This Saturday, after driving and blasting some Public Enemy and NWA in my decidedly non-gangster hoopty (a new, very gas-friendly tiny vehicle) I went home feeling amped up about the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the L.A. Riots.
I checked the newspapers, then went online and was reading an excellent piece by Pocho homie, DJ and writer Davey D, about the massive civil unrest sparked by the trial of the L.A.P.D. cops who beat unarmed Rodney King. Davey D’s piece recalls the atmosphere of the time, and the historic gang truce in 1992 L.A. My memories of the time are that of an outraged city turned upside down.
On Apr. 29, 1992, my girlfriend and I were in shock, like much of L.A., that the cops were acquitted of beating Rodney King. Though we were accustomed to seeing the constant police brutality used against minorities by outfits like the L.A.P.D., everyone felt that there was no way they were going to get away this time. It was on videotape.
Of course, they were acquitted, and we erupted in outrage. Our first impulse was to head out of East L.A. and drive downtown to protest at the L.A.P.D. headquarters, Parker Center.
Hundreds of demonstrators were making their way there already, after the verdicts were broadcast live that afternoon. The crowd was furious and disbelieving, but not violent.
Some of the crowd started mocking the minority police officers, who at that time, were novelties, especially on the mostly white police force. In fact, we began to notice that as more and more cops poured forth from Parker Center, they seemed to be all black and Latino cops. Yes, they had wrangled every single cop of color to be the face of this Ground Zero protest.
As the ring of police grew around Parker Center, the cops practically locked arms, Occupy-style. One big Chicano cop actually took me aside and whispered to me, “You’d better take your lady home.”
I ignored his advice, as he would not say WHY I should take my also angry GF away from the clamor. Pretty soon though, we were knocked to the ground by a big advance of the ring of police. People were piled everywhere, but we just got up and kept on protesting. As the sun went down, and the crowd grew, people became more enraged. As we got pushed out away from the precious L.A.P.D. HQ, the crowd’s attention turned to the parking booth and Parker Center’s flagpole.
One of us, actually me, untied the flagpole rope, and started bringing the flag down. Others took it upon themselves to start a bonfire with the flag and the parking booth, a scene which became one of the signature images of that week’s news coverage.
After Parker Center became too hot to handle, the crowd began to march downtown, and many marchers began breaking windows at the various courthouse buildings, which the L.A.P.D. was curiously not defending like it did Parker Center. Several trash cans, rocks, anything not bolted down became airborne projectiles aimed at the symbols of oppressive authority.
We made our way to the bridges over the 101 Freeway to witness something which I have not seen since- protesters filing onto the freeway and stopping the traffic. That was too much for me, and I even tried to wave out a horrified driver in a Volvo and urge her not to go into the freeway. She didn’t listen. It must have been seriously disconcerting to come upon the freeway onramp, filled with marching protesters entering the slow lane, all the while ringed by burning palm trees, high above the scene.
I saw a local TV news reporter covering the unrest, and watched as she blamed gangs for causing all of the violence, not mentioning wide public outrage. I went up and berated her for saying that, and accused her of racist reporting. Even the shot was misleading, as a dozen grade school aged Chicano kids from the nearby housing projects in Boyle Heights were jumping behind her, somehow punctuating her point to the semi-attentive suburban news audience. She sternly responded, “I’m not racist — I’m married to my Mexican cameraman!” Wow.
We had had enough. It was now about 10 PM, and my girlfriend (today my wife) and I marched our weary feet to another L.A. institution, Philippes. (She loves the French Dip sandwich still.)
After resting, and realizing that we had just participated in a historic day, we drove back to East Los Angeles and checked the answering machine. All of the calls were from friends and family saying, “We saw you on Nightline” or “You are on the news” or from her brother: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING THERE?? GO HOME!”
This is how a week of massive civil disturbances happened began, as far as I’m concerned, it sprang from a point of pure political anger and pent-up outrage. For 20 years I have dismissed the scoffers and defenders of the status quo who claimed people were just out to loot liquor stores and steal furniture. Riots, insurrections, uprising, call it what you will, it began as a protest against injustice.
Read Also Peter Hong’s excellent look back and look ahead, “20 YEARS AFTER THE RIOTS: A MORE WORLDLY LOS ANGELES, A MORE INSULAR LOS ANGELES TIMES.”