25 Years After the Riots: A Civil Rights Attorney Recalls Grinning Through the Chaos

Nana GyamfiEXPAND
Nana Gyamfi
Courtesy Jasmyne Cannick

This is our ninth installment in a series of as-told-to stories from Angelenos who witnessed the first 48 hours of the 1992 riots. Lawyer Nana Gyamfi was wrapping up her last year at UCLA School of Law when the riots broke out. She helped rally community support for defendants in the Reginald Denny case. She has since become a leading civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, where she runs the Crenshaw Legal Clinic, represents Black Lives Matter in court and teaches at Cal State L.A.

I was at UCLA Law School. Some friends and I were literally 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. I didn't have a car at the time. I started out on the Big Blue Bus, then hooked up with RTD [the defunct Rapid Transit District]. 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, it was still light. 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. People were already at a stage of outrage based on what happened with Latasha Harlins.

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.

We started getting [closer] to our [Black Law Institute] building. It was on Wilmington in Watts, where most of the businesses were owned by black people. It was black businesses, so burning them down wasn't really the thing. I spent the night here. I lived near UCLA, but I wanted to be with my people.

On the second day, that's when the National Guard first came out. I remember seeing them riding around looking scared as hell with rifles in their hands.They looked terrified. I remember them setting up at that Smart & Final near Imperial and Central.

The way the Smart & Final buildings were at the time, they had aluminum siding. 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. People were having those conversations — not the people doing the burning, but afterward.

We keep us safe. We keep us fed. We're going to have to take care of us. There are deficiencies or ways in which we haven't been doing that. 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. I'm glad I was there to experience it.


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