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In a sick and exhausted city, upheaval couldn’t be stopped

I’ve been waiting 20 years to write these words in these pages.

On a spring day in 1992, with sweet-smelling ash tickling my nose, I saw a man rolling a stolen car tire down Pico Boulevard in broad daylight.

I saw a boy loot candy from a grocery store, and followed fire and mobs northward, across 10 miles of cityscape, from Slauson Avenue to Sunset Boulevard.

For a few moments, to be perfectly honest, it felt exhilarating. I was thrilled by the sight of crowds and disorder.

And then, very quickly, it felt stupid, useless and horrifying.

With burglar alarms ringing in my ears, I watched two men beat up another man near the corner of 3rd and Vermont without anyone doing a thing to stop them, a moment that haunted me in nightmares for months.

More than anything, the riots seemed so predictable. Inevitable. Like the final, fatal illness of a lifelong alcoholic, or the collapse of a slave under an unbearably heavy burden. We Angelenos lived in a sick and exhausted city, and the riots were something that had to happen.

I didn’t write anything like that 20 years ago in this newspaper, even though I desperately wanted to.

At the time, I was a journeyman reporter who’d been writing about poverty, South L.A., homelessness and immigrant communities for The Times for several years. But I was also a reporter who had been recruited to The Times to represent an ethnic “minority.” That term isn’t used as much in L.A. these days, but back then, when the paper was just starting to integrate, it was a label I couldn’t shake.

So on that second, deadliest day of the riots, I was assigned to go out into the minority neighborhoods I knew so well.

I was a Latino foot-soldier assigned to roam the burning city, gathering the facts others would use to write the story. I got to see the riot firsthand, but didn’t get the opportunity to explain or analyze.

I went to South-Central and Mid-City. To Koreatown and East Hollywood. I phoned in my observations and quotes to “rewrite” teams. “Koreatown is burning,” I said in a call to the city desk.

In Pico-Union, I watched from a block away as a crowd descended on a shoe store. A small gun was fired. The crowd retreated, leaving behind one pathetic, would-be looter fallen on the sidewalk, grabbing the back of his leg. He’d been shot in the buttocks, I think.

A few days later, I was sent out to gather the raw material for a team of writers who were going to draft a kind of novella about the riots — it would run as a special section in the paper. “We need you to find some looters,” I was told. I didn’t have enough spine, back then, to insist that I could write the story too. I followed orders.

Two Mexican immigrant women who lived a few paces from a liquor store told me how they had looted it one day, then helped the Korean owner clean it up the next.

Those days in L.A. were filled with lots of odd stories, each revealing something of the texture of the city. I wanted to tell those tales in my own words. That’s why anyone becomes a writer.

So a few weeks after the riot, I staged my own private writing rebellion.

I started by putting verses in a notebook — including these, inspired by a post-riot visit to the ruins of a store called Tom’s Liquor:

Masculine malt liquor incinerated / Coca Cola pulverized / succulent floors / a fermented syrup of glass and soot.

A lot of us Angelenos felt powerlessness in those days after the riots. In the years that followed, some worked to heal a divided city, and to build an L.A. more comfortable with its diversity.

As for me, that feeling of powerlessness eventually made me into a better writer. Like a lot of Angelenos, the riots taught me not to accept being silenced.

I went to graduate school, and published my first novel, an allegory about my love for my hometown and my deep disillusionment with it. It ends with the riots, but begins in the vast vacant lots just west of downtown, then the site of many homeless camps.

That’s what L.A. was back then, and what — for many — it remains today: a wealthy city with an emptiness at its core. It hurts to say that, because I’ve always thought of this as a hopeful place, with a welcoming center.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, L.A. had a healthy middle class that was getting bigger and more diverse.

Now it seems we’re a city with increasingly rigid class divisions. And we’re slowly destroying and undermining the foundations of our own prosperity — by de-funding public schools and other institutions of social mobility.

In 1992, a big chunk of L.A. heard a voice in its head: Accept your station of life. Your father struggled to survive, you will struggle, your son will struggle. You will have fewer opportunities, fewer rights before the law.

And, in frustration, they burned down part of the city.

The city isn’t burning today, and won’t any time soon. A lot of Angelenos have every right to be outraged about the present, but they’re doing their best to suck it up, having survived the Great Recession by learning to do more with less. I hear their voices, and record them in these pages.

They won’t riot, but they need a “revolution” — in all the idealistic and constructive senses of that word. One built with the weapons of a dozen good ideas, two or three inspiring leaders, and not a single rock or Molotov cocktail.

A revolution might not seem likely. But then again, California history is filled with dreamers.

We gave this country a free-speech movement, a farmworkers’ movement and a Republican governor (Earl Warren) who became a champion of civil rights.

I’m hoping for the dreamers to step back on stage any minute now. And I’m hoping to be able to write their stories.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

One in a series of stories about the 1992 riots and how they reshaped Southern California.


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