Memory is not only highly selective, but fatefully idiosyncratic. We remember – or forget – based on where we were, who we were with and, more elementally, who we are.
In April 1992, I was a 28-year-old editor of a now long-defunct weekly, the Village View. When violence erupted following the unfathomable not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial, I was where I usually was in those days – knee deep in the grind of getting a paper to press. I wish I could recall exactly what I was doing, or who I was with, but those details are lost to history.
What I do know is that, because of who I was – the news editor of an alternative paper with few of the traditional restrictions that most journalists live with – my reaction to, and experience of, the civil unrest were defined not only by the fear and dread shared by many Angelenos,
What I mostly remember about the riots is the smell of an urban fire – not the consoling, woody scent that wafts from a campfire, but the melting-telephone smell of a city’s guts ablaze. There was also the smoke, thick as tule fog – and the not-knowing, when you drove into it, if you’d come out on the other side.
There was something else about that week – a feeling that the world had been jolted a bit off its axis and nothing would ever be the same again, the way you feel after a breakup or car accident. The worst of it came on April 30. I had gone to a film screening in Santa Monica, and took my friend Kent to cheer him up from losing his job repairing pay phones. I was reviewing the movie for the L.A. Weekly, where I worked as an editor.
Ralphs had already left my neighborhood in Gardena — known as one of the most diverse cities in L.A. County — at the time of the ’92 riots. I remember the brightly lit grocery store with wide aisles being replaced by a Payless Foods with cramped aisles where food items like Sunny Delight and Cool-Ranch Doritos all of a sudden were double the price.
I remember a lot about ’92. I was 13 and lived in an apartment with my sister, mom and dad in the black part of Gardena, a trend we started where brown folks were creeping slowly into traditionally African-American neighborhoods.
It was the year before I entered high school. At the time, I attended Maria Regina Catholic School across the street from where I lived. Most of the students and my friends were African-American or Latino. I had to make a choice about which school to go to,
April 29, 1992. For me, at the time an 11-year-old Black child living in a low-income section of Long Beach, that date represents more than a civil disturbance. While too young to clearly understand concepts like oppression, I was old enough to know the profound frustration associated with being poor within an economy that continued to deny the aspirations and dreams of many in my neighborhood.
Those were the years immediately following Reaganomics and the George Bush “read my lips” tax plan. The good ol’ colored people in communities like South Los Angeles, Compton, Watts and Long Beach were supposed to wait quietly and patiently for the day when the free market, through the trickling down of quality jobs, health care and good schools, delivered the gift of liberation we had all hoped for. Unfortunately, with each passing moment, those promises faded deeper and deeper into a dark empty background – with no hope of ever resurfacing.
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,