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Initiation by Fire 

Hard lessons learned by a paper and a journalist when the city burned

Thursday, Dec 11 2003
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Photos by Ted Soqui

A half-hour after the acquittals of the LAPD officers captured on video beating Rodney King, the L.A. Weekly’s staff, under editor Kit Rachlis, gathered in the Hyperion Avenue office’s cramped, windowless conference room to watch then-Mayor Tom Bradley address the city. Bradley implored the citizens of Los Angeles to remain calm, and he mentioned something about violence, about hoping that people didn’t resort to it. I remember in that moment realizing what he meant:

The city was going to riot.

It wasn’t long before reports of buildings on fire south of the 10 freeway began to trickle in, and not much longer before those flames spread to Third and Vermont, then north to Hollywood. Some people went home early. Others stayed, trying to figure out what to do. Still others were out in the field, dispatched to register citizens’ responses to the verdict, but unprepared for both the verdict itself and the city’s eruption in its wake.

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People have conflicting memories of what happened at the L.A. Weekly during the next 30-odd hours in the spring of 1992, before the National Guard restored order to the city. Unable — or unwilling, perhaps — to reconcile those differences, I report here only my own recollections, knowing that living through those strange three days without losing one’s mind required a certain separation from reality.

I remember an office that buzzed with excitement — rarely did we, at a weekly newspaper, have actual breaking news to cover. I remember that one editor’s wife complained about the “newspapermen” getting a little too stoked on an unfolding tragedy in which over 50 people died. I remember sitting numbly at my desk, staring out from my enormous plate-glass window at the business-as-usual auto-body shop across the street, waiting for copy to come in from various quarters, from the Korean-American intern we’d enlisted so that Koreatown wouldn’t go unnoticed by an insider, from an African-American freelancer recruited when we realized how woefully short we were on staffers who knew the streets bearing the brunt of those proverbial “random acts of senseless violence,” as they were then dubbed. I remember pay-phone conversations with staff writers sometimes floundering for an angle, and offering them little help. And I remember contributing, though I felt inadequately prepared, in a small way to an issue I have held in all these years to be a failure. Our pundits in the field could not convey what happened then; we were too lofty, too insular, too middle-class, too white. I have looked back with resentment: We should have done better.

The truth is, I wanted to be part of it all, but I didn’t know how. I had arrived in Los Angeles 10 months before, when Rachlis had hired me from City Pages in Minneapolis, and had spent most of my first few months adjusting to the shock of my new, anomic life without personal history. In Minneapolis, I’d worked with a small staff who wrote about Rodney King and L.A. police brutality from afar and with a sordid sort of vicarious righteousness. We wanted to be in Los Angeles, where things actually happened. But now that I was here, I had nothing to say.

One night I got tired of waiting in my office, tired of phone calls and secondhand experience, and decided to head out into the wreckage myself. In the Mercedes diesel sedan I’d bought just a few weeks before from a shoddy mechanic, I drove to Parker Center hoping to catch a piece of the action, to participate in a demonstration planned there. As I made my way up Los Angeles Street, I found myself engulfed in a mob of people slamming their fists on my windshield, overwhelmed by an anger that no longer seemed to be about Rodney King or police brutality as much as anger itself, like one long scream fed by nothing but its own sound. Beating back a terror just short of panic, I drove on, but not before I looked over at the sidewalk to see two of my colleagues, Scott Ford and Bill Smith — then art director and assistant art director — strolling calmly along the boulevard. All the ornamental trees along the street were ablaze; there were people scurrying and shouting everywhere. And yet there walked Bill and Scott, their hands resting casually in the pockets of their perfectly tattered jeans, talking and smiling as if the world were not ending after all, as if this were just any other day in this historically tortured city. I was at once impressed and humbled.

 

For complicated reasons having to do with civil rights, movies and rock & roll, alternative weekly newspapers have been slower to diversify than their establishment daily counterparts. Most of these papers were born in the ’70s, after the defining racial unrest of the ’60s had convinced daily newspapers of the necessity. Many of them were founded to pursue a certain kind of gonzo arts criticism, to provide a forum for mostly young, white and male critics to opine about new bands or new movies in a subjective intellectual style. Knowing this, I had meant to write a story declaring it lamentable that when South L.A. went up in flames and looters invaded Koreatown, we had almost no one to cover these neighborhoods. And that was at least partially true — we did scramble behind the scenes to find people to write from inside the maelstrom. But it’s also possible that I have lived, to paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, with perfect accuracy a history that never happened. In late April of 1992, I also saw jacaranda trees bloom for the first time in my life. And I realize now that much of my disdain for our riot coverage was inspired not so much by an astute understanding of where the paper went wrong in those days, but by the bitter realization that when history happened around me, I had nothing to offer it beyond a wide-eyed stare.

When I open the pages of that issue now, I am amazed at how good it is — amazed at its depth, its compassion, its thoroughness; by my colleagues’ determination to do right, to get things right. I’m impressed at its wit; moved by its various contributors’ efforts to understand; proud that Kit resisted what must have been a pressing temptation at the time to title the issue “The Fire This Time.” It was a heartfelt effort, but not a falsely earnest one: As much as certain people wanted to elevate the violence to a noble groundswell of resistance, the copious video footage of people running out of stores with arms full of electronic components told us otherwise — columnist Michael Ventura would later call the uprising a “riot on stores,” which was right, I think. Our writers were honest.

Our Korean-American intern, Dexter H. Kim, lamented what he considered a newly kindled antipathy between blacks and Koreans — “WE LOVE BLACK,” read a banner he spotted at a Korean-American rally. Steven Mikulan told of driving recklessly around the city, drinking beer in the car and tossing the bottles out the window. Lynell George, the paper’s single black reporter, wrote a graceful dispatch from the front — a region of the city we struggled not to ignore, as we do now, but almost always did, as we do now. Rubén Martínez constructed a sweeping four-day chronicle of life during riot time. Steve Erickson eloquently captured our collective miasma of guilt and disbelief: “[Y]ou have to wonder how many legal hairs got split to refute 81 seconds the entire world has seen,” he wrote, “how deep into the trees they had to get not to see the forest, at which point it was inevitable that in the light of examining a single leaf, the entire forest would go up in fire.”

I wonder not only about the legal hairs, but about the forest, how easily we get lost in our own clump of trees, see the light filter through them and call it reality. Getting it right was harder in those days than it was in most. I like to think that for all my complaints, I learned a little about truth-telling from watching this operation in action back then. I suspect that all of us did.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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