LA Riots Remembered

Two decades later, the world still burns

I didn't know my role in the LA Riots had been captured on film until a decade ago, on the 10th anniversary of the event. I was sitting on the couch of the Huntington Beach duplex I lived in with my then-girlfriend, watching MSNBC's nightly news report, when Brian Williams stopped talking and the screen shifted to a shot of downtown Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, and the image of a young man in a black T-Shirt, olive-drab cargo pants and Doc Martin boots trying to kick in a glass door.

I remember the cameraman standing to my right, patiently rolling tape while I kicked the glass, which wouldn't break, and how, eventually, a friend of mine threw a metal garbage can at the door; it bounced off, rolling harmlessly onto the sidewalk.

I was a senior about to graduate from Occidental College, a private school located on a leafy campus just 15 minutes but a few worlds away in Eagle Rock. My friend and I were members of a select group of thrill-seeking student activists that viewed itself as the vanguard of a coming revolution.

We organized fellow students to protest against the Persian Gulf War and apartheid in South Africa; we lobbied in support of unionizing hotel workers. We haunted campus quads and picket lines in garish African National Congress and Justice for Janitors T-shirts, and at nights, we smoked weed in our dorm rooms, listening to N.W.A or the Grateful Dead while quoting Mike Davis and Antonio Gramsci.

On the first night of the riots, we arrived near Parker Center, the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, just after sunset, parking illegally in front of a bank building on Bunker Hill a few blocks from the 101 freeway. By the time we found our parking spot, the protest we'd seen on television had morphed into a melee. The crowd outnumbered the baton-wielding, frightened-looking cops by four to one. It surged forward as though it were an angry wave, pelting the officers with eggs, bottles and debris. Abandoned police cruisers were swarmed, overturned and set ablaze.

We caught up with the mayhem at a 101 freeway overpass, where a flaming palm tree shot sparks in the air, resembling a Roman candle. Someone used the tree to light an American flag, and everyone cheered as it burned. The people gathered around the flames came in all varieties: a black dude with a Malcolm X cap who shouted into a megaphone, ACT-UP activists with bandanas and black-leather jackets who seemed in a rush to get somewhere, even a few white jocks wearing USC football sweat shirts and drinking Coors from the can as though the effigy before them were a homecoming bonfire.

Below us on the freeway, the traffic was at a standstill. Young Latinos with shaved heads and white wife-beater undershirts darted from car to car, slamming their fists on hoods, ripping unlocked doors from their hinges. Drivers sat helplessly, their hands frozen on their steering wheels.

As the tree-torching mob headed west, we encountered evidence of other wandering vandals: rows of knocked-over parking meters and overturned newspaper racks that had been smashed open so people could light the contents on fire. After a few blocks, we encountered an intersection at which a lost-looking elderly white couple, presumably trying to avoid the carjackers on the freeway, had driven their Cadillac down the wrong street at the wrong time. Someone hurled a chunk of concrete, shattering the rear windshield; people cheered as the car sped away.

My friend and I did our best to blend in with the crowd, feeling safety in numbers. But we tended to stick out. A middle-aged black woman in a nurse's uniform who was smoking a menthol cigarette handed me a newspaper she'd just set ablaze with her lighter. She smiled with crooked teeth as she handed over the torch. Somewhere overhead, a police helicopter hovered, shining a spotlight on the ground. A canister bounced onto the pavement, billowing purple smoke. I didn't stop running until I reached an intersection where debris had been piled in the middle of the street. Several dozen cops lined up with riot shields charged toward us. Everybody scattered. I was the first one running.

* * *

The next few days, during which the fires I helped light spread throughout the city, causing destruction and purifying nothing, are a blur in my mind. I recall driving past roving units of National Guardsmen on the way to a half-empty campus and overhearing irksome conversations between well-heeled white students who debated whether to take off to Malibu for the weekend, seeing as how there was less smoke in the air on the coast.

The morning after the rampage at Parker Center, our class valedictorian, a nice girl I knew from art class, accosted me as I stood in line for coffee. She wanted to know if my friend and I had happened to be downtown the previous night. She'd seen some news footage of the riots and thought she'd recognized us.

I made the mistake of sharing this information with friends on the second night of the riots, as we smoked a large joint on the roof of the Craftsman house in which we lived, an ancient abode straight out of Middle Earth that was situated on an overgrown hillside lot. We watched the helicopters circle above the fires that were still burning on the southern horizon.

My friend suffered his first and only nervous breakdown early that morning, shutting himself into his room for most of the next day, unable to speak. We never really talked about it, although occasionally we joked about how he'd suffered a "psychedelic freak-out." I finally asked him about the episode a few weeks ago. He was at a loss to explain what had happened, except to call the experience a "head-on collision with the reality principle" that produced a "radical disjuncture" in his brain.

At the time, his mind simply couldn't grasp the vastness of his alienation from his social peers, people for whom what was happening on the streets was either only a nuisance or held absolutely no meaning at all. By the time I saw myself kicking that door via television 10 years later, I'd aged to the point it was actually exciting to realize the whole thing really was caught on camera. I managed to record the broadcast and eventually wore out the tape showing it to friends and family members, the youngest of whom only knew about the riots thanks to the Sublime song. I married my girlfriend and had a kid, who's 7 now and knows nothing of any of this.

Looking back to April 29, 1992, with the benefit of two decades of hindsight, one thought remains. The revolution my college friend and I had hoped to join by going downtown never happened, but we were just play-acting, anyways, pretending that what we were doing and what was happening was real.

It wasn't. Now we're half a lifetime older, and there's a new generation trying to sort out what it all means while we raise families and worry about our next paychecks amid a global, great depression. Time seems to be running out, and the world is falling apart just fine without us.

 

This article appeared in print as "Burning World: The LA Riots, 20 years later."

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23 comments
Mrs. Emac
Mrs. Emac

I appreciate Nick's narrative of his involvement in the LA Riots because it reflects how at times we make choices an take action without thinking about the gravity of it. Although it's obvious he and his friend were joining the masses in an attempt to affect change, they got caught up in the energy of the moment and contributed towards the problem as well. It is a fine line between mob action that influences change and mob action that becomes chaotic madness- fate had it that the civil unrest (meritted as it was) tragically ended in te riots that destroyed so much.

ageofknowledge
ageofknowledge

Yes there were serious systemic problems with the LAPD at that time,but rather than handle it like socialized law abiding citizens they simply rioted attacking white people randomly. They were unsocialized gang members just doing what came naturally. I expect nothing more from them than to exercise violence and criminality. Society is far too soft on these.

Mike Hunt
Mike Hunt

Nick, the only injustice is that some cop didn't club you and your friends like a baby harp seals at an Eskimo seal hunt.

Nschou
Nschou

I'm not going to try to defend my actions, and didn't try to do that in the story. The first time I wrote about the riots, we got a letter demanding I be "taken out and shot" Let the rage flow, haters!

MayhemInTheHood
MayhemInTheHood

I agree with this article. Wannabe college revolutionaries ARE annoying.

Joejack
Joejack

I feel bad for your friend and his nervous breakdown after a night of rabble rousing...wait, no I don't. Your article only served to trivialize this event and turn it into a "look at me" moment. Try living through a week of that shit...people trying to break into your home, businesses there one moment, gone up in fire and smoke the next, no light and no sense of security.

debaser
debaser

Why on earth would you try to kick in a glass door? Were you trying to escape a dangerous situation and find some shelter?

Scoop Editor
Scoop Editor

In before people start bringing up Wrong Paul....

Kelly M. Bray
Kelly M. Bray

Basically he is being defensive and in your face about being part of a murderous lynch mob.

Grumpy_gorilla2u
Grumpy_gorilla2u

80 percent of all cops are criminals and violate the law/s while on duty.

occupy this
occupy this

Or give them a flashlight shampoo....

Dw90066
Dw90066

Just because readers may think you were nothing more than a spoiled little rich kid, going to your rich white expensive school, while acting like a wigger douche, doesn't mean those readers are haters. Au contraire, it may mean nothing more than you, in fact, are a wigger douche. Oooops. Sorry. A wigger douche voyeur.

Nschou
Nschou

Just to be clear, and again, without trying to defend my own actions, when I went downtown to Parker Center, it was to join anti-police brutality protest, not a riot. When we arrived, the situation had changed and things were out of control, as the story reflects. It was scary to see people being attacked on the freeway, but that was something I witnessed, and did not participate in. If I had participated in such a thing, it would have been as a victim, not as a perpetrator. I included that anecdote because it is one of the things that I saw that made me realize how far from reality my own thoughts and motivations truly were. Also, the people who cheered when the car fled the intersection after having its rear windshield shattered were cheering because the car got away, not because it was being attacked.

ageofknowledge
ageofknowledge

You're full of crap of course; however, it is true that 100% of all criminals are criminals and violate the laws as a way of life.

What gang do you claim?

Nschou
Nschou

Wigger douche voyeur? That's pretty fancy talking. Racist much? Adios, jackass!

Grumpy_gorilla2u
Grumpy_gorilla2u

But you forget that the leadership of Baghdad Iraq also sent the Pentagon a Bill of Lading for the destruction of downtown Baghdad Iraq to the tune of $1 Billion US dollars for the United States Military Marine Corps that destroyed the infrastructure of that city ordered by George W.anker Bush (War Criminal) and they let him get away with it. So what's the difference neither one fo those cities have been rebuilt.

Nschou
Nschou

That's wigger douchebag Schou to you. McDonald's a great reporter and his story is worth reading for a broader understanding of the riots. No comparison to my essay, which you continue to have nothing worthwhile to say about. Now move along and make room for the next jackass....

Dw90066
Dw90066

If anyone wants to read a good article about the riots, read the LA Weekly article written by Patrick Range McDonald . It's a nice piece of jounalism that describes what many of us -- including me as a third-year law student in L.A. at the time -- experienced, and does a nice job of describing the human toll that resulted from the riots. From the article: "The toll (of the riots): some 2,000 people injured and more than 50 killed; more than 1,100 buildings damaged; more than 3,000 fires set. Property damage was set at $1 billion." Sobering facts like that place douche bag schou's self-aggrandizing story of pathetic voyeuristic behavior in perspective.

Dw90066
Dw90066

Wigger-(n.) one who suffers from "ghettoitis", a disease that occurs mostly in caucasion high school/ college aged males (mostly from rich, white families and suburban homes having 2 or more expensive sports cars or SUVs), causing them to believe that they are african-american and from "the hood", and they they are "missundastood" and will "bust a cap in yo ass" if you "be playa hatin'", they feel driven to listen to rap music as an attempt to blend in with african-american society, sometimes even listening to other sufferers of ghettoitis (ex. eminem, vanilla ice) to feel an even stronger sense of belonging. there is no cure for this illness but it has many side effexts, such as tripping over ridiculously large pants and boots, wearing funny hats, and speaking ebonics, as well as annoying all of those around them.-"fuck you wigger" -"yo step off son get out of ma grill i'm'a bust a cap in yo ass fool dont make me get ma dawgs on yo ass, its about to get bloody in in here, i'll get ma shawty to sit on yo ass with her ghettttto bootay!" -"yo dawg y u frontin?"

 
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