Throwback Thursday: Searching for Meaning in the L.A. Riots | The Informer | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Throwback Thursday: Searching for Meaning in the L.A. Riots

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Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge 1992 LA Riots, unrest in Parker Center. For more images from the riots, see photographer Ted Soqui's 2012 photo essay, "Then and Now." - TED SOQUI
  • Ted Soqui
  • 1992 LA Riots, unrest in Parker Center. For more images from the riots, see photographer Ted Soqui's 2012 photo essay, "Then and Now."
Injustice. Anger. Fear. Looting. Racial tension. Deployment of the National Guard. The headlines this week in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown might have come from newspapers in Los Angeles 1992, after rioting followed not-guilty verdicts for officers accused of beating Rodney King.

At the time, one of the Weekly's best essays on the topic was by Lynell George, whose firsthand account shows how divided L.A. had become. Originally an intern, George rose through the Weekly's ranks to become a staff writer before taking a job at the L.A. Times in 1993. Today she's a freelancer and columnist for KCET's Artbound.

George's piece is the first in a series pulled from the Weekly's archives, as we seek to find a new audience for topics and discussions that are all too relevant in 2014.

Waiting for the Rainbow Sign

by Lynell George
May 8, 1992

By midnight, no one phoning long distance bothers with hello. Instead, they just ask, “Is it as crazy as it looks?”

I want to say, “It started long before all this…” Long before this afternoon’s bewildering decision left me less astonished than strangely numb. Long before George Holliday ran tape capturing Rodney G. King’s struggle and submission. Long before Latasha Harlins, Eulia Love, and Marquette Frye became cautionary symbols. Long before Watts shouted its existence into the sky in '65, sending up scarchlights in the form of flames.

They want me to make sense of footage I’m mesmerized by, of the faces that register anger giving way to elation. Sirens. Police in riot gear. Familiar landscape altered by skewed aerial views and flame. I try to put into simple words what I’ve seen and heard in the last few hours of this day.

Until I can see it up close, with my own eyes, I’m relying on sound and video bites as if they were air: first the radio reports of an “intentional” accident at Florence and Normandie; 100 to 150 people sprinting through intersections at rush hour; the new, bloody chaos at Normandie and 70th. Mayor Tom Bradley, whose face doesn’t seem able to accommodate any more fatigue, standing solemn at the pulpit at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, tries not to flinch when pelted with boos. Local ministers use their melodious baritones frantically to implement “Operation Cool Head.” Too late. By sundown rocks and bottles sail toward the Windshields of passing cars, through store windows, at nothing in particular. Random debris jams the city works.

I’m in a press of traffic motoring east on Washington. It thins dramatically when I swing south on La Brea to Adams. My wide stretch of boulevard, gateway to black L.A.’s Sugar Hill of the ’40s. Old churches, big trees, even bigger houses. A place that seldom before surfaced for the world as representative of Black L.A. But no doubt the world will see it now.

At Crenshaw, I see what has been sketchily described on the radio for the last couple hours: figures rendered to silhouettes, occupying the street, advancing randomly. Shouting, laughing, they drift on foot into traffic, into the beams of headlights, as if they are truly invincible.

My tires eat glass, trundle over big, splintered husks of plywood, of brick and clods of dirt. On my left I see a waterfall of glass. I don’t hear the sound of it breaking: this scene has no soundtrack, no narrative line to hold on to. Out the other window I watch six pairs of hands pry apart white iron security gates. Here I see an ironic twist on the multiethnic coalition that local community leaders have been talking about for years, but not successfully implementing: black and Latino teenagers coming together to lift a sofa out of a furniture store‘s showcase window, onto shoulders, then down the sidewalk.

As a reflex, I’m already speedily taking notes, as if the act of writing down what I see and what I hear will bring about some sense of order. Clarity. But my handwriting turns out looking like angry, spiky hieroglyphics. Automatic writing: Subjects without predicates. Issues without resolution.

I don’t head toward First AME for answers. I know that right now there are none to be had. Maybe the warmth of others equally confused, or moving toward sadness or rage will thaw my numbness. When the decision was passed down, I wasn’t sure how to process the information; I didn’t know how to respond to Powell’s smile, to interpret Daryl Gates’ barely suppressed grin; to understand my own emptiness.

Closer to the church, spectators have left cars all over, along red painted curbsides, in driveways, in loading zones, abandoned at the center of the road. Those of us circling for parking places are told to move on. Since the streets have quickly heated up, the 24—hour vigil has been canceled. Praying in public tonight is too dangerous. I smell alcohol in the air, strong, oozing out of broken glass that has hit the pavement. Then come the stones. Random. They thud against the thin metal of my car. Random, I slowly understand, we’re in the heat of chaos.

Next page: Contemplating the carnage.

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