I watched a young Korean American woman with a faded smile holding a garden hose, water dribbling out, aimed at her family’s flaming mini-mart. I saw a big-bellied Latino dressed in shorts, wheeling a shopping cart out of a battered Sav-On. It was filled with boxes of Ramses condoms and AA batteries. And, on the first night, I witnessed a young guy smash a concrete slab into the window of a passing DWP pickup downtown. A line of Metro cops, standing by, buckled toward him in response but their sergeant barked, “Hold the line.” And they held the line.
The 1992 riots were among the bloodiest of the 20th century, a violent outcry aimed squarely at the Los Angeles Police Department. Twenty-five years later, things have changed.
The riot’s antecedents were the deadly shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer and the vicious beating of Rodney King by four white LAPD officers. Harlins’ killer got probation. King’s tormenters were acquitted by a predominantly white, out-of-town jury.
I was in the middle of Koreatown with a Louisville Slugger, and in the middle of South Central with a pen. I was protecting my neighborhood and writing about Korean grocers in South Central. Nobody really knew what to make of the violence. We were all just pissed off at each other. It was a civil war. Every person for themselves.
One thing that changed is that we realized that every action affected the situation. Whether you looted, protected, shot firearms, burned buildings, protested, fought police, locked your doors, ran away, whatever, you made the moment. And that moment tore the city apart but also brought it new life, like a forest fire.
We are a better city for the pain but we are also a city where much hasn’t changed. The same inequities and brutalities still exist. So what does 25 years mean? Why y’all so focused on the past? We’ve got a lot of work to do. Screw 1992. Focus on 2022.
On April 29, 1992, I had a big-time hankering for my favorite hot dog. Just as I was about to roll out to Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, at Florence and Normandie, my cousin Greg called. “I’m going to Art’s,” I told him. Greg yelled at me: “Do not go to Art’s! Turn on the TV.”
I did, and what I saw was Reginald Denny a brick’s throw from Art’s, getting stomped. As I watched, one of his attackers, Henry Keith “KeeKee” Watson, stood, almost casually, on Denny’s neck.
Twenty-five years later, I’m at a pizzeria with KeeKee, now 52, talking about the riots. He can be an imposing man; big, wide, capable of a frightening sneer. But on this day, he’s charming. The two female servers smile when he raves about his three-cheese pizza. His glowing review of butterscotch pudding could not be printed here. (The servers ask him to write it on a comment card.)
In late April when the jacarandas bloom, I recall the 1992 riots. Back then, I saw the purple flowering trees as if for the first time, their blooms bright against L.A.’s ashy streets.
I spent the evening that April 29 downtown, across from Parker Center with first hundreds, then thousands who gathered, outraged at the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.
Two weeks later, I interviewed for a teaching position at a little community college in the orange groves of Irvine. Driving down the 405, I couldn’t help but consider the white flight that had followed that route after the 1965 Watts riots.
Bear was an imposing figure, a nearly 6-foot-5 gang member who lived in the projects in Boyle Heights. It was May 1, 1992, and the two of us were in the middle of the Pico Gardens playground, and Bear’s voice was trembling.
“Is this the end of the world, G?”
The smoke that choked most of the city had reached all the way to the Eastside.
What has not changed in the last 25 years is that people demand equality and are willing to fight for it. African Americans have been part of this battle from the beginning — as heroic patriots during the American Revolution, abolitionists in the quest to end slavery or marchers in the civil rights movement. They have been undeniably crucial to the evolution of our society toward its founding ideals.
And race, perhaps more than any other variable, continues to divide us all. If that were not true, how could we tolerate the manifest differences in resources, well-being and protections that place black people in such an unenviable and vulnerable position in our society?
Today, as 25 years ago, black unemployment in Los Angeles is more than triple that of the national average. More than one-third of households in South Central Los Angeles are below the poverty line — two times the percentages in California and the nation. South Central, the focus of the unrest a quarter of a century ago, still has the county’s largest concentration of liquor stores, the smallest percentage of green space, the lowest proportion of medical facilities and healthcare professionals, and the largest share of deficient K-12 public schools. These structural deficits were foundational to the civil unrest in 1992, and they will be just as foundational the next time.
Blatant evidence of inequality before the law also looms large as fodder for discontent that ignites the fires of destruction.
Several years before his death, Daryl Gates and I were on a fishing trip in the Northern Sierra. He wanted to talk about the 1992 riots, and I was more than willing to listen. I had been troubled by the department’s actions before, during and after those horrific days, and I was looking for answers. Those answers never came, at least not through that conversation. Former Chief Gates attributed the riots of 1992 to the leadership failures of just two individuals in the department; he did not view it as an organizational issue.
I very respectfully disagree with my former chief on this issue: I think the Los Angeles Police Department as an organization had everything to do with those awful days in the spring of 1992. In the preceding decade, our style of policing was aggressive, confrontational and above all, ineffective. And I was a part of it.
In the 15 years before the riots, I had worked primarily in South Los Angeles. I had been a patrol officer, a gang officer, a field sergeant and gang sergeant. I was part of Operation Hammer — the war on gangs and the war on drugs. We truly believed that we were at war and that more arrests and tougher policing was the solution to the plague of violence sweeping through the city. And make no mistake about it, the city was incredibly more violent. Murder, rape and robbery all occurred at levels three to four times greater than today.