Reading the Signs: Explaining the Inexplicable During the Civil Unrest of 1992
Staff writer 1989-1993
I happened to wander into the Weekly as an intern just around the time L.A. seemed to be teetering perpetually on the edge of serious breakdown. The city in the late ’80s and early ’90s was incessantly grabbing for attention, like a tabloid problem child: The murder rate had spiked, the crack wars were in full effect, and Southern California had become as famous for gangsta rap as that new controversial meme in academia — “multiculturalism.”
All I knew was that I wanted to tell stories — city stories that unearthed the unexpected. L.A. is never what it seems at first, but at this moment it was difficult to know where to start. The well was both murky and bottomless. Added to that, the Weekly offered its own distractions, a competing storyline: ex–Germs drummer Don Bolles repairing his motorcycle in the Hyperion Boulevard office lobby in his gold-lamé jump suit, or maybe a stumbled-upon afternoon freebase-klatch in the ladies room. It was easy to forget that history was happening right outside, like a 24/7 zipper board. You’d pivot between the city’s disarray and the paper’s droll, sardonic commentary on the state of things.
By 1992, it happened: The city erupted into what we finally settled on labeling “Civil Unrest.” Once again all eyes were riveted on L.A., as we sorted through our race/class mess. And I was now a reporter on assignment expected to explain the inexplicable.
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When people ask — and they always do — there is one story I usually unpack about my time at the Weekly and the riots in particular, those three out-of-sync days watching the city shudder. It isn’t the knife someone pulled on me while I was out reporting the second day, or the vision of a sofa “walking” down West Adams, or the Latino gang standing shoulder to shoulder guarding the neighborhood market from being looted that I talk about.
It was the pause in the action: a colleague’s wedding. Four days in, things had calmed, but the city was still erupting in pockets, and a strict curfew was in force. Howard Rosenberg, who was the paper’s photo editor at the time, had decided that we should make should the crosstown drive together, things being as they were. I arrived at his studio, where Howard was fussing, with what, I didn’t know. On edge, I kept looking at my watch.
“We’ll be late,” I cautioned.
The curfew stipulated “inside after sundown,” and that was coming fast. Howard finally emerged with some masking tape and two sheets of white paper. He went outside. I followed and took a look at his handiwork: “Black Owned” he’d written in black Magic Marker across the page and taped it to the both the driver and passenger sides of my car.
“I’ve taken care of it!” he announced. His tongue-in-cheek sign, though true, was more arch commentary than solution, a chance to step outside the tension. He put everything in its proper place.
“You rest,” he said, “I’ll drive.”
From “Waiting for the Rainbow Sign,” by Lynell George, May 8, 1992
“Go home, stay home, lock your doors.”
—KFWB 980 AM, Thursday, April 30, 1992
I’ve already seen the look.
Driving through the Silver Lake hills to avoid Sunset Boulevard’s panicked snarl, I climb along the incline. People are out jogging and walking their dogs, even though fires have moved closer, are no longer a distant TV hell. The higher I climb, the more I see residents take note of my car’s make and color; they mentally record the license number, but most importantly, my familiar deep-brown face, any distinguishing marks. They look at me as if they will at any moment join together to form a human barricade if I make a wrong or abrupt move. Later, across town, a blond man in the next lane looks over, L.A. pickup casual, then quickly lifts his smoked-glass window.
The same video feeds that have inspired their terror have fueled my own curiosity, augmented my pain. For hours I’ve been transfixed, watching childhood landmarks swallowed up in the surprisingly liquid aspects of billowing smoke and flames — stores, streets, memories, futures. I’m watching my old neighborhood blister, turn to embers, rendered entirely foreign. I hear fear in the voices of my relatives and friends who’ve been trying to track the course of the flames, guess the trajectory of anger.
“If you’ve got your ass out here, you might get shot,” one seen-it-all onlooker tells me. We’re standing near the corner of Walton and Jefferson, looking at the remains of a corner Mom & Pop still smoldering, a single red flicker looking like some eerie twist on an eternal flame. “Brothers getting busy,” he backs it up recounting the staggering list of firearms he’s seen the past week, from shotguns to .357 Magnums to Uzis. “They shut everything down early last night. I went down on Arlington, everybody started hitting the pawnshops. It was kids, old women, not just like criminals, like they’ve been sayin’ on TV. It’s like a free-for-all. Get it while you can. Let’s roll and see what’s poppin’."
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