Flame Thrower

Photo by Ted SoquiJust after dark, April 29, 1992

Parker Center, the towering concrete-and-glass headquarters of the LAPD, looms like a modern-day Bastille over a fist-waving crowd.

That was 10 years ago, on the day the not-guilty verdicts came down in the case of the four cops who beat Rodney King, and most people I knew were home watching televised footage of the fires burning around Los Angeles.

Not me. I was a college senior, and I was at Parker Center hoping to get a firsthand account of the protest unfolding in downtown LA for my school newspaper. Just moments before I arrived, the protesters—most of whom also looked like college students—had tipped over a police guard box. Cameramen swept up in the rush of people involuntarily tilted and panned, the commentators back in the studios fell silent, and the images on a million TV sets suddenly said more than any voice-over could: the group of individuals surrounding Parker Center had become a mob. A few still chanted "No justice, no peace," but now they were dancing atop police cruisers and waving banners like wine-drunk Visigoths the night Rome burned.

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I didn't know it at the time, but this was one of the geneses of the anarchy that swept through Los Angeles on April 29. Had I known what was to follow—three days of terror, flames and looting, and then nothing—I would have stayed home.

Instead, I took history in my grasp—or perhaps history took me—if only for a moment.

At the time—and I know this sounds contradictory—the chaos made sense. Everyone involved in the Parker Center action seemed to know this moment would resonate down the years. Today, it's clear that no matter what we might call the events of April 29, 1992—tumult, race riot or legitimate civic uprising—it failed to produce anything positive, much less revolutionary, for anyone.

You could see that in the first few moments. It was as if the storming of the Bastille had led directly to the Terror, with nothing in between. Around the corner from Parker Center, a knot of vandals torched an American flag in the flames of a burning palm tree above the Hollywood Freeway. The palm flared up like some immense roman candle, raining sparks as the mob cheered. Below the underpass, several Latinos with shaved heads and wife-beater undershirts ran from car to car, ripping doors off their hinges as motorists sat mute, their wide eyes staring straight ahead. The tree-burning squad headed west, destroying line after line of parking meters, breaking office windows, and smashing open news racks and lighting the papers on fire.

These people didn't fit into a convenient category. There were angry black guys wearing Malcolm X hats and barking orders into loudspeakers; ACT-UP activists sporting black leather jackets and purple bandannas who tried to impose order on the orderless; college students of all colors—even white guys drinking Coors from the can and wearing USC sweatshirts, like frat boys at a bonfire before the big game.

At one point, an elderly white couple drove through our intersection. Looking lost, they slowed, blinking, not sure what to do. Someone hurled a rock through the car's rear windshield. Most people shouted to let the car pass. Then everyone saw that it had a "Support the Troops" sticker on its bumper. People booed, but when the car managed to speed away, most cheered.

I drifted to the sidelines so that nobody could tell how scared I was. That's when a black woman in a nurse's uniform lit a newspaper torch with her half-smoked Newport. She smiled a crooked smile and handed me the torch. I smiled back, terrified, suddenly aware that I had to either take it and burn something or stamp it out and try to explain things to the mob. I was young: it was like being handed a joint at a party. I took the torch.

Before I could throw it, however, something like a grenade fell from the sky, landed on the concrete a few yards away, and rolled toward me, billowing green smoke. When I look back on my role in the riots, it's that green smoke I remember most vividly, the sound of chopper blades beating the sky overhead, a bleaching searchlight sweeping the ground around my feet.

I never wrote about the riots for my college paper, but four years later, I wrote an article for OC Weekly ("Burn, Maybe, Burn," April 26, 1996). That essay is like a time capsule of my feelings. The riots were still recent enough to allow for hope—hope that maybe the violence and death would produce some monumental change in race relations, governance, America. In that piece, I expressed ambivalence about my participation, but I also wrote about how "empowered" I felt, having witnessed and survived the anarchy at Parker Center.

"There is no feeling of power greater than that of a group of individuals who suddenly, without warning, become an angry, inspired mob," I argued. "Especially when (even if just for a flash) the authorities . . . are just sitting there, panicking, incapable of stopping what's happening. It comes in that instant when you realize order has broken down. That your actions could change the world. That history is reaching its hand out to you and, just for a second, you took it in your grasp. That you're on live fucking television. That you're so scared you could shit your pants."

Today, only that last sentence makes sense. It's taken me 10 years to shed my rationalizations about April 29 and to return to what was real in that moment: fear—of police, of vandals, of getting killed in the crossfire.

That's exactly what I thought might happen a few minutes after I saw the smoke grenade hit the street, when a phalanx of 30 or 40 police officers in riot gear charged our occupied intersection of downtown Los Angeles. Fear, they say, slows everything. I recall the police charging slowly, jogging, almost politely, as if hoping we'd scatter before the battle could be joined.

I'd like to say with certainty that everyone safely abandoned the barricades before the police arrived, but I'll never know: I was one of the first to run.

A decade later, I'm still running—not from the flames, of course, but from my role in helping to set them. The torch I carried briefly shed no light. The fire purified nothing. Nothing ever rose from the ashes.

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