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

1992 LA Riots, unrest in Parker Center. For more images from the riots, see photographer Ted Soqui's 2012 photo essay, "Then and Now."
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

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.

 

West Adams Boulevard near Crenshaw Boulevard
West Adams Boulevard near Crenshaw Boulevard
Ted Soqui

I wind back to Adams. At the corner of Western, where looms the Golden State Mutual Life insurance company (an early monument to African-American business ingenuity and tenacity in Los Angeles), two men set fire to a wooden bus bench. The first flames are weak. They egg it on with words first, look around for something to stoke it — paper, wood, maybe a piece of their own clothing. I watch transfixed for too long as the fire leaps, changes in color. I remain because I know that tomorrow I will not recognize this corner. I want to preserve what I see now. Over radio static, I hear City Councilman Mark Ridley Thomas on the radio composing his thoughts carefully: “We haven’t recovered from Watts yet...“ I conjure a picture of familiar city driving, down Martin Luther King, Arlington, Jefferson, other wide central city “business” corridors, looking at row upon row of run-clown nothing. Dilapidated facades with decaying or neglected interiors. Never been rebuilt, no plans to even begin. My foot trembles as I lift it from the brake, to place it on the accelerator, heading east, heading home. It tremors, I realize, not with fear but with rage, and I’m relieved that I finally feel something. Problem is, as always, I don’t know what to do with it, or who will hear.

“Go home, stay home. Lock your doors.” —KFWB 980 AM, Thursday, April 30

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 unfamiliar 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 blonde 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 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’," says my newly self-appointed guide.

“The message was there, but the method was wrong,” offers one of the playground prophets chillin' at Denker Recreation Center. “We’ve inconvenienced ourselves now,” he says, looking into the sulfur-tinted sky. Fires loom around us, sirens scream, puddles of water left by pump trucks look more like polluted lakes. “Folks are gonna start getting real hungry down here. RTD shut down, people don’t have cars.“

“It’s sad to me ’cause I grew up here and now they’re burning it down,” says the office manager from a Century City law firm. He has his hair cut into a neat, close fade and is still wearing his pink shirt and paisley tie with a square knot; a pager is clipped to his belt. “I had to drive over and check on my relatives,” he explains, “I don’t agree with the looting but I understand the frustration.”

"I’ll put it in two words,” a woman strolling by, looking at my notebook tells me, “FUCKED UP."

She wants to make sure that I've underlined the words, that they'll stand out somehow from all the rest on the page. “Two words, ‘fucked up.’ We hurt our folks the most. We deal with that. People scared to open up their shops today. Scared to walk out on the street.”

As the burned-out buildings multiply, look more disfigured, more abstract as they collapse upon themselves, the stories become more tragic. Like the little boy who’s decided not to leave the cement back yard behind his house because “I don’t want to get caught by no police. I don’t want to have to go through that.” There is Francis, bewildered, who stands in front of the Church of God of prophecy on Western, watching his electronics business smolder: “What...do...I ...feel?“ he asks the dead space before him. “What do I feel now? Upset. Angry. We as black people have been told we could achieve anything if we put our mind to it. Now, because of a couple of days, it's going to take 20 or 30 years before we can achieve anything again. People here complain about South Africa. It is no better here.”

“The arrogance of Gates, I believe, caused the whole thing,” a security guard tells me as we watch a van pull up full of teens, loading up bottles of soda and alcohol. One offers me a cool drink. I decline with a shake of the head. “They’ve created a monster,” the security guard continues, “Now they have to feed him.”

“It’s now 7:30 p.m. If you’re on the street now you’re breaking the law.” —KFWB 980 AM, Friday, May 1

I've seen a number of objects lifted up and out of open windows of automobiles in motion. Brandished with a purpose. Each day it’s been a different symbol. Wednesday it was a baseball bat shaken belligerently to the down deep beats of DJ Quick as a long yellow Cadillac took St. Andrews Place at an estimated 80 mph. Thursday it was a clenched fist raised to all passers-by on the Crenshaw strip. On Friday, snaking down Stocker, it was a well-worn broom.

Crenshaw Boulevard traffic is sluggish since all the signals are out for blocks after exiting the freeway. No one has the time to direct traffic, so crossing the intersection requires steely determination. The pace, however, gives a driver sufficient time to read the hastily scrawled signs making desperate pleas: “Black Owned. Black Owned Business. Employs Black Young Mothers.” Some of the messages are a bit more sinister than others: “Black Owned/ Not Korean Owned” — the “O" in Korean filled with a frowning face. Tags on shells of buildings read, “It‘s a black thang”; little boys loot a wig store on a dare and then sport their spoils. This revolution has become unfocused, its battle cry cacophonous.

Next page: The community turns out to clean up.

 

When I see the National Guard’s Humvees I'm reminded of the passed-down memories of '65. Of the tanks that trundled authoritatively down Crenshaw, of my grandfather, in his suspenders and stingy-brimmed straw fedora, on his first visit to LA from Louisiana, wandering away. On foot, he took his own discovery trip, his expedition lasting long after curfew. He was returned to us, telling grand tales, by a uniformed escort. Now I’m realizing I worry my loved ones as well, because I need to see for myself. I need to understand.

Crenshaw is now lit with a different spark. The hard-won Lucky’s at the corner of 39th remains sealed behind Alexander Haagen"s trademark fencework. A Louis Farrakhan recording plays from the loudspeaker of a corner bookstore. And when about five members of the National Guard make a fast break toward 39th Street, with guns at the ready, I follow their gaze, and the tilt of their guns upraised. I see nothing, except it’s the first time I notice that the sky is almost blue.

“I basically wanted to help my community,” says Brandi Younger, a 13-year-old student at Bancroft Junior High. She’s got a push broom in her hands and is working on her little piece of the Child and Adult Health Group Urgent Care building, its collapsed and untidy skeleton spilling onto the sidewalk. "I got tired of people calling us ‘animals' on TV. I didn’t want our community to look bad, I didn’t want people to say bad things. All I’ve seen is looting and violence. I really haven’t seen anything positive."

Near the intersection of Sunset and La Brea
Near the intersection of Sunset and La Brea
Ted Soqui

Lancelott Keith is taking a break when Marla Gibbs arrives with trays of catered food from her supper club, Memory Lane, to feed the crew of about 50 and growing who have gathered here with their brooms, rubber gloves and rakes. They’ve come from around the corner and across town, dispatched by radio Djs, ministers, their own consciences. “Problem with the young men is that they have no work,” says Keith. “No jobs. Those are the things that make you feel worthwhile. Even pushing a broom. There’s been a void for too long. People have to have a purpose.”

“I know people who didn't plan for the revolution,” writer/performance artist Akilah Nay Oliver tells those assembled in the circle. She looks at a food-distribution list, then sends it around the room for those willing to participate to sign.

“Toilet paper and milk. Two things in a riot that go the quickest," suggests Wanda Coleman, recollecting her experience during the “old rise in '65."

Across town, a 15-minute freeway ride from the cleanup crews on Crenshaw, in the few hours before curfew, an ad hoc collective of black artists meets to discuss ideas for immediate relief. What comes out are the first raw emotions voiced in the first moment of calm, the public articulation of what has been swarming around everyone’s brain. People wouldn’t burn down something they cherish, something they perceive as truly their own. The violence of the last 48 hours has taken us far away from the monotone reading of the leaden verdict, the crumpled mass that was barely discernible as Rodney G. King. Now it’s the stark reality of no food, of dead or absent family, of no power, of the acrid smell that clings to the clothes, the hair, the nose. ‘What does this signify? What kind of phoenix’s gonna rise out of these particular ashes?” asks Coleman. “This didn’t come out of a vacuum.” “I don’t want anybody to explain it in their terms," says Keith Antar Masoxi, barely suppressing his tears or the tremble in his voice. “This happened to me. Now it’s beyond Rodney King, It’s beyond 1619. There ain’t no explanation for this.”

“All my life I‘ve been called an ‘animal.’ All my life I've been called subhuman,” testifies a woman from across the room, throwing her thoughts into the circle. “We have to be careful of the language. The ‘rats,’ ‘packs’ and ‘hoodlums.’ I pay close attention to the words so it‘s been hard for me to watch TV or read the newspaper.”

“If this was happening in another country, they'd talk about the repressive government,” says poet Meri Nana-Aura Danquah. “Pay close attention to what these people were stealing — food, diapers, toys. No one mentioned economics."

A woman in T-shirt and jeans echoes the inchoate thought that has most occupied my own mind. “We've been trusting too long,” she says quietly. “We trusted the jury to do right. I'm so mad at us for trusting...”

I’m looking out the window, listening, but thinking about the sun. About the thin light we’re quickly losing, about the urgency of heading back east to beat night. I’m thinking about the collective nightmare that became our lives for hours into days, about the biblical “rainbow sign” sent after the rains, wondering how it will make itself known this time. As I drift further, what wanders in from the circle of angry voices is a stray thought, a fragment, offered up as a single puzzle piece of a larger explanation: “Maybe it had to burn...like how sometimes you have to burn a field. To make something new…”

Follow the writer on Twitter @lynellgeorge. Click here to see more Ted Soqui photos from 1992, and then 20 years later.
  


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