Wednesday, May 2, 2012

LA Riots 20: All Hell Breaks Loose (Part 4)

Part 1: The Prologue

April 29, 1992. Sublime asked the question “There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?” I was at Rancho Cienega Park in Los Angeles, practicing with my T-Ball team. Mom dropped my sister and I off and instead of usually sticking around, she went to do some shopping. She came back and picked us up to go home.

On our way home, we drove down Crenshaw Boulevard like usual. Mom told me recently that she noticed people acting crazy and asking people to honk down the street. She thought it was a celebration – she didn’t notice any looting or any criminal activity – and she honked back and waved at people. I vaguely remember this as I was probably tired but I think I waved at people too, the nice kid I was.

Only when we got home did we figure out why Crenshaw was going nuts. We heard the news of the verdict and that Los Angeles was erupting in flames with rampant looting. Consider me in shock and awe.

A few blocks away (1.5 miles to be exact) from my elementary school, the epicenter of the riots was heating up on Florence and Normandie. Crowds gathered between 5 and 6 p.m. and two dozen officers actually retreated from the scene. Similar crowds gathered downtown at Parker Center, LAPD headquarters. By 6:45 p.m., folks at Florence and Normandie started throwing things at cars and looting.

Soon afterwards, the vicious beating of Reginald Denny took place. Simply because he was a White man at the wrong place, at the wrong time. He was beaten as viciously as King was – brick to the head, assaulted by a mob and nearly left for dead if not for a civilian who saw the news footage live and rushed out to save him. Not as widely known is the beating of Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant in the same area. Lopez was beaten unconscious and spray-painted black by a mob that included some of Denny’s assailants.

Both Lopez and Denny were rescued by Black civilians. A reminder that not everybody’s mind was on vengeance and there were rays of hope in darkness. And how dark it was.

Day 1 (Wednesday, April 29): Fires and lawlessness sparked around the city at Florence/Normandie and various spots in South Central. Downtown, crowds were getting furious at Parker Center and took out their anger at various vehicles and spots, including the LA Times. Empire Liquor, where LaTasha Harlins was killed, was a target.  Mayor Tom Bradley called for a state of emergency, a night curfew and told reporters that he believed the situation was simmering.

He was wrong as during the night, fires kept popping up. My godmother lived near 39th and Western St. and she said the fires were coming so fast, they couldn’t believe it. The LA Fire Department reported at least 3 new fires were being reported per minute. It felt like the world was going to end, my Mom said.

The LAPD response was strange. In addition to the officers who ran away, they didn’t respond with the speed and power seen during Operation Hammer. Instead it appeared they let things unfold for a while before taking swift, organized action. Police Chief Daryl Gates drove to a fundraiser in Brentwood. They appeared as caught off guard (or detached in Gates’ case, esp since he and Mayor Bradley hadn’t spoken in a year.) as anybody and it only added to the chaos and fear around the city.

From left, Tom Bradley, California Gov. Pete Wilson and LAPD Chief Daryl Gates address reporters about bringing in the National Guard. I love this photo because the distance between Bradley and Gates is emblematic of how close they weren't in the year prior to the riots.  

It’s safe to assume nobody could’ve expected the response. So much so, that the National Guard had been called in by Governor Pete Wilson. The whole Harbor Freeway from downtown to Inglewood had exits closed off (6.6 miles)

Day 2 (April 30): Things began to heat up as due to the police response. From Inglewood to Compton to South Central to West LA to Pasadena, you could see more fires and widespread looting. Schools were closed, buses were closed, the Dodgers and Clippers had games cancelled.

Some of my friends today who lived on the Westside said they saw fires all the way over there. The National Guard wasn’t deployed until noon – delayed by not having ammunition – and by then, the city’s leaders finally had a plan of action.  By nightfall, 4,000 troops were in L.A. County with more to come and the U.S. military was on high alert.

School was closed for us. So we stayed home and at one point, Mom took us outside to the park. My sister thought it was snowing but in fact, it was ashes from the fire. By nightfall, sunset curfews were set all over South Central but also Long Beach, Inglewood, Culver City, Hawthorne, Hermosa Beach, Torrance, Carson and Pomona, to name a few.

Flights at LA International Airport were also being diverted due to smoke and some flights were cancelled.

Folks had to get used to seeing armed National Guardsmen walk around the city. Mom told me she saw them and got scared. My cousin in Carson remembered feeling the same way seeing them outside a grocery store. It reminded us that we were indeed in a warzone. In less than 36 hours, Los Angeles went from calm to an explosion that many felt would never end.

Korean shop owners who felt abandoned by the LAPD decided to take the law in their hands
After seeing their stores torched all around, they armed themselves and there’s incredible footage/pictures of them engaging in shootouts.  They became vigilantes while some tried to repair relations.  And honestly can you blame them? The Empire Liquor store where LaTasha Harlins was killed was the target of several firebombs before it was eventually burned down.

Mayor Tom Bradley went on The Arsenio Hall show that night to appeal to the people (Arsenio did the same here with Rev. Chip Murray).  Bill Cosby addressed the nation and Los Angeles in particular before the series finale of The Cosby Show, encouraging people to stop rioting and watch his show. I found that ironic that Cosby would use that platform, considering The Cosby Show fed mainstream America a safe, yet culturally proud version of middle-class Blackness.

“You had to get Rodney to stop me or else we would’ve torn this MF up” – Ice Cube.

By Day 3 (May 1), the National Guard was in full effect and Rodney King broke his silence. King had been under wraps since he was beaten 13 months prior and he recently admitted that he nearly put on a wig and ventured to areas erupting in riots. As he told the LA Times’ Kurt Streeter:

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he says. "Mayhem, people everywhere, pissed off, looting, burning. Gunshots. I turned back and went home. I looked at all of that and I thought to the way I was raised, with good morals from my mother, even though I didn't always follow them.

"I said to myself, 'That is not who I am, all this hate. I am not that guy. This does not represent me or my family, killing people over this. No, sir, that is not the way I was raised by my mother.' I began to realize that I had to say something to the people, had to try to get them to stop."

With that, he said those five words that would never be forgotten.

It was an earnest cry and on this longer video, you hear his sporadic speech. See his ticks as he’s still feeling the effects of the beating. Yet even he didn’t know what to say. And really what could you say?

The mob mentality of April 29 and April 30 was both sad and angering. You felt the genuine anger but when you watch it deteriorate into lawlessness, violence and destruction, you forget your defiance and you start feeling sad. Sad that my city was on fire.

When school returned, my 2nd grade teacher asked all of us to write our thoughts down. Every single one of us did. I wrote about how the Thrifty drug store on Crenshaw Boulevard where I always had Ice Cream was destroyed. A classmate drew a picture where he and his sister were running from the flames.

This used to be a Thrifty Ice Cream store on Crenshaw Boulevard. I used to go here all the time as a kid. It burned down in 1992. I took this photo on April 30, 2012 just to show that it still stands as an empty building. There are quite a few on the 'Shaw like this and I'd see them driving to and from the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper. (Photo by Evan Barnes)

I don’t remember if the school did anything like an assembly but I remember riding down Crenshaw for the coming months and seeing “Black Owned” in the front of businesses. That was a way to keep folks from burning them down. My friends often made jokes, often referring to this Living Colour skit with David Alan Grier/Jim Carrey

I didn’t realize it but there were similar protests around the country and instances of violence in Eugene (Oregon), Las Vegas and Tampa (Florida). The whole country was outraged and in an election year, you had President Bush and Governor Bill Clinton speaking up on the riots carefully but forcefully.

Musically, hip-hop seemed ready to make its voice even louder. Some blamed the music for the riots but for me, it warned people of its arrival and reflected the anger.

Ice Cube’s 3rd album “The Predator” became the first album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and R&B Album charts when released in November 1992. It captured the anger perfectly with tracks like “Wicked”, the title track, "Who Got the Camera" “When Will They Shoot” and the track I’ve been quoting here, “We Had to Tear this MF Up.” Even Dr. Dre’s classic debut “The Chronic” had the song “The Day The N’z Took Over” where he, Daz, RBX and Snoop Dogg rapped their thoughts on April 29.

Two years before they blew up, punk band The Offspring jumped in with their song “LAPD” decrying police brutality. As I mentioned at the start, Sublime sang about being involved in the riots on their classic ode “April 29, 1992”. Rage Against the Machine no doubt channeled the anger into their classic debut as "Killing in the Name" could easily describe the angst many felt toward the LAPD.

Of course, Ice-T offered his two cents with his heavy metal band Body Count and their most infamous song “Cop Killer.”

Considering L.A. was calming down, “Cop Killer” was the most incendiary track since “F—k The Police” (Ice Cube’s Black Korea probably didn’t get much attention since it wasn’t a single.). It was the most radical of protest songs and people didn’t think about it like Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” or Eric Clapton’s tame cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”.

Police unions, President Bush, Vice-President Dan Quayle, Charlton Heston and folks around the country got upset and many threatened to boycott Time Warner for releasing Body Count’s album. Time Warner/Ice-T later removed the track from future pressings after a standoff.

(Not that I advocate murder, but too often people hear the range/offensive words without listening to the tone/intent. If someone in the inner city felt that the police were murdering innocent folks, it’s quite possible that somebody could feel the way Ice’s character felt in the song. Not justifying it but saying that rage existed and needed to be addressed so it could be channeled.)

The rioting technically continued until May 3 but the majority of it was done by May 1 before the National Guard, Marine Corps and LAPD finally had the city under control. Yet it was a scary time. My godmother could only pray as she watched it. Many were confused or angry at the destruction affecting us within instead of targeting more affluent areas or the police departments.

I’ll have more to say in Part 5 on my thoughts on it all, which have evolved even as I write this. But I’ll leave you with something Mom always told me about her reaction.

She drove us to church that Sunday, May 3. She remembers driving on the Santa Monica Freeway and seeing burned out buildings all over the place. Tears started streaming down her face. Ultimately, that’s the lasting image of those crazy days. Anger, fear, disappointment, disbelief, shock and sadness. 

*One more note. Here is a story from former LA Times editor Shelby Coffey, who recounts what he saw from downtown in 1992 at the Times offices.

Part 5: The Aftermath

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