The networks lined up to deliver numerous retrospective documentaries on the silver anniversary of the events that began just hours after the Rodney King beating verdict was read. The results are decidedly mixed.
Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a social earthquake in which dozens of people were killed and over a thousand buildings burned. Even before it erupted, the combustible material was obvious to many living and working in South Los Angeles.
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,
What do I most remember about the uprising of ’92? That certain feeling of powerlessness.
I have so many vivid memories: People swarming the supermarket on Third Street and Bonnie Brae, just west of downtown, rushing out with baskets loaded with diapers and food supplies. Outraged young men standing in the middle of Crenshaw Boulevard near Adams, blocking my way home — at least until I figured out how to go around them. Burning buildings all around where I worked in Pico Union, and where I lived in South Los Angeles. And then the drawings of my five-year-old twins, showing burning buildings and people running for their lives.
I was a 32-year-old mother of three young children, and working as the Executive Director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) in Pico Union. I was living in a four-bedroom bungalow house near Crenshaw and Venice boulevards, so between my home and work,
(Editor’s Note: Frying Pan News continues its series about the 1992 unrest with this account told to us by Erin Aubry Kaplan.)
I was living in Inglewood in 1992. When the verdicts came in I was getting a facial — we were all really outraged in the salon. At that time I was teaching adult education courses — basic English and math for GED exams, plus ESL classes. I felt like I had to do something and a teacher friend and I heard there was a rally at the First AME Church. I was excited — I hadn’t really seen this kind of energizing in L.A. before. But as we drove to FAME people were filling up the streets and the energy felt dangerous.
We never made it: This guy threw a trash can into the street and someone tried to stop a motorist. (My father also went to FAME and didn’t make it inside because it was too crowded —
(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.
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.
This month Frying Pan News is presenting personal stories of the April 29-May 4, 1992 explosion 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. They do, however, present snapshots of a moment in a city’s troubled history — as well as opinions about how far we still need to go to make Los Angeles work.
Today’s post comes from Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. He teaches creative writing at U.C. Riverside.
A Tale of Two Riots
I was protesting at Parker Center when the Simi Valley verdict was announced. I spent the evening in South Central, talking to people and watching the fires.
Twenty years ago Los Angeles exploded in a confusing nightmare of violence, triggered by the jury acquittal of four police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King. For the next month Frying Pan News will present personal stories of the incendiary events that have been called everything from a riot to a rebellion. Today’s post comes from Lovell Estell III, a longtime L.A. Weekly theater critic.
Hold the Flak Vest
I was in the fourth month of an internship at the Silver Lake-based L.A. Weekly on that day in April. There was a lead-dense atmosphere of tension in the building – but also an electric current of excitement. Earlier in the day, publisher Mike Sigman had asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of field reporting, after which he handed me a flak vest. I politely declined both the vest and his offer of potential journalistic immortality.