25 Years After the L.A. Riots: An Oral History
Palm trees are set ablaze next to an empty 101 freeway in downtown.
When did you realize the riots had broken out? It's a simple enough question, and the nine Angelenos interviewed here — indeed, any Angeleno who lived through April 29, 1992, and its aftermath — have no trouble answering it.
But the responses themselves are far from simple. For some, the riots materialized at a distance: a television newscast that could no longer be ignored, or columns of smoke that began rising on the horizon. For others, they began brutally: with a punch in the face or a kick to the head. And for far too many, the awareness that something was deeply wrong dawned not on April 29, 1992, but much earlier. For them, the outrage over the Rodney King verdict was the final indignity; the riots were a constant — and the uprising of late April was merely a release.
City officials and government servants might not have seen them coming — and might not have known what to do with them once they arrived — but many Angelenos were all but expecting their arrival. Nearly five months had passed since the Korean store owner who shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a black teenager in South L.A., had been sentenced to probation. The rage over that and other injustices was bottled up and ready to escape.
The riots divided Los Angeles, and a quarter of a century after the fires were finally put out, the outline of the damage is still there. The city is still too divided.
But the riots also united some communities. And by listening to what those witnesses have to say today, all of Los Angeles might find more common ground. —Mara Shalhoup
To read the full narratives of the participants in this project — and find out what they're up to today — click on their name.
Part I: "If people don't get justice in the courtroom, they'll get justice in the streets."
Craig Fujii, Associated Press photographer: We knew that the Rodney King verdicts were going to come down, and so you have it on your 24-hour news station, probably KFWB, just listening for what might be going on.
People were on alert for any kind of problems that might be related to a verdict. I think I probably had an afternoon-to-evening shift. One event I knew I was going to cover was a playoff game with the Lakers down in Inglewood. I believe they were playing the Bulls.
I usually took surface streets going down to South L.A. to get to the Forum. When I heard that there was a commotion down at Florence and Normandie, that's where I went. I don't remember telling anyone I was going over there. I was probably just being a little cowboy. It was on my route, so I went.
That's the last thing I remember well.
Tim Goldman, South L.A. resident and videographer: I was in Gardena helping some friends move. We were traveling back and forth from downtown through South L.A. I remember walking into their home and everyone appeared to be sad. When I heard about the verdicts my heart just fell into my stomach. I was stunned. We can do this move later, they agreed.
I headed back to the home where I was staying, at 75th and Vermont. My friend Alfred, who stayed down the street, was there. Maybe five or 10 minutes later I could hear him yelling: "Hey, there's something going down at Florence and Normandie. We have to go." We rolled in his truck. It was just a few blocks away. We got to Naomi and 73rd and, because of the commotion, traffic was at a standstill. I jumped out of the truck.
Jon McDuffie, L.A. firefighter: I was working at one of the busiest fire stations in the world, Fire Station #9, right on Skid Row. I was 22, and with 3½ years on the job I was one of the most senior firefighters in the station, because old firemen don't go to that station. You'd go there to get your call load up, get your experience, and then you get the hell out of there.
I was at my girlfriend's house. We heard that the verdict was coming down, so we stopped to watch. I was disappointed — not surprised but disappointed.
Firefighters and police officers are so closely aligned that in the fire station most of those guys thought that the police officers being tried weren't guilty. You know: "They did what they had to do." That's what you'd hear day in and day out. I worked at a station where I was one of only two or three black firefighters, which was not uncommon. At fire stations, even then, it was cowboy music and Vietnam vets and a whole lot of code switching to get through the day.
We watched it go down on TV, saw everything blow up at Florence and Normandie. And I realized this was going to be a long night. So I just told my girlfriend, "Hey, I got to go."
Glynn Martin, LAPD Major Narcotics detective: The verdicts came down, and we were in a squad room. There wasn't a television. And at least for a short while, I didn't detect anything that was particularly out of the ordinary.
The Major Narcotics office was on the third floor of Central Station, which is at Fifth and Wall downtown. I waited in the office until the verdicts came down, then I got in my car and went to take care of some case-related matters.
When I headed out in the field I started hearing all the radio traffic. They were calling for assistance and calling for a large number of officers to respond. I want to say it was within an hour of the verdicts. I was down on Spring looking north. I'm a Major Narcotics detective, far from being the first line of defense. And on top of that, long hair, not fit to be in uniform or anything. So really I'm just looking and watching and hoping that this is going to be a short-lived event.
Hill's Code 7 was a restaurant frequented by people assigned to Parker Center. It was on the south side of First Street, right where the current LAPD headquarters has since been built. I was south of Hill's Code 7 when I saw all kinds of crap going on there. I just remember sitting there looking northbound going, eh, an awful lot of people here that normally wouldn't be here, doing things that they normally wouldn't be doing. And that was my first indication, my first personal observation that things were not well.
Nana Gyamfi, law student: I was at UCLA Law School. Some friends and I were putting together a group called the Black Law Institute that we had started in Watts. I was all the way in Westwood when I heard the verdicts and decided I should get back to my folks in Watts.
As I got closer to South-Central, I had to walk and ride in cars to get to Watts. It seemed like the bus drivers, many were black or brown people, they were maneuvering their own way the best they could. They went on Florence and Figueroa, Manchester and Broadway. At a certain point they weren't riding down the streets, so you had to walk and hitchhike. I walked and got one or two rides.
When I got to Watts, people were coming outside. People were upset, commiserating with neighbors. Some people were stunned. People were like, "Damn, once again we lost." There was a state of hurt.
The verdicts represented, for a lot of black folks, that this system is not working. If people don't get justice in the courtroom they'll get justice in the streets.
Ruben Castaneda, Washington Post reporter: I'd just had lunch with an ex-girlfriend at Barragan's, a Mexican joint on Sunset in Echo Park, and was cruising through the western edge of downtown listening to an oldies station when a news bulletin cut in: The cops on trial for beating Rodney King had been acquitted.
I parked near a payphone across from the Experience Motel on Olympic Boulevard, an area now home to Staples Center. Then the neighborhood was a seedy red-light zone, home to crack hookers, junkies and hustlers. I called an assistant national editor, who dispatched me to an LAPD press conference at Parker Center. By the time the presser broke up, angry demonstrators were gathering outside police headquarters. I found another payphone and called home to let my parents know I'd be working late.
I asked Pop what the TV news was showing. Rioters were pulling motorists out of cars at Florence and Normandie and beating them, he told me. Bingo. I thanked him and drove my beat-up little rental from Ugly Duckling south on the Harbor Freeway.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into a gas station near Florence and Normandie to get my bearings. A big sedan full of Crips pulled in on my left. They were flying their colors, dark blue bandannas on their heads. This was before GPS, before you could look up streets on your cellphone; I was planning on consulting the trusty Thomas Brothers map book.
Before I could reach for it, one of the Crips stepped out of the sedan and calmly walked toward me. It was a warm day, my rental didn't have AC, and my window was rolled down.
"You a newsman?" he said. I have no idea how he knew; maybe he figured only a journalist would be anywhere near the mayhem.
Before I could reply, he reared back and punched me in the face. I flipped the ignition, hit the gas and roared out of there.
Rioters destroy an LAPD cruiser in downtown Los Angeles on April 29, 1992.
Part II: "You didn't know what was going to happen next, how big it was going to get, if it was the end of L.A. as we knew it."
Mike Woo, L.A. City Councilman: One of the first things that I did after I found out that trouble seemed to be popping up on the streets is I took a few of my staff members and we just went out and started driving around. We didn't really have a destination. It was more, "Let's drive around and see what we see."
I remember driving on some north-south street in downtown L.A. and seeing a man with a big knife. He was strolling up the street using this knife to tear holes in the awnings in front of storefronts. He wasn't looting or stealing, as far as I could see. He was just out destroying things with his knife.
Around City Hall, the feeling was very different. It was like a quasi-military setting, with police cars basically flanking City Hall, giving City Hall the sense of being like an impenetrable fortress. Of course, it's sort of like that on normal days.
I remember going down to visit a room underneath City Hall East. It was called the Emergency Operations Center. The EOC was the nerve center of communications. What was really striking was how antiquated the place was. The city employees who were there staffing seemed to be dependent on TV and radio. There were all these little video screens. When somebody said, on TV or on the radio, "report of vandalism at this site," somebody in the room would write something on a yellow Post-It note and go walk over and put the Post-It note on top of a screen.
And there were just Post-It notes everywhere.
Goldman, videographer: Alfred beat me to Florence and Normandie. I witnessed the LAPD making arrests. That's when I started recording video. It was during the initial standoff with the LAPD.
The last police car left. That drew most of the people into the intersection. There was really nothing going on at Florence and Normandie until the police withdrew. The last police car, you can see it on the video, it left, then people took the place of police. And they stayed.
They started looting Tom's Liquor store. There was looting prior to the liquor store, [but] the most intense beatings came after the liquor store. People will say it had nothing to do with it, but I think alcohol had something to do with it.
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I was walking east on Florence to Budlong and I saw a guy on the street laying down unconscious and I recorded that. My brother recorded him being attacked.
People were pulled out of their vehicles. I stood on top of a car recording [truck driver] Larry [Tarvin] as he approached the intersection. When he was pulled out of his truck, I ran around the back and recorded him on the ground.
Then [Reginald] Denny comes to the intersection and my brother is recording Denny being pulled out of the truck and laying on the ground. It happened so fast I never saw the Denny attack firsthand, but I did record him on his knees as he was struggling to get back into his truck.
Fujii, photographer: I have this memory of standing looking at the Tom's Liquor store with a bunch of other people. I can't tell you now if there was a fire going on or what, but for some reason we were looking in that general direction. That's pretty much all I remember.
What I do know is I probably went to photograph whatever was going on there across from Tom's Liquor store. Then I got beaten.
There's actually videotape of me being accosted. I can tell you what happened after kind of piecing it together from videotape that this guy Timothy Goldman shot. He was probably well known to people there, so they didn't do anything to him.
I'm an Asian face in South-Central, and the only other Asians you saw owned liquor stores. By my dad's reckoning, I'm a fourth-generation Japanese, a yonsei. I tell my friends that if I spoke English with a heavy accent, I probably would have gotten it worse, beaten far more badly.
In the videotape, it's actually a fairly tight shot of me from the waist up. I'm wearing a black patterned, kind of casual shirt. A camera is being taken from around my neck. My press credentials, my LAPD credential is bouncing around. Then I'm on the ground and, again, it's a fairly tight shot of me. And someone's kicking me.
The shoes of the person assaulting me actually belonged to — his nickname was Football, Damien "Football" Williams. He was one of the young men who were charged in the Denny assault, which happened maybe 10, 15 minutes after I was assaulted, based on the timestamp on these videos.
Castaneda, reporter: The assault [by the Crip] didn't deter me. If anything, it hardened my determination to get to Florence and Normandie. I was 30, super-ambitious and barely six weeks sober from a nasty crack and alcohol habit. I'd taken plenty of dumb risks to get high. Getting to ground zero of the riot zone seemed to me a risk worth taking.
I maneuvered to a side street near Florence and Normandie, hopped out and, notebook and pen in my back pocket, jogged to Florence. I was on Florence, headed toward Normandie, when I heard screaming in my direction. I turned and saw a black couple on a porch maybe 30 feet away. "You can't go!" the woman yelled.
I'd been so intent on getting to the corner of Florence and Normandie that I'd engaged in tunnel vision; now, I took a good look at the horrors unfolding around me: Dozens of black men, and some women, were flinging bricks, rocks and full bottles of beers at passing motorists. Across the street, a Latino man, his face bloodied, staggered about. A man with dreadlocks waved a handgun.
The mob had coalesced behind me. Going forward or backtracking would be suicide. "Come up here!" the man implored. I hustled to his porch and took notes. An LAPD cop in a squad car edged up to an intersection, saw what was happening on Florence, and drove away.
It was clear that not only was I not safe on the porch, my presence could be putting the couple, James and Barbara Henry, and their son, Jacques, who was watching the news in the living room (at one point crying at the violence), in danger. We retreated inside, where we watched TV footage of rioters pulling trucker Reginald Denny out of his cab and beating him.
A van broke down on the opposite side of the street. From the living room window, I watched a small Latino man get out of the vehicle. He was rushed by five young black men, who pummeled him with their fists and gleefully flashed gang hand signals as they left him lying in the street, supine. Moments later, a speeding car ran over his legs.
Though the attackers stood maybe 40 feet away, a righteously angry James Henry, a native Mississippian who was built like a linebacker, marched out, pulled the man to the sidewalk and stood by him.
An hour or so later, after the mob had moved on, some 30 LAPD cops in riot gear inched their way onto Florence. I hustled out when they reached Henry and the injured motorist. I knew one of the cops, George; we'd played pickup hoops together at the Boys and Girls Club in Boyle Heights. I asked George, "What took you guys so long?"
George said he and his squad had been at a station for a couple of hours, waiting for orders.
Councilman Woo: I remember going into Mayor Tom Bradley's office. Again, there was a feeling of, "There isn't really a game plan here." Now, I don't know to what extent you can really plan for this kind of thing, but when I was in the mayor's office I really didn't get a strong feeling that people knew what to do.
I was in his office when he read an announcement to the city. That was part of his role as mayor — making a statement on television about what was known, and also what the city was going to do. Basically, trying to be a calming presence and to be a symbol [showing] that City Hall was in control. He was a very calm and stoic person. You wouldn't know what's going on beyond the surface there, even in normal times.
To have something like this happen at the end of his career, I'm just assuming, must have been a big letdown for him. In a way, it was the tragedy of Tom Bradley. He was one of the first black mayors elected in a city that was not majority black. To become mayor, he had to find a way to put together a coalition to win a majority.
That was something he not only believed in, I think he felt he embodied this new, multiethnic identity of Los Angeles. In a way, the riots in 1992 represented a crack in the façade. It showed that the racial tensions in Los Angeles were worse than a lot of people in L.A. thought. I think a lot of non–African-Americans were surprised that things were that bad.
But you would never have been able to see that on his face.
Fujii, photographer: Somehow, people got me out of [Florence and Normandie]. I drove back to the AP bureau. I was somehow able to do that, but I don't remember doing that. The people in the bureau said that they figured out something was wrong because I kept repeating: "What's going on? What's going on?"
I was seen at Cedars-Sinai and diagnosed with a concussion. I didn't have any broken bones or anything, but I had a black eye and a lump on the side of my face, the right temple, that I had for probably close to a year.
I remember sort of coming to in the emergency room. My girlfriend at the time picked me up and took me home. They basically said you're on sick leave until you get better. I went home to my apartment in Palms and just huddled in.
I was just sitting there glued to the television, watching all of this stuff going on and just feeling pretty horrified. You didn't know what was going to happen next, how big it was going to get, if it was the end of L.A. as we knew it.
McDuffie, firefighter: They gave us five [fire] engine companies from outside the city, from Culver City, Beverly Hills. And they lumped us together and said, "OK, you're ready to go on calls." And once we went on the first call, they didn't stop.
You've got to imagine: You've been doing your job for five years, and 90 percent of the work you do is medical [calls]. So every time you get a fire, there's a chance to practice this craft that you've been working toward. I don't think any of us at the time were thinking about the history of it, or even the politics of what was going on. It was a shitload of fires! Even when we started, we weren't thinking about gunfire or people shooting at us.
I don't think we were fired at, but man, there were a lot of bullets flying over our heads! I grew up in South L.A. I've heard a lot of gunshots. That was my first time hearing bullets whiz. You hear the "pap!" and the "fssssss!"
The communications weren't like today, so it's not like we were getting real-time updates. You're hauling ass down the street going to a fire, and a group of firefighters are passing you the other way. We'd go from smoke column to smoke column.
Councilman Woo: An image that is still very strong in my mind is the smoke. In L.A., because it's so spread out, there's a natural tendency for people to say that they're not from Los Angeles, they're from Sherman Oaks or Harbor City or Boyle Heights. I think the collective identity is weaker than it is in a lot of other places.
I remember thinking at the time that the cloud of smoke, which didn't respect political boundaries and was just air that everybody was breathing, was a reminder that in some ways the city really is one city, not just an aggregation of separate neighborhoods and suburbs.
South Vermont Avenue in South L.A. saw many businesses burned and looted.
Part III: "I felt a sense of relief that the community had finally said enough is enough."
Myka 9, rapper: I get to the studio [to mix Freestyle Fellowship's second album, Innercity Griots]. There was a Radio Shack right across the street. This studio was right on Fairfax, right on Melrose. I see Koreans posted up with guns in their hands. There's like a standoff.
Then I go to the studio. They're boarding up the windows. There's white folks who own the studio. They're perched on top of the roof with like AKs on fucking tripods and shit.
The engineer was there mixing the record. It was just me, because everyone else [besides the engineer] was gone. I checked on my mom, rest in peace, she's white. She lived in the 'hood, so of course I called to see if she's OK.
Eventually some of the homies came to the studio real quick to check in. I remember Peace [of Freestyle Fellowship] coming in, and he had like two bandannas on. He had a red bandanna and a blue bandanna tied together. He was like, "It finally happened! The revolution is on!" And I'm like, man, they're just out there looting. But I felt his energy. And everybody went back out except for me. I kept mixing the album.
Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, high school student: I was watching TV with my older brother, my mom and my dad, and we started to see all of the people who were protesting and beginning to get violent or angry, expressing their frustration, their rage. When I saw the violence, I felt a sense of relief that the community had finally said enough is enough.
Good student that I was, the next day I got up and went to school. The principal got on the PA system in the late morning and said, "The mayor has declared a state of emergency. Those of you who are dependent on public transportation on the buses, make sure you go straight to the bus when the bell rings, because they are going to stop running."
We all went straight to the bus. Heading south on Soto, we could just see fires all over the east side of the city. We took Pacific Boulevard south through Huntington Park, and then the bus driver said he couldn't continue south of Imperial. He put his bus into non-service.
All of us got off the bus, and once we got off the fires had already started a few streets past Imperial. The kids who knew each other, it was a group of maybe five or six of us, we started walking down Long Beach [Boulevard], and we could see the active fires and the looting of the businesses on the boulevard. I vividly remember when they broke into an auto parts store, it was an Auto Zone, I had just applied for a summer job there, and the store was completely looted. It was engulfed in fire, and I'm thinking, there's my job. It just went up in flames.
McDuffie, firefighter: We got back to the station in the morning. We weren't supposed to have been working the day before and now, Thursday, was our work day. We were all in the kitchen. There was me and [black firefighter] Tony Sheen and I want to say one other black guy. There was some tension in the station. And this one knucklehead said: "Hey, where you guys coming from?"
"Worked all night. What are you talking about where am I coming from?"
"I didn't see you. I'm sure you were out there looting with your brothers."
All hell broke loose in that kitchen. It wasn't a knock-down drag-out fight, but it was a physical tussle — pushing and shoving and holding back. It was like, "Motherfucker!"
On my first day on the fire department, I had just turned 19, and my captain called me in at 7 o'clock at night. As he's giving me my station orientation, he said: "You know and I know that the only reason you're here is because of affirmative action. There's no way a 19-year-old nigger from Watts should be in this department."
I think a lot of guys experienced different versions of that. But after the riots, I think all of us kind of looked at each other and just went, you've got to be true to yourself. You've got to let your voice be heard in the station. It's not about starting shit, but speak up. Just like other people's opinions impact you, if you present the other side of that, maybe it'll impact them.
Myka 9, rapper: I eventually made my way back home, checked on my mom. Then I went to where I had some homegirls. ... They were thinking the same thing I was thinking. They were concerned about how the elderly people are going to get their food, their water, their supplies, their medicine.
So we went to the nearby councilwoman and, I think at the time it was Maxine Waters. [Ed. note: Waters was actually a U.S. Representative at the time, having recently been elected in 1990.] We had this warehouse set up at her campaign spot. There was a lot of food being delivered. But we needed transportation for the food, and they had to check the food to make sure it was OK, with expiration dates and stuff.
I remember talking to Maxine Waters: "Hey, you got this youth, this body of youth right here that is driving and we're not interested in looting or anything. We're interested in doing something good and trying to help people."
Montes-Rodriguez, high school student: I think I probably walked over 3 miles to get to my house. We saw the Compton Swap Meet, and some of the Korean business owners were standing on the roof, water all around. They were trying to contain the fire, to make sure it wouldn't get to the swap meet. They're pointing rifles down at us, and guns. It wasn't directly at us, it was at anyone who would go near the swap meet.
Near my house, people had broken into the Top Valu grocery store on the corner of Long Beach, and they were just coming out with crackers and milk and diapers. There was no police anywhere. I don't remember feeling unsafe, just a little afraid; no one was assaulting anyone, and as kids we were just walking through. I remember thinking, oh my gosh, how far is this going to go? Is this violence going to spill into our homes? Because no one is here to protect us.
When my brother got home he was like, let's go see what's happening. We got in his pickup truck and drove down Rosecrans. There was a truck in front of us whose driver got down to get a television that was on the street, and when he got down to get the television somebody got in his truck and drove away with it.
My mother was really upset at us when we got back home. We knew we were in trouble and that we wouldn't be able to leave, at least for a little while. We did get away once more to get burgers at a local burger shop. We drove by Lueders Park on Rosecrans and saw Bloods and Crips hanging out together in the park. It was the first time either of us had seen people wearing red and blue together at a park where there weren't any shootings. It was almost, I don't want to say celebratory, but they were definitely hanging out peacefully at the neighborhood park.
Gyamfi, law student: On the second day, that's when the National Guard first came out. I remember them setting up at that Smart & Final near Imperial and Central. I remember seeing the back of the Smart & Final with its gate up, and people literally coming out the back with groceries, and the National Guard wasn't doing a damn thing.
It was a very interesting energy. People were in good spirits. There was an us vibe, a really strong community vibe, a Black Nation kind of vibe. People were referring to each other as sister and brother.
What I witnessed those days was not tearing down. I saw people mending their relationships. People who normally wouldn't have spoken to each other. People were showing up trying to find out what people needed. Are you hungry? What do you need? There was a sense of community.
We keep us safe. We keep us fed. We're going to have to take care of us. We weren't having a say in what gets opened on this block. Now that it's burned down, we have a say. I had a grin on my face the whole three days.
Some were just seeing the ashes. I was seeing what was coming up from those ashes.
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