(Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on Dr. Pop.)
On April 27, 1992, my mother had to make probably one of the most difficult decisions in her life— to take my grandmother off life-support. I was eight years old and I remember standing in the hallway, outside Mama Toya’s room because the doctors and nurses said I was too young to see her. Her long battle with colon cancer was finally over; this painful disease had transformed a vibrant and resilient woman into a frail 40-pound shell of a person. She was finally at peace. The pillar of our family left this earth as Los Angeles was at the brink of burning in flames.
Victoria Quintanilla, better know to us as Mama Toya or Niña Toya, arrived to the United States in 1986, six years after my mother came to Los Angeles and three years after I was born.
It was a Wednesday night and my son was watching the news on TV in his room while I fixed dinner. “Dad,” he called from the bedroom, “Dad, you better get in here and see this.”
“This” turned out to be the beginnings of the worst urban social upheaval in American history. Its early moments were caught on film by a news helicopter high over the intersection of Florence and Normandie. We watched, transfixed, as some black kids pulled a white truck driver out of his cab and one of them hit him with a brick. An Asian woman was threatened as she tried to make a right turn off Normandie onto Florence, her face etched with fear. Car windows were broken. The news commentators called them “hoodlums” and the police were nowhere in sight. Then we watched as the city began to burn.
I was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara when Watts upended L.A.
(Our coverage of Los Angeles’ 1992 civil unrest continues with this post by Martín Hernandez, a former Bus Riders Union organizer, L.A. Weekly theater critic and a currently “overworked Social Worker with L.A. County’s Department of Public Social Services.” He is also an SEIU Local 721 shop steward.)
“Maybe we should break into Circuit City and get us some new computers.”
I remember this idea floated among me and other volunteers who worked for a cash-strapped State Assembly candidate’s campaign when the fires and “looting” erupted after the not-guilty verdict for the cops accused of beating Rodney King. Ours was a dark attempt at humor as decades of pent-up rage exploded around Los Angeles, unleashed from people too long oppressed based on the color of their skin and their lack of the color of money. Even a prominent Latina politician opined one night in our Montebello campaign office that the only time “they” pay attention to “us” was when “we” burned things down.
(Photographer Ted Soqui’s account of the 1992 events, as told to Frying Pan News, appears below. He covered the violence for the L.A. Weekly and created some the unrest’s most memorable images. In 2011 his photograph of an Occupy L.A. protester was used by Shepard Fairey to produce Time magazine’s Person of the Year cover. This Wednesday afternoon, April 18, Soqui will speak at the Central Library about his experiences as part of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Photographer’s Eye lecture series.)
I was at the Simi Valley courthouse when the jury came in – nobody could believe the verdict, but no one thought the city would blow up. Later I heard something on AM radio about rocks and bottles being thrown at Florence and Normandie,
This month Frying Pan News presents personal stories of L.A.’s April 29-May 4, 1992 explosion. These recollections do not represent the point of view of this blog or its sponsor, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. In this installment we interview painter Anthony Ausgang, one of the best-known proponents of Los Angeles’ Lowbrow art movement; his psychedelicized images of cartoon cats and rogue hot-rodders have become iconic staples of Southern California galleries.
In 1992 he was the property manager of an eight-unit block of storefront studios near the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, an area near Los Angeles City College that would see much arson and looting. He lived in one of the units, which he still manages today; he and his companion, painter Marcy Watton, who lived next door, were taken off-guard by the violence that erupted after the Rodney King verdicts.