Ruben Martinez is a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University; his most recent book, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, will be released in August. At the time of 1992’s civil unrest, he was a reporter for the L.A. Weekly. Martinez spoke to Frying Pan News about his coverage during that volatile week.
Frying Pan News: What was your assignment that first day?
Ruben Martinez: I was at the courthouse in Simi Valley, camped out with Eric Spillman of KTLA – I couldn’t get inside, there were too many people there already. Outside, all the veteran journalists had their lawn chairs and umbrellas — they’d been there for weeks. The spectacle of it impressed me.
Did the acquittals shock the media?
Yes. A really motley crew of people – reporters, trial watchers and random Valley people — were there that day. One guy was dressed as an Old Testament prophet, complete with a “Repent” sign and a conch shell.
What was your role, once everything exploded?
I became the “on the scene” reporter in the Latino neighborhoods like Pico-Union. During the first night the flames were contained to South L.A. But then there was a moment when we looked north and saw smoke on the horizon — Downtown. The way I explained it was that those neighborhoods north of the 10 Freeway were ready to explode as strongly as those in South L.A.
What did you see during that critical second day?
Generalized panic. What people didn’t understand is that the looting in the beginning came from moms getting diapers and food – they realized, “Oh shit the city’s going up in smoke, how am I going to feed my family?”
Back then I’d been on this track where I’d travel from L.A. to Mexico City and San Salvador. And now I had this sense that time and place had collapsed: L.A. was in San Salvador and San Salvador was in L.A. The city was the living representation of race and class in 20th Century America.
When did you figure out the enormity of it?
Probably the second night. I was also working at KCET’s Life and Times and we could smell Circuit City burning across the street while we were live on TV. During the fourth day, on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, I saw a road-rage incident between a white guy in a BMW and some black kids. The kids leapt out of their car with gats and the guy in the BMW threw his hands up – like he was a prisoner of war!
Did you feel resentment about being sent into a war zone?
Yes and no. There was a moment at the Weekly when I snapped at the managing editor and used the word “cracker” or something. The discourse of the city that week was so raw, wounded, angry and sad. I totally sensed I was being summoned by the Weekly to “represent,” but in the moment I knew this was what I had to do. I took it on as a personal, political mission – my city was in flames. The resentment came after the fact, a couple of years later – it was kind of like post traumatic stress disorder.
Were there big changes in the aftermath?
Hell yeah – millions of dollars from the Clinton administration rolled in, along with foundation money that went to community organizations. Nonprofit budgets doubled and tripled overnight. The change in the LAPD was slower and clunkier, but the process of reform had begun, even there.
It’s a similar situation to 1992 with the exception of the LAPD — that’s fundamentally different. I’m not predicting a riot tomorrow. L.A.’s come into its own and has gotten so many things right — Hollywood has begun to reflect the city better, and there have been big changes in Mexican-American political participation.
But back then there was no escape valve – the police would ticket kids in Pico-Union just for jaywalking. Yet today there are still the crazy differentials in economics and there’s still this gulf between the two L.A.s in the new media. Sitcoms, with their perfectly diverse casts, do a better job of reflecting the city than the L.A. Times.
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