a verdict which did not convict any of the police officers in the Rodney King beating incident.
When the radio announced the result, a secretary sitting beside the radio quietly said "There's going to be trouble; there's going to be a riot".
I called my wife, who was working in west Los Angeles. "Go home", I said, "go home, there's going to be a riot". I had never been through
violent racial unrest before. When I was in middle school, race relations at the high school deteriorated such that we all got a few free days off from school. The high schoolers apparently sat at opposite sides of the parking lot for a few days, sometimes half-heartedly hurling a molotov cocktail, without any real intent to connect with one another. In Arkansas at that time (early 70s), if the statewide media heard of school unrest, the TV station called the local superintendent. If the superintendent said that there was no problem, then the incident went unreported. Our local school incidents went unreported, ceased of their own accord within a few days, and therefore never happened.
The Los Angeles unrest happened. It was a problem.
I left work early, an hour or so after the verdict. The drive from mid-Wilshire to our apartment in Westchester (by LAX airport) was filled with that queasy "things are not as they ought to be" Walpurgis Day feeling. Passing cars honked, people shouted threatening things. The whole commute had a carnival feel--cirque du
I had to take a few side trips to avoid traffic.
I had left work with too little gas, and none of the gas stations looked do able in the confusion.
I ran out of gas by the blue butterfly preserve, a stretch of scrub which borders LAX. I had to hike over to a gas station on Lincoln. By this time, the mayor had issued an injunction against selling gas in cans--molotov cocktails in this particular show would be for more than show. The gas station manager took a look at me in my suit, a bit bedraggled from the walk, and authorized the sale. I was able to make it home.
When I arrived in our apartment, located in a building (I affectionately called the Pink Stucco Nightmare) on Manchester, my wife had not made it home. Her office was much closer to our apartment than my office. I turned on the television, on which the first pictures of the various south central acts of violence began to play. These streets were not "other places" where "they" lived for me. These were streets I routinely commuted from Westchester to mid-Wilshire. Had the verdict come later in the afternoon, I could have been at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, as was truck driver Reginald Denny, who was viciously beaten before a heroic set of people got him out of harm's way.
Frequently, prior to April 1992, I drove down Vermont, down Normandie, and down Western on my way into work. In the months just prior to the unrest, I could feel a tension in the air. The tension intensified when a judge sentenced a Korean storekeeper to probation only notwithstanding a manslaughter conviction of the storekeeper for shooting a teen who had struck
the storekeeper with an orange juice bottle.
Some days, I would see police arresting people of color on the sidewalks as I drove to work.
I sat in our apartment, on an odd futon bed we obtained during our "temporary" (it turned out to last 10 years) move to Los Angeles. The television soon added graphic fire coverage to the images of attacked drivers in south central. I sat and worried about my wife. She arrived at 6:30 or so, after having been mired in bumper to bumper traffic on La Cienega--her 30 minute commute had run 2 hours.
We began to watch the television portrayals as the fires moved west on Manchester Boulevard from South Central towards Inglewood. We wondered if
the entire length of Manchester would burn, including our westward stretch. We could not believe what we were seeing. It was very disorienting.
By late night, it became apparent that the fires were going to remain contained in the Inglewood and South Central parts of Manchester. We could sleep that night. We could not go to our offices the next day, nor the next.
I took our lhasa apso out for a walk at 11 the morning after it began. It was a beautiful, sunny Los Angeles day. An elderly couple took a stately walk to the west of our apartment building.
I thought to myself that it was as though the
incident had not hit at all. Then I turned the corner and faced east. The entire eastern half of the sky was smoke-black.
The next few days were curfews, and video of senseless pillage of property. If the first day had had a large measure of rage about racial injustice, a sense of general melee had set in by the third. We watched video of white kids stealing sofas and stereos in Hollywood. We watched the Bullock's Wilshire, a flagship
deco masterpiece, denuded of its furniture
bit by bit. It never reopened as a store again. It's now a law library.
We drove to the inland Santa Clarita valley.
We talked to some local realtors. They said their call traffic had spiked. We saw a movie.
We could have been a million miles from Los Angeles.
I have been near tornados. I have been in earthquakes. I was surprised, though, that the sheer unpredictability and power of people caused me more fear than any natural calamity I had seen.
After it was over, public radio began a new "dialogue" program on LA. Commissions met, commissions reported, commissions disbanded. Criminal prosecutions ensued.
A police chief passed from office, reforms were suggested, and the reforms never have been implemented to resolve the issues. New scandals,
new issues, and new triumphs became the talk of Los Angeles.
It's nearly ten years now. I don't have any great insight into anything about it. It's just a time of smoke and fear and anger and fire. I wasn't even touched at all, and yet it touched me.