact, Koreatown as a whole was hit quite hard. In part because of the killing of Latasha Harlins the year before, but also as a result of what the Black community saw as preferential treatment of Koreans and their businesses, tensions had been rising between the Korean and Black communities for some time. Tensions between Latinx and White and Black and Asia communities contributed to violence for a long time to come. Importantly, the rioters were not wholly, or even mainly, Black (quote in the article cited here: “This was clearly not a black riot. It was a minority riot.”). The many communities in the city that were marginalized and mistreated by the police were abandoned by them and left to fight amongst themselves. Thousands of businesses were destroyed. Fires raged. Police protection was concentrated in Brentwood and Hollywood, underscoring the paranoia and contempt of rich neighborhoods when it comes to poorer parts of the city.
Over and over, you hear that violence does not accomplish anything. It’s true that the city lost a lot, both in property and money, to the riots. I regularly drive to the South Los Angeles neighborhood where it started to help out at my wife’s school, three blocks from where Reginald Denny was taken from his truck and beaten. The neighborhood we live in had been starting to gentrify in 1992; only in the past two or three years has that process restarted.
Violence always accomplishes something, whether or not the effect is desirable. 25 years ago today, the city changed. Neighborhoods were destroyed. The Korean-American community experienced a political and social awakening after being left to protect their own homes and businesses. Amnesty International and Warren Christopher investigated the state of policing in Los Angeles, and police reform went forward. There are still many institutional problems with policing in the city, but some improvements were made. Pressure increased to remove Police Chief Daryl Gates, who attended a fundraiser against civilian oversight of the police while the city burned. He was forced out by the end of June. A locally-owned grocery store was built a few blocks from the apartment I live in now in response to the growing public awareness that there were entire parts of the city that lacked access to supermarkets. The economic effects continue to resonate.
Loud, public conversations on race and policing and jury selection began in Los Angeles in 1992. These have taken place in churches, in public meetings, on the radio, and on television. Video recording of police abuse has become more ubiquitous and video quality has improved. Yet 25 years later, this country is still unready to face its racist and brutal policing policies and the effects they have on communities of color. In that sense, the riots accomplished less than I, as a child, had thought they must.