Readers look back on unforgettable scenes

‘End of the world’

I was assigned to Wilshire Division as a second-year officer in the LAPD. I remember standing in formation in the station parking lot listening to the sergeant barking out our assignments, all the while watching and feeling the heat of 200-foot flames as they engulfed a swap meet next door.

It appeared it was the end of the world.

— Alex Salazar

Los Angeles

‘Ready to shoot’

Twenty years ago I was ready to shoot the first LAPD officer that I came in contact with after previous negative encounters with them. One night I was stopped by a LAPD officer for some traffic issue and I immediately thought out a scenario to harm him. But the officer was a true professional and explained why he stopped me.

It taught me not to broad-brush them.

— Bass Reem

Los Angeles

‘Empathy supersedes hatred’

I was 11 years old, living in an apartment in the Crenshaw district on Florence and 10th Avenue with my mom, siblings and stepfather. My mom had scheduled a maintenance visit from Pacific Bell. A tall, slender white man with shoulder-length blond hair, blue eyes and a thick mustache came to work on the phone line. He finished repairs exactly at the moment of the not guilty verdict announcement.

The technician packed his tools, walked out of our apartment and was immediately attacked in the courtyard by members of Rolling 60s Crips. They broke his nose as they punched and kicked him to the ground. Miraculously, he escaped and ran back to our apartment. He banged on the door screaming for help.

As my mother opened the door, he fell inside to the floor and cried out, “They broke my nose!” My mom got some towels and showed him to the bathroom, while she called 911. Paramedics came to get him.

During the six days of rioting, firecrackers were ignited at our door to scare us and we received death threats. When the rioting declined, threats died down, but taunting continued well after the incident, until finally my family moved to another neighborhood.

My mom’s decision to help the technician was a pivotal moment in my life. I witnessed my mother’s outrage at the Rodney King beating and the officers’ acquittal. But she taught me how empathy supersedes hatred.

Because my mother came of age during the civil rights movement, and experienced countless incidents of discrimination, she has a heightened sensibility to injustices inflicted on African Americans. However, she never let it compromise her humanity.

— Mia Lawson


‘Massive failure’

I was a high school freshman living in the suburbs. My father, my older brother and I went out to help our cousins protect their stores in South L.A. We had two pistols for protection.

Some of our cousins’ stores were burned down and others had the windows smashed. I remember one uncle looking at his decimated store and laughing. I guess that was the only way he knew how to react.

For three days I didn’t see any police, just firefighters doing their best. Everyone on the streets was armed with guns or knives. It was absolute chaos.

I can’t help but think that this was a massive failure by law enforcement and local governments to protect and serve.

— James Cho

Los Angeles

‘I insisted we move’

My husband and I were a young family, pregnant with our first baby. We lived in a rough part of North Hollywood. I remember hearing gunshots and the smell of our city burning. We slept on the floor next to our bed, away from the windows, for fear of stray bullets. We were terrified, and armed ourselves with a shotgun.

We stayed home for days, glued to the television in disbelief as the city boiled over in crime and rage, fires and bullets. The National Guard was brought in, and a sundown curfew set. Driving through the streets of the San Fernando Valley, and seeing armed Guardsmen looming in shop doorways, and patrolling the streets in military vehicles was almost other-worldly. Instead of feeling safer, it just brought home how out of control the riots were.

My first son was born a few months after. I was so traumatized by the riots that I suffered panic attacks when I drove anywhere with my newborn. I insisted we move shortly thereafter.

We’ve been back many times, but it has never been the same.

— Tracy Moore

San Diego

‘Shooting at airplanes’

I worked in the Delta Air Lines’ control tower atop Terminal 5 at LAX. We operated 110 flights a day. With the fires raging across the city, rioters began shooting at airplanes approaching the airport. We canceled 55 flights the second day. Airplanes leaving LAX were taking off toward the ocean, as normal, but flights coming into LAX were approaching from the ocean simultaneously.

— Sheila Fox


‘Asking if I knew how to use a gun’

I was Gov. Pete Wilson’s deputy press secretary.

I remember flying in a National Guard helicopter over the city, seeing fires and mile-long lines of CHP coming down from the north.

I remember walking through a deserted Century City hotel looking for towels because there was no staff.

I remember the governor on the phone with the National Guard, hearing the incredible news that the Guard had not deployed yet because there was no ammunition.

I remember sitting in a car watching looters burn a strip mall and a state police officer asking me if I knew how to use a gun.

— James Lee

Santa Monica

‘Stop one fire after another’

My family and I watched the brutal beating of Reginald Denny and the fires starting on live on TV . Within an hour my phone rang and I was told to report to work to man a reserve Los Angeles County fire engine. We were dispatched to a structure fire in South-Central.

Five hours later, I was able to call my family from a phone booth at a liquor store, which was burning next to me. We fought fires only on those buildings that could be saved. We were busting our asses to stop one fire while another was being started across the street.

Eric Kuck


‘Moved to Encino’

We lived in Venice. The night the riots began we could hear gunfire coming from the Oakwood neighborhood behind Abbot Kinney.

The next night, our nerves frayed, we packed our dog, cats, artwork and photos and drove to my parents’ home in Encino. It was past curfew and we were the only ones on the 405. As surreal as that was, it was even stranger to top the crest near Mulholland and look into the Valley: no smoke, just twinkling lights and clear, peaceful air.

After the riots we learned to shoot a 9-millimeter handgun and a shotgun, knowing no one would come if we needed help.

It was not the life we wanted. The next year we left Venice for good, moved to Encino, just three minutes from my parents.

— Sheryl Schecter

Woodinville, Wash.

‘Like a war zone’

I am director of transportation for the Los Angeles Unified School District. After the riots began, the district had hundreds of students throughout the Greater L.A. area who needed to return to neighborhoods that were closed. There was no way for the families to get to their children. We established safe school shelters to receive busloads of students and I spent the night with many at Belmont High School, surrounded by chaos. It felt like a war zone. I still remember the smell of smoke and other odors. Fortunately, all of the students were reunited with their families.

Enrique Boull’t


‘Saw our store burning down’

My parents owned a neighborhood grocery store in the area for over 20 years. After closing time, we went home and saw the violence unfold on TV.

The next day, to be safe, we stayed at home and did not open for business. We turned on the TV and saw our store burning down — 20 years plus of blood sweat and tears. The following day, we inspected the remains of the fire damage. Absolutely nothing was left standing but a burned brick wall.

My grandfather opened the grocery store in the late ‘60s and handed it over to my father.  The business could have been passed down from my father to either my brothers or myself if the store was still intact. 

Those were rough years full of sorrow brought on by the prevalence of crack.

— Ted Chan


‘Stayed in a closed for two days’

My boyfriend at the time was one of the last kids to get out of Vietnam at the Embassy. The helicopters at the riots caused him to relive that nightmare and his PTSD kicked in. He stayed in a closet for two days.

— Scott Schuele

Los Angeles

‘Traer su pistola, por favor’

Driving home to Pico-Union, as I approached Olympic Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, I saw fires burning on all corners. Groups of people were sprinting across the boulevard. I headed north a couple blocks and took 8th Street east. Miraculously I made it across Vermont and into my building’s parking.

Neighbors asked us to join them in patrolling the building. “Traer su pistola, por favor” said one burly fellow.

No tengo una pistola,” I answered sheepishly.

Just north of us on Olympic Boulevard, helicopters were picking terrified people off the roof of a burning apartment building. Our little corner store was being violently looted. We could hear sirens, screams, circling helicopters and windows being smashed.

Our building made it through the night intact. Dawn brought an eerie quiet and a break in the smoke. By noon, trucks full of armed National Guardsmen came rumbling down our street, much to the delight of the neighborhood. We hooted and waved and they smiled and waved back.

People cautiously ventured out of their buildings. Groups of women carrying brooms shouted “Barremos! Barremos! Asi no tenemos miedo!” Many joined in and our street cleanup began.

— Richard Davidon

Palm Springs

‘We have come a long, long way’

I was a deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission, which had made a series of recommendations in the wake of the Rodney King beating. Some of those changes required amendments to the City Charter, and the kickoff of that campaign began on the day after the verdict was announced. The leaders of the group supporting the amendments held a press conference at the top of the Transamerica Building.

All of Los Angeles’ leaders (except Police Chief Daryl Gates) were there: Mayor Tom Bradley, Richard Riordan, the cardinal, Warren Christopher, members of the Christopher Commission, members of the City Council, and others. The press was there in force. Bottles of Perrier filled the tables lining the walls and windows.

We could see plumes of smoke rising above the city. By the time the press conference ended, downtown Los Angeles was essentially deserted. An eerie quiet pervaded.

I walked a member of the Christopher Commission to her car as there was a palpable lack of safety. I went back to my office on Bunker Hill.

I stayed downtown, watching from my 34th-story window, wondering if Los Angeles would ever be able to recover. A few days later, I learned that my cousin was one of the victims of the riots. He had been murdered.

We have come a long, long way in the last 20 years.

— Mark Epstein

Los Angeles

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