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1992 Remembered: The Ecology of Riot

Judith Lewis Mernit

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This month Frying Pan News is presenting personal stories of the April 29-May 4, 1992 explosion, an event that has been called everything from a riot to a rebellion. These recollections do not represent the point of view of this blog or its sponsor, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Today’s post comes from Judith Lewis Mernit.

This city was new and strange to me in April of 1992. I had been hired to be the L.A. Weekly’s arts editor just one year before and had moved out from St. Paul, Minnesota. I had been initiated, in a way: My car had been stolen — twice — and I knew what an earthquake felt like. But I had still so much to learn. I did not know a neighborhood had been leveled to build Dodger Stadium. I was still too frightened to swim out past the big waves in the ocean. And I had never seen Jacaranda trees in bloom. So I didn’t know, then, that the voluptuous displays of lavender blooms that lined the West L.A. street where I lived on April 29 had burst forth dramatically early.

And that’s actually what I remember the most about that time — the delicate, tranquil, insistent gorgeousness of nature in coastal Southern California, framed by those pillars of smoke rising up from the neighborhoods just south of us. If I were the kind of person who believed in divine providence of any sort, I might imagine that civil unrest blew up in the spring by supernatural design, to remind us of what’s eternal.

So, yes, there was a riot going on. I drove in it, lived through it, worked as it happened, helping to edit newspaper stories, which sometimes meant violating curfew. (Curfew! Imagine that: You could be arrested for staying out late.)

But I was naïve, Midwestern, and not yet a political person — Los Angeles and age would radicalize me later — and the truth was that I didn’t really understand the decades of friction that had worn such deep grooves in this city’s racial psyche. I’d known about Rodney King in Minnesota, and been outraged by his beating; I just didn’t grasp what the incident said about the past and present in Los Angeles, what it necessitated for its future, and I frankly wanted as little to do with it as possible. I wish I could say I went down to Florence and Normandie and helped sweep up broken glass, as so many of my colleagues did. But I didn’t. On the third day of the riots I went down to the beach and took a lesson in how to paddle a kayak through surf zones.

I don’t think I was alone, and I don’t think this was just a newcomer’s — or a white person’s — perspective. The riots didn’t happen everywhere; there were no helicopters in the air over Beverly Hills. It was possible to avoid them, and a lot of us did. I remember exchanging smiles and harumphs of disapproval with the black women that flocked to my neighborhood Vons on National and Sepulveda — the closest grocery store for many of them, as the ones in Inglewood and South L.A. were either burning or closed for fear of them burning — and detecting in those women that same struggle to just get on with regular life.

This is what everyone forgets about life during wartime, which April 1992 undoubtedly was in Los Angeles: Most people would prefer to go on having sex, making breakfast for their kids, watching their Thursday-night TV shows and throwing the ball for the dog than endure a revolution, even if the police are racist thugs.

Still, all of us in that Vons had to recognize how hardened Los Angeles was in its segregation: I, after all, had met people of color at work, but I’d never seen one black person at that grocery store. Those women had to navigate roads lined with burning buildings to get home and make supper; I just had to walk a few blocks down the street.

The riots had been the first civil disturbance in U.S. history to be declared a federal disaster, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t prepared for what that meant; worthy people were denied relief, which moved Rep. Maxine Waters to press Congress for an investigation. The Clinton administration subsequently reconstituted FEMA with a new chief, James Lee Witt, in 1993.

By the time the Northridge fault broke open under the San Fernando Valley the following year, Witt had groomed his staff to respond promptly and appropriately to people in the aftermath of a disaster; back then, they didn’t even ask for citizenship papers. The $7 billion in federal aid that followed Northridge helped resuscitate this city — that, and all those dot-com jobs. Crimes rates dropped; in 1996, when unemployment stood around 6 or 7 percent, everyone I knew had a job.

Now almost no one I know has a job, at least not a steady one, but still Los Angeles has not reverted back to what it was. It’s a different city than the one I moved to 20 years ago, a more congenial one, an at least semi-functional one. Segregation persists: Southern California’s geography and sprawl facilitates a certain economic and cultural tribalism I will always find disturbing; even where I live now, in Venice, people cope with the extreme class differences among neighbors by building concrete fortresses and surrounding their bungalows with eight-foot walls.

In one sick part of my mind I fantasize that the right earthquake one day might reduce those walls to rubble and expose those little wood-frame bungalows behind them to the street they were trying to ignore.

And, you know, it could happen: Geological shift, like blooming trees and land-eroding surf, asserts itself here regardless of what humans do around it. When it does, it won’t select its neighborhoods by class or race. Nature, the great leveler, is a far more egalitarian agent of change.

Other 1992 Remembered Posts:

Mike Davis: A Tale of Two Riots
Lovell Estell III: Hold the Flak Vest
Judith Lewis Mernit: The Ecology of Riot
Ted Soqui: A Photographer Follows the Smoke

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