When the Simi Valley jury delivered the verdict on the four police officers who had beaten Rodney King, we crowded around the office TV. The first giveaway something was going to happen came from listening to Mayor Tom Bradley issue a statement. His mien was animatronic as ever, his face already under curfew. But Bradley’s emotional words condemning the verdict cracked his eternal cool, and was the first scare of many. Anybody who wanted to head home, said L.A.Weekly editor Kit Rachlis, could leave now. As traffic got visibly faster just outside the editor’s office, nonessential staffers began streaming from the old Silver Lake office. A helicopter floated overhead; in a nearby 7-Eleven, a shopper started swinging a chain around. There was a quick meeting, some reporters were sent out, and those who stayed prepared for a long night.
I went down to Parker Center, where outraged citizens stood behind a cordon of frothing Maoists, who were burrowing into a phalanx of plexiglass shields held by the riot police they were taunting. The cops were planted in place, but around them, things were moving fast and slowly. A wooden booth was stomped for the benefit of local news cameras; even then, you had the impression that events were unfolding twice – in real time and on TV screens, where the impact was different, unknowable.
A few miles south, Florence and Normandie was overrun by angry protesters. A Weekly reporter covering an emergency meeting at First AME had his car torched. The paper bought a bulletproof vest for those venturing out. An early image, captured by a Weekly photographer, said it all: a palm tree torched, blazing away right next to a downtown freeway.
R.J. Smith is senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine.