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From the Archives: LA Weekly's Original Coverage of the L.A. Riots May Surprise You

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Fri, Apr 27, 2012 at 9:28 AM

click to enlarge Soqui's iconic photo of the Parker Center kiosk going down -- marking the start of the riots. - TED SOQUI
  • Ted Soqui
  • Soqui's iconic photo of the Parker Center kiosk going down -- marking the start of the riots.
This week's print edition of LA Weekly is a "Then and Now" retrospective on the L.A. Riots -- a seven-page dive into the scenes of destruction across Los Angeles 20 years ago, and the state those places find themselves in today.

All this reminiscing led us to wonder: What was the Weekly's immediate reaction to the riots, back when Kit Rachlis was Editor in spring 1992? (But really, any excuse to go wild in the archive room.)

Here's what we found.

[Editor's note: The following two paragraphs were added at 4:45 p.m. Please see our correction at the end of this story.] One issue went by without any mention of the riots. Then, on May 8, the Weekly's cover, titled, "Judgment Day," featured a picture of Rodney King next to a photo of a scorched car.

Inside the issue, per the table of contents: "In our coverage of the Los Angeles Riot of 1992, Weekly reporters offer a collaborative hour-by-hour account of how it all came down on the streets in the wake of Rodney King verdict ..." Although we have not been able to locate a copy of the issue, the table promises such treats as "Harold Meyerson analyzes the disappearance of L.A.'s old political order in the ashes, and looks in vain for something to replace it" and "Laureen Lazarovici looks at the riot's impact on the swing voters who will decide the fate of the Christopher Commission's recommended reforms." Another piece was a "Weekly lexicon explain[ing] what the new language we all learned to speak that week really means."

Then on May 15, there was one news short -- focusing on the political future of L.A. County District Attorney Ira Reiner, whose career we could clearly give a damn about all these years later.

The title of the D.A. analysis referenced the riots' fiery death toll: "Up in Smoke: Add the Rodney King verdict to the McMartin preschool fiasco, and Ira Reiner looks like one more riot-related casualty." (The cover tease, in similar fashion, read, "Ira Reiner, R.I.P." Only obit in the place.)

The May 15 issue also featured a special riots-themed edition of Matt Groening's long-running Life in Hell comic strip. Groening seemed a little speechless:

click to enlarge LA WEEKLY ARCHIVES
  • LA Weekly archives
The week's cover story, meanwhile, lamented the near-extinct lifestyle of the cowboy-poet. (Yes, cowboys who are also poets.) We noticed a two-page spread on Cormac McCarthy's latest, All the Pretty Horses, as well.

The city still smelled of smoke.

Ted Soqui, the photographer behind the completely insane/heart-stopping photos in the pages of our current edition, says the LA Weekly didn't request his services back when the riots broke out, although he was a regular contributor and one of the first photojournalists at the scene.

Back then, the Weekly "was more writerly, not a photographer's paper at all," says Soqui."The photos were put in almost because they had to be. They didn't tell me to go out -- I just did it. If I had waited, I think it would have been days until they called me."

In the May 22 issue, Groening was back, with a strip making fun of the giddy rubberneckers on the Westside, bragging to their friends about their own hardcore place in history:

click to enlarge LA WEEKLY ARCHIVES
  • LA Weekly archives
On the news front, the May 22 issue also tiptoed a step further toward the great angry elephant in the room with a couple single-pagers on 1) The Innocents, or, curfew violators who were just trying to get home from work, yet were later coerced into pleading guilty, and 2) the various Latino political leaders who handled/mishandled the riots. (The article heaps praise onto City Councilman Mike Hernandez for his aggressive approach, rushing all over the city and hosting impromptu press conferences. Of course, we know now that Hernandez had been a $150-a-day coke addict, who allegedly showed up high to events prior to his 1997 drug bust.)

It wasn't until June 5 that the Weekly printed the closest thing we can find to an L.A. Riots issue an analysis of race relations in light of the riots. The cover, a graphic of different skin colors mosaiced onto a single face that screamed "early '90s," bore the question: "Is Multiculturalism the New Racism?"

click to enlarge LA WEEKLY ARCHIVES
  • LA Weekly archives
The series of articles within is pretty fascinating, actually -- but as it relates to the riots, it's wonky, pompous and lost in thought. A piece by white guy Tom Carson called "Why I Don't Want to Be Black" examines the annoying trend of "white hipsters as pseudo-blacks." Then comes a Rodney King quote-pun: Ruben Martinez writes "Can We Stop Getting Along," in which he laments the effect that increased racial sensitivity will have on the quality of modern art. They both read like Xeroxed chapters from a liberal-arts thesis.

"I think the Weekly felt like it wasn't a newspaper that had to report immediately," says Soqui. "They wanted to digest everything."

Editor in Chief Kit Rachlis and his team were largely uninterested in running his images, Soqui recalls. (Although for the record, LA Weekly did later collaborate with a publishing company to print a separate photo book of the riots.)

Yet dailies and alt-weeklies all over the rest of the country were banging down Soqui's door for photos of the mayhem -- including, ironically, the Village Voice and SF Weekly, now sister papers of LA Weekly.

The Voice was "running my pictures left and right," says Soqui. "There were papers all up and down California contacting me. They were way more interested than it seemed like the Weekly was."

Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor who wrote a book on media coverage of the riots, says he remembers African-American paper The Sentinel, "a number of different Korean-American papers" and the Los Angeles Times being at the forefront of the conversation. Other than that, he laments, TV news stations were "very stuck in breaking-news mode," covering the "latest looting, the latest confrontation with police."

Ideally, says Hunt, "alternative media would do a better job of focusing on the underlying causes, as opposed to the symptoms."

Editor's Note: Somewhere between the archive room and our own muddled organization, we lost an issue in there, and a previous version of this post failed to acknowledge the paper's coverage in its May 8 issue. We regret the error.

Editor's Note No. 2: On Tuesday morning, L.A. Magazine's Mary Melton was kind enough to put together a PDF of the May 8 issue, and Fishbowl L.A. helpfully provided a link. Be sure to check it out.

[@simone_electra / swilson@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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