Los Angeles, Thursday, April 30, 1992
I began writing my first book about the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1991, just after the bone-breaking, recorded beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers had made the department infamous and reviled around the world.
As it had in LA as well.
Black Angelenos had been telling white LA people that sort of brutality happened all the time in their neighborhoods, but few believed them. The King video opened a lot of eyes, and for the next year of waiting for the cops who attacked King to go on trial, you could choke on the racial tension in the air.
Then on April 29th the spark that would ignite the riots came with the announcement that all four officers had been acquitted of all charges.
Everybody knew what such an outcome portended. Everybody, that is, except the LAPD and it clueless, frozen-in-time Chief, Daryl Gates. Amazingly, just as the acquittals came down, Gates deserted his post at a time of the greatest peril to attend a fundraiser! As he left, downtown Los Angeles where filled with angry crowds throwing rocks and slabs of concreate, smashing windows and overturning cars.
Gates’ destination was the rich, white, bucolic neighborhood of Brentwood, not many miles away, but a world apart from the chaos enveloping much of the rest of the city. His purpose was to attend a fundraiser to help defeat several amendments to the City Charter that would help force reform on his autocratic, fiercely resistant department. LA was thus left unprotected and rudderless for the next 36 hours as the LAPD—along with the rest of us—watched the city go up in flames and soak in bloodshed.
It was an amazing moment, and on the early morning of the first full day of the riots, I set out early to report the book I was writing. I knew exactly where to drive: South Central LA, where the LAPD had fled the scene, and the looting, burning and brutal violence had exploded on a corner where a large crowd had gathered. There they began stopping and pulling out white and Asian motorists, who they viciously beat and then destroyed their cars.
On the areas fringes, I first pulled into a strip mall where a Newberry’s department store had been set ablaze and burned to the ground the night before. Adjacent to it were a Sav-On and a Payless shoe store — untouched by the fire, but alive with looters.
Soon, two long hook-and-ladder fire trucks painted a beautiful red slowly cruised in, led by three police cars—each packed with five cops in riot helmets. Getting out, they took a quick look around for maybe a minute, not much longer, before they slid back into their vehicles and cruise outed, fire trucks in tow.
Meanwhile, the looting had continued unabated.
A bloated, bare-chested man in Bermuda’s walks out of the Sav-On with all ten fingers entwined around four gallons of burgundy, the pockets of his red nylon shorts against pale white skin bulging with pints of whiskey.
Observing, are a group of black men in their fifties and sixties. Sounding much like Sweet Dick Willie and the comer men in Do the Right Thing, they shout: “Help yourself. Help yourself.” Then another equally big-bellied Latino wearing a FUCK YOU T-shirt, wheels out a shopping cart filled to the brim with double-A batteries and Ramses condoms.
“They have to loot,” says someone in the chorus, “they showin’ it on the news, they see it, and most of them don’t have anything.”
The first flash of anger comes from a balding black man about 40 in a gray ski jacket and small, wired gold-rim glasses. Four teenagers—also black—are joyously exiting the Sav-On, carrying bulging suitcases.
“I got a calculator, home,” says one. “I got some ice cream,” says another. The man in the ski jacket walks up to the tallest of the kids and says, “Man, all the shit that you take, it’s gonna’ come back to you. It’s real stupid shit you’re doin’. Leave it and respect yourself.”
For a moment, the young brother looks uncertain, until his friend in a Miami Heat cap looks at him: “Man, if you feel like you need this, then take it.”
“Take it?” says the man. “And give up your respect?”
“Fuck respect,” replies Miami Heat, “they don’t give us no respect.”
Meanwhile, a dark, angry-looking man of about 30 drives up in an old Mazda. “Fuck ‘em, take everything; fuck ‘em,” he shouts, “take everything.” A wiry-looking black kid, maybe 17, starts doing the Ali shuffle around me, chanting, “You in the wrong neighborhood man, you in the wrong neighborhood.” The guy in the Mazda walks over and says two words, “Get out,” as I hustle away to my car.
It’s now just past 8 am.
Minutes later I arrive in South Central. Smoke frames the background of the steeple of the Abundant Christian Church. It’s coming from Frankie and Anne’s Beauty Salon. Four other small stores next to Frankie and Anne’s have already burned to the ground. Straight down the long, wide miles of Normandie Blvd., mile after mile— as far as the eye can see, stores, churches, car lots and anything are ablaze or burned down.
At a back-street stop sign four teenager boys in black pants and T-shirts menacingly look my way. “Hey, yo, what’s up — what’s up, fuck head?”, one of them shouts.
At Fifty-Fifth and Normandie, an elderly Korean woman with a garden hose and bewildered face is busy watering down the embers of the blackened skeleton of what last had been her mini-mart grocery store. “Three times fire department come. I don’t know what happen. . .I lose everything.”
Down another street of neat bungalows and craftsmen cottages, everything’s remarkably still and calm. Outside one house, two black women are quietly talking: Lisa, who wears a T-shirt is an old lady sitting in a rocking chair that says, “I’ve still got it but nobody wants it;” the other is Brenda, 34, thin, and wearing burgundy sweats.
“It’s not only gang members doing the fires and looting,” says Lisa. “Yesterday evening we’d seen for ourselves. The Crips and the Bloods tied [blue or red due] rags together and said they wuz united. That it was now a black thing. The Crips drove up in cars. And the Bloods, you know, I thought they wuz gonna bust them, but they just started huggin’ each other and sayin’ they wanted to unite.”
“But it wasn’t only Bloods and Crips out there [burning and looting],” Brenda replies, “It’s everybody.” “This was a Blood neighborhood,” Lisa says in a slightly amazed, excited tone.
“Now we united. See, the news didn’t get that. They don’t want to get nothin’ like that. They want to keep it [the riot]‘goin.”
On Normandie and Sixtieth, three black men in their thirties and a fourth, who’s in his late teens wearing Raiders gear, stand with a beautiful, young African-American woman holding an infant in her arms. Cecil, tall and light skinned, confirms the gang story:
“They tied their rags together.” “The red and the blue,” he tells a guy named Kenny who nods his head. “And they held up the power sign. Now they all be wearing black rags. And it was organizzzed.” Everybody starts laughing knowingly. There was generals and soldiers. . .when they started burning down that liquor store, they sent some of them out to the street to direct traffic.”
“Uh-huh,” says Kenny, “they all for one purpose.”
Around the corner, Nathaniel, 55, and William, 74, are already into their forty-ounces of Olde English and their reefer. “That verdict, that little girl getting killed; that a wrong verdict,” Nathaniel says of Korean shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, who had shot and killed a black, 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins in her grocery store—as she was about to walk out.
“That Korean woman, she didn’t get as much as they charge a man for drunk driving,” he says of the [probation] sentence she’d received. And the [Rodney] King beating, man that stuff been goin’ on forever in this city.”
“I’m not part of all this [the rioting],” says William, “but the bullshit that’s going on—well, you got to be black to understand that. You know, I came up in the South, but the youngsters, they ain’t gonna put with the shit I used to.”
Joe Domanick reported the riots for the LA Weekly for his first LAPD book, “To Protect and to Serve,” published in 1994. He is Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report. His latest book, “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing” is now out in paperback Joe welcomes readers’ comments.