Twenty years ago, the “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles started. I was heading home from work as they began, and spent that first night in my apartment on Exposition Boulevard in a poor/working class section of West Los Angeles, watching TV news—which to this day, I can only get myself to do on special situations, like when news is breaking fast, or my mother needs company.
She called me that night, you know. She asked me what I was up to, and I replied, “watching the city burn.”
“They’re not . . . they’re not . . . rioting, are they?” she asked. But it was rhetorical.
That was a Wednesday. On Thursday, I went to work for a few hours, but it took me a while because I didn’t want to drive on the major freeways that go through the center of the city. After all, as my boyfriend of the time (now my husband) pointed out, avoiding surface streets wasn’t enough: “you can still catch a bullet.” I took a long loop through the edge cities and suburbs to get to Alhambra that day.
A lot of people went to work on Thursday, and most of us were sent home by early afternoon: there was no law in most of the Los Angeles metro area, and few companies wanted to be responsible for keeping employees on their premises after dark. There would be no law in the Los Angeles basin for two days.
A friend of mine went home that day to her liberal-left parents in the San Fernando Valley. She was an adult, and had pooled resources with her folks to buy a house some years before. Part of the bargain was that she was to keep her .357 in the garage— her parents’ aversion to weapons wasn’t just reflective leftism; they had been in Europe during World War II. They had seen enough violence, and reminders thereof, to last them a lifetime.
As she left the studio where she worked, she began thinking about how she was going to convince her father that she needed to bring her revolver into the house. By the time she had bought gasoline, gone to the bank, and hit the gorcery store—enduring longer and longer lines at every stop, because we were all doing the same things—she had a list ready with scores of reasons that it was important for her to retreive that gun.
When she walked into her San Fernando Valley home, her dad was loading up his rifle in the living room. The discussion, of course, wouldn’t have to take place: his weapon was already out of storage.
Meanwhile, I had crossed town to join my boyfriend in Glendale at his apartment a few blocks away from a National Guard Armory. As he finished up at work, I shopped at a local Vons, standing in line with 30 other people of various races, including Latinos and blacks. We were all in this together. It was a 45-minute wait to buy groceries, so we had time to chat.
The whole issue had mostly transcended race on the first day of the riots: it was, by Day Two (as Dennis Prager would later characterize modern life in general), a matter of “the decent and the indecent.”
Except for Asian-American retailers, primarily Koreans, who were singled out for violence by a lot of the African-American rioters: the Asians were true victims, set up by media that had spent years carefully painting them as anti-black.
It’s important to recall here that plenty of rioters were not black—there were many Latinos and whites involved (in proportions, not just absolute numbers). And a lot of the criminals weren’t even from South-Central, or the area around Normandy, or any of the other pockets of poverty throughout L.A. that proved to be flashpoints: rioters drove to the hotspots to commit acts of violence and “get free stuff.”
What happened doesn’t reflect on any race so much as it does what happens when it becomes known that there is no police presence in one particular part of a highly mobile society that contains a certain number of sociopaths.
Also, get a gun, even if you decide to keep it in your garage.
Kevin Ferguson of KPCC would like me to point out, when I discuss the Los Angeles riots in the context of the Second Amendment, that there may have been a couple of “friendly fire” incidents among the 63 deaths and thousands of injuries that occurred as a result of those terrible 4-7 days. He’d also like to remind people that gun stores can be looted when things break down badly enough. Which . . . yes. Most gun stores have superior security, but when things get bad enough that can generally be overcome.
There were not then, and are not now, any limitations on the sale of concrete bricks like the one Damian Williams threw at Reginald Denny, who suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the beating he sustained on that first day of rioting. Denny was rescued by four heroic black people who risked their lives to get him to the hospital: Titus Murphy, Terri Barnett, Bobby Green, and Lei Yuille.
Heroics in wartime can never do more than puncuate the horror, though. Praise our heroes, but remember that war, and its faint echoes in “civil unrest,” let loose the ugliest side of human nature. There is a reason we want to contain all that. The Murphys, Barnetts, Greens, and Yuilles are fewer than we would like: they are too often outnumbered.
Today is the anniversary of the riot’s worst day—the day things broke down completely, and stayed broken for 48 hours.
More links [hover over the text to see them; we're still having technical problems]:
• A Korean-American photojournalist remembers watching his community suffer, while trying to document it as dispassionately as he could.
• KPCC puts together single-race panels to talk about the riots’ legacies. Yet one has the impression that the panels weren’t in the same room, but rather conducted at different times. I’m hoping that I mis-read that point, but I don’t think I did, and that’s very sad, twenty years out from these events. Some Korean-American families never recovered from their losses; the city of Los Angeles blocked many from rebuilding afterward, too. It’s an awful, shameful tale, really.
• “We flew back home that afternoon, Los Angeles burning below us as the sun set over the Pacific.” Chuck DeVore on deploying with the National Guard, and the “thin veneer of civilization,” as they style it at Breitbart.com.
UPDATE: My husband links, and shares his memories. Without having to break 1000 works.