This is the second installment in a series of as-told-to stories from Angelenos who witnessed the first 48 hours of the 1992 riots. Mike Woo was L.A.'s first Asian-American city councilman. Though a man of relative power, he was reduced to a bystander as violence broke out. Later, Woo would run for mayor as the heir apparent to the liberal coalition of Tom Bradley, the city’s first African-American mayor, who held that office for 20 years. Woo was defeated in 1993 by a Republican, Richard Riordan, who ran on a law-and-order platform.
I came of age politically around the time of what was called the “Urban Crisis” — that is, the previous wave of urban riots in Los Angeles, in Chicago, New York, Detroit and other cities. For somebody like me, who was a teenager in the 1960s, it was a wake-up call in terms of understanding something's really wrong, and that what's wrong is really concentrated in cities. That's why these riots were happening. That's part of what brought me into politics.
By 1991 and 1992, I was thinking that this had started to feel like a recurrence of what I used to study in school. It made me start to think these things happen in cycles, and that the optimistic view that life in America gradually gets better for everybody over time [is flawed]. When riots like this recur, it's sending the message, I think, that things don't necessarily get better. At least not for everybody and not in the same way.
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 (my planning deputy, Jan Perry, and my press secretary, Julie Jaskol) and we just went out and started driving around. We didn't really have a destination, but it was more, "Let's drive around and see what we see."
I do remember some distinct visual images that have stayed in my mind.
I remember driving on some north-south street in downtown L.A. and seeing a man with a big knife, like a long 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. He was just going down the street doing this.
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 the Emergency Operation Centers 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.
I also 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 it did feel to me when I was in the mayor's office, even under those conditions, 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. I don't remember the exact words of what he said, but that was part of his role as mayor – making a statement on television about what was known, and also what the city going to do. Basically, trying to be a calming presence and to be a symbol that City Hall was in control.
He was a very calm and stoic person. He did not express a lot of feeling. 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. In order for him 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.
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But you would never have been able to see that on his face.
Another 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Woo as City Council president at the time of the riots; he was never City Council president. We regret the error.