Twenty-five years ago today, a not-guilty verdict was handed down in the trial of four white police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King, a black man, after he led them on a high-speed car chase and then resisted arrest. With racial tensions in the city already strained, and coming not long after another much-publicized case in which a Korean shop owner was given no jail time after shooting and killing Latasha Harlins, an unarmed, 15-year-old black girl who had taken a bottle of juice from her store, the verdict set off three days of rioting…which left permanent marks on the city and those who lived through it, in many different ways. In 1992, Buzz co-publisher Elizabeth Fuller was a graduate film student at the University of Southern California, near which much of the worst violence unfolded. Below, she and two other former USC students, Martin Diekhoff and Douglas Eboch, recount their experiences.
Martin Diekhoff – In the Thick of It
At 8pm I am alone late in USC’s computer animation department, cut off from the world. As I wrap up and emerge from the building, I run into Richard Weinberg, the department head. “Be careful on your way home,” he cautions. I don’t understand but his serious tone strikes me, and I hear distant sirens and see faint hazy smoke in the air. I grab my bike and rush home.
Neighbors are outside staring from the balconies. TVs blare from every open door, a mishmash of live reporting and commentary. The Rodney King trial is over. The officers have been acquitted. This… is happening. Some of us go to the roof of the building, and see numerous fires burning about the city. Aside from the eerie sight itself, also surreal is meeting many of our neighbors for the first time (neighbors seem to get to know one another in a crisis).
Television news mentions violence, horrific beatings of innocent motorists pulled from their cars. Bloods and Crips announce a gang truce. Mayor Bradley gives a fiery speech intended to show solidatiry with public anger, and fuels it. District Attorney Reiner adds his spin, but is drowned out by the sights and sounds around us all.
By 9 pm, so many fires have broken out, smoke to the west looks like an enormous mushroom cloud. Phones are down or circuits jammed. I finally get through to my girlfriend, who is scared and wants to come get me. “A billion things could go wrong tonight,” she says. “Stay where you are,” I insist.
A state of emergency is declared. Freeways are shut down. Even reporters are attacked. My graduation, and my parents’ arrival, is a week away. As the evening wears on, fires are nearing my building now. This isn’t just TV anymore. Back on the roof, as far as our eyes can see, other people on other buildings peer back at us — a strange spontaneous community, silhouettes huddled and backlit by the fires blazing around them.
Near 11pm, I leave my apartment to go to my night clerk job at a student dormitory. People mill around, some preparing to leave on the next flight out of town, others just lost or worried. A mother is in town visiting her daughter. “It’s not very popular to be a police officer right now,” she observes. A young African-American student behind her chimes in: “Yeah, you got that right.”
Huge new fires are breaking out. A few blocks away, there’s a drive by shooting. I go to the top of our 8-story building to observe. Helicopters are everywhere. The only other sounds I hear from there are store alarm systems going off everywhere.
I check the news. The National Guard is being called up. Police are under fire at 114th and Slauson. Not far from campus, a man is shot in a driveway. At Vermont and 39th, a fire. Anarchy and lawlessness are having a feast.
It feels like the city has been deeply wounded. I know healing will have to start somewhere, somehow. But not tonight. Tonight feels like an exorcism.
Power in the building flickers on and off, then back on again. It’s been a long night and I’m exhausted. Somehow I finish my shift and get home.
The phone rings for my roommate, waking me to the stench and taste of smoke in my stomach and lungs. Helicopters are roaring and swaying around the neighborhood. I quickly switch on my radio and hopes fall as we are told the riots are continuing, hundreds of fires are in progress and the death count is up to nine, injuries in the hundreds. I look out my window; two large pillars of smoke are rising nearby.
Everyone on the radio is expressing outrage over the verdict. There seems to be a consensus that no matter what, the officers must be guilty of something. It simply can’t be that police ought to be able to apply the amount of force — brutality — that they did after a man is subdued.
Final exams are cancelled. A video store nearby whose Korean owner let me shoot a student film there once has been burned to the ground.
The looting continues. The city has exploded. On live TV mobs of people are grinning and waving at the camera, cheering, throwing gang signs, or just going about the business of rushing one store after another, breaking windows and taking their loot. Police officers are standing there and watching it unfold.
Just got a call from the building where I work. They need me to come in early and help house refugees. I’m going in.
I pass a grocery store on my way. People are running out with bags of food, paid for or looted I don’t know. A lot of buildings are on fire. I don’t feel any immediate danger, but a lot of sadness at what I see. And I don’t know what the solution is.
People are leaving campus in droves. Trying to catch rides to the airport…but it doesn’t look like anybody is having much luck. The campus exits and entrances are sealed off, and smoke is everywhere. My manager is upset and crying. Now we’re just trying to calm people, trying to figure things out one person at a time. It’s getting a bit chaotic, and we’re doing whatever we can.
A friend of mine, Gabe, stops by and sticks around for a bit. “The whole thing started about a block away from where I used to live, where some of my relatives live,” he says. “You know that liquor store everybody was looting in the first place? I used to go there to buy gum. I used to get off the bus right where that one gas station is.”
I recognize a girl hurrying past me with a suitcase. “Hey, see ya,” she chirps as she exits the building. Never did see her again.
By early afternoon it’s eerily quiet. Campus has emptied so I get somebody to cover the desk and I go back up to the roof to see what’s going on. Everything is smoke and fire. Feels like the world has gone insane. Traffic is moving on the freeways, but sirens are blaring everywhere. The stench of smoke is inescapable, even inside. The wind is blowing so hard, the fires seem totally out of control.
By evening, the flow of people is starting to reverse. Many students have fled, and now many in the surrounding community who fear for their safety are taking refuge on campus. We’re housing them, and in a matter of a few hours we’ve completely filled the building. Word is campus will be sealed off when it gets dark. We’re running a 24 hour operation now, and I don’t know when I’ll sleep. What we see on TV suggests everything is going to hell. All kinds of buildings, even apartments now, all sorts of businesses, are being burned to the ground.
Just before midnight, most everyone we’ve checked in has gone to their rooms and gone to sleep. Finally, things are starting to feel all right.
Things seem to be getting worse this morning. 4,000 troops are moving in. Helicopters still everywhere, and I can hear the distant sound of gunfire popping. USC and UCLA final exams have been cancelled. A dusk to dawn curfew has been extended. 3,000 people arrested. 3,800 structure fires. People are lining up for their Social Security checks. Pres. Bush delivers a televised national address. Word is Rodney King is going to make an announcement.
More stories are being told. Firefighters being held hostage by machete and uzi so they can’t put out the fires. Protesters in a rage for all the past injustices that remain unhealed. Store owners defending their businesses from looters by standing on rooftops and shooting at people passing by. People setting fires for the insurance payout. Many people with many motives are riding this train.
Rodney King is asking if we can just all get along. That is the question… isn’t it?
In another strange twist of events, the Los Angeles Police Department has made our building their operational headquarters. Police are now coming and going on 12-hour shifts, and I’m at the front desk in the main lobby. The dormitory dining hall looks like a military barracks. Military and LAPD in riot gear are eating in the cafeteria and taking naps wherever they find space.
I haven’t returned to my apartment building since yesterday – I’ve been at work all night.
But finally I am getting a brief break before I return to work. I take the opportunity for another rooftop view. Looking down, I see cars driving through stop signs as if they don’t exist. And on my way home, a young man with gangster tattoos walks past me nonchalantly… carrying a gun in his right hand.
On television, news flashes the latest grim statistics: 40 dead, 1899 injuries, 3600+ fires.
On my way back to work, I pass a corner public trash can written with graffiti: THERE IS NO LAW
The massive influx of troops has quieted things considerably. Over 5,000 arrests have been made. Last night apparently they weren’t asking any questions: If you were on the street after dark, you went to jail. Period.
Most off-campus apartments have been without power the last night or two. For security reasons power company employees are only working during daylight hours, and they have to deal with major fire damage issues. Which means my apartment building might optimistically get power back by next Tuesday (today is Saturday).
TV stations are no longer broadcasting wall to wall coverage. They’re actually broadcasting cartoons for a change.
The grocery store where I shop has reopened. The National Guard is there in force, along with LAPD. It’s a strange scene… guys in camo are packing M-16s and hovering beside a long line of people hoping to enter and buy their groceries. Some may have run out of food days ago.
Last night I had weird dreams of fires burning everywhere, the whole city up in flames all around me, the whole city being utterly destroyed. I dreamed of someone I knew looting armloads of silver coins, which after a while began to fall away leaving black, burned pits in her arms and body as she screamed in agony.
It is all starting to get to me. Stressful. Tonight I was so exhausted that I went home, showered, and immediately fell asleep in my towel.
This morning, I visit an African-American church on Vermont to join a community talk-out forum. Even as healing is emphasized, the pain of recent days is fresh and a number of disputes take center stage. Some attribute the past few days to race issues exclusively — some strongly anti-Korean, or pro-black, some emphasizing rebuilding a community populated by black people and black dollars, and so on. Others said this isn’t a racial thing, that we need to come together. One thing seems certain: It’s a long road ahead.
I’m back at the desk again. Word on the street is to watch out for Blood and Crip activity. In the lobby, an LAPD officer tells me Army or Marines are stationed on every street corner in the downtown area. The officers I see arriving today are exhausted but appear grateful.
One lady cop I’m talking with, an African-American woman with striking green eyes, asks me if I haven’t become disheartened enough to leave after graduation. “Well, it’s disheartening,” I admit. “But I think I’m going to stick around.”
“Sometimes it makes me wonder,” she says. “Nine years at this, and this is definitely the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It’s such a thankless job sometimes… damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”
Douglas Eboch – Koreatown
I heard about the Rodney King verdict while I was on campus at USC, where I was a student. When I got back to my apartment on the third floor of a building in Koreatown, I turned on the TV to watch the events with my roommate, Rick. We were upset about the verdict and considered going down to Parker Center to join the protests, but decided against it because it was only a couple days until finals. And then things started to get scary as violence spread beyond Florence and Normandie. News didn’t travel very fast back then in the era before cell phones and Facebook, but we got word that USC had locked down the campus and several people we knew who hadn’t left in time were spending the night there. Sometime around midnight it seemed like everything was dying down and we went to bed.
To our surprise, the rioting was still going on when we woke up the next day. We spent most of the morning watching it on TV. We were a little worried about our friends who lived just off campus, but not about ourselves as everything seemed to be concentrated south of the 10. Then we heard of a fire near Olympic. That got our attention. It felt like the riot had jumped a kind of wall. A few minutes later the news reported an apartment building on fire at 3rd and Western, which was about two blocks from us. The news helicopter showed an image of a three story apartment building entirely engulfed in flame (we later learned it was under construction so nobody was inside). We realized we could probably see the smoke from near the elevator in our building so we ran out there. The smoke was billowing almost directly overhead – it turned out that “3rd and Western” was only an approximation, and the building was actually on the next block over. We ran back to our apartment and were standing in the middle of the living room watching the building burn on TV when the cable went out.
That’s when we decided it was time to go.
We called our friend Joel, who had just moved down to Laguna, and pretty much told him we were coming to stay with him. Rick’s car didn’t have much gas, so we took mine. We didn’t want to get on the freeway at the nearest entrance because there was a CHP station there and we worried it might be targeted (remember, rioters were pulling people out of cars and beating them). We went through the city, listening to the radio to avoid trouble spots. I remember making several turns to avoid intersections where trouble was reported. We eventually got to the 101 North and made our way to the Valley. We stopped for lunch at a fast food place. We were stunned at how calm it was. Everyone seemed completely nonchalant and unconcerned about what was happening south of them.
We got down to Laguna and spent the night. We called our answering machine every couple of hours to find out if our building was still standing. Late the next afternoon, as things seemed to be calming again, we decided to drive back to Koreatown. More than one person advised against it, but we wanted to find out what was going on. We drove up the 110. As we passed the 10, the only other cars we could see on the freeway were about five police cars travelling in a convoy. This was a Friday at 5 pm… rush hour.
Our building was fine. The next day, there was a march for peace in Koreatown and we joined it. I brought my camera to photograph the aftermath. There were dozens of buildings burned within a half mile of our apartment. The fire department stopped responding after the LAPD refused to enter the area, so most of the buildings were still smoldering. They looked like they’d been hit by bombs. The National Guard was on the streets in armored vehicles. Korean shop keepers stood on their roofs with assault rifles. It seemed like we were somewhere like Beirut, not Los Angeles. We learned three people had died at the grocery store at 3rd and Western. But the march was inspiring. At one point someone mumbled a threat about taking my camera, but he didn’t do anything.
USC cancelled finals. The traffic lights in Koreatown were out for several days. The Koreans got organized quickly, and had volunteers at all the intersections directing traffic. After a day or two, the LAPD took over. Traffic moved much better when the Koreans were directing it. About a week later I was walking to the grocery store and I passed a knot of policemen who had been brought in from other parts of California to help patrol. They looked terrified. I kind of wanted to reassure them that it was all over, that they’d missed it. But I didn’t.
I’d say the biggest impact the riots had on me is how fragile our society actually is. Things I took for granted like police and fire protection, or even working traffic signals, broke down in mere hours. And it was days before the “authorities” regained any kind of control. It’s easy to get complacent when we see chaos in other countries and think it can’t happen in the U.S. But it can, and it did.
Elizabeth Fuller – Echoes of the Past
In April, 1992, I was just finishing my first year in the Graduate Screenwriting Program at the University of Southern California. I had moved from Minneapolis, MN to Los Angeles only eight months earlier, to attend the program, and was loving everything about LA and school, and just starting to think about my thesis script for the following year. At the time, I was living in what is now the Sycamore Square neighborhood, a few miles north and west of the USC campus.
On the day of the verdict, I was on campus earlier in the day, but home by early afternoon. As the verdicts came in, however, I heard the news and knew it wasn’t good, on any level. My roommate had tickets to the Lakers game that night and, as word of violent protests started to come in, we debated for a long time about whether or not it would be safe for her and her friends to venture out to the Forum that night. We continued to watch the news on TV, and later, when I saw the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, I had a huge sinking feeling.
First, there was the simple reaction to the verdicts – “How could they have been acquitted?” – anger and disbelief that many people were feeling. There was also the question, felt by many watching the initial reports of outraged protests: “How far will this go?”
But for me there was another, deeper, layer of concern…because I actually had a good idea of how it could unfold.
Back in the summers of 1966 and ’67, when I was just five and six years old, my family lived in a racially mixed neighborhood where race-related riots had broken out in Minneapolis. Those riots, and the way they and other racial tensions at the time affected our neighborhood, including my diverse group of young friends, was a defining experience of my early childhood. And to see it all happening again in Los Angeles, through slightly older eyes, filled me with an almost indescribably deep sadness…both for the current situation, and for the fact that we had clearly not moved beyond our problems of 25 years earlier. The divides at every level were as deep as ever…if not more so.
Although I was in no immediate physical danger when the violence began on April 29, 1992, I still couldn’t tear myself away from the TV. And as I watched the situation grow, the sadness grew, too. Later, as the riots began to spread, I did start to get a bit uneasy. Especially when, later that night, a man walked up and down our street shooting a gun into the air and shouting, “All you white people get out here!” No one was injured, and he didn’t stay long, but this was clearly not business as usual.
By morning, with smoke hanging in the air from fires just south of my neighborhood, it was becoming clear that the situation was escalating, not diminishing, and there was a possibility that physical danger could become a reality at some point. So I phoned some friends who lived in Mar Vista, and took them up on their offer to stay with them. I packed up my cat and computer, drove the nearly empty streets to the west and spent the next couple of days on my friends’ couch, physically safe, but despairing as I watched the televised end of the world. Or so it seemed.
During those two days, as fires burned uncontrolled, buildings were looted, and the rage poured out into and onto the city, I was overwhelmed by so many things, but mostly by the realization of how fragile the society is that we take for granted every day. It seemed as if all the structures, physical and social, that our lives were built on had just simply crumbled out from under us in less than 24 hours.
Why weren’t the police able to contain the violence? Would the fire department be able to provide at least minimal coverage to keep the fires from spreading? What was happening in the neighborhood I had just left? (This was an especially urgent question as the TV news reports showed a mini-mall burning on La Brea, between 8th and Wilshire, just a couple of blocks from my house.) Also: How long would it last, how far would it spread, and would I have a home to go back to? Would things ever be “normal” again?
Finally, and actually most important of all to me at the time: How did we get here, again, and why is the issue of race so hard for us humans to deal with?
Two days later, as the immediate anger and violence began to subside, and as armored National Guard vehicles rolled down Highland Ave. (a sight just as surreal to me as the riots had been), I returned to my apartment. There was ash everywhere – floating in the air and covering cars and other outdoor surfaces – but everything was otherwise intact. At least physically. Socially and emotionally, however, the effects were much deeper, for both the city and those who lived through the experience.
For us USC students, the school year was pretty much over. A few months later, though, when school started again in the fall, I wrote my graduate thesis script. It was about a group of young friends, black and white, navigating friendships and racial tensions during the 1960s riots in Minneapolis. The story was rooted in the past, but – for me – could only have been written in 1992 Los Angeles.