A personal account of the 1992 Los Angeles riots

The Los Angeles riots of 1992 are among a few moments that are seared in my memory.

It was mid afternoon on Wednesday April 29, when I got a call from my children’s after school program to come and pick them up, as they were closing early.  As a parent, when your children’s day care calls to have you pick up your children early, you really don’t ask questions, you just comply.  Oblivious to what was just beginning to take place—I did work at a proverbial ivory tower, after all—I took a break, and drove down to the school, collected my children, just stopping long enough to sign them out, making no effort to even inquire as to the reason for this early closure. The half-hour round trip drive to fetch Corina and Carlo was relatively uneventful.

And I still had no inkling of what was afoot downtown. It was when I got back on campus that I began hearing rumors about civil disturbances in the downtown area. I did not pay much heed and headed right back to my desk to finish my day’s work.

It was only then that news about the rioting, etc., began to filter in—mostly through the radio, as this was before social media or the widespread use of the internet.  While there was probably coverage on television, access to it on campus was limited.  Then we were informed that classes, and administrative support work for them, were being suspended for the rest of the day.  As the full extent of the unrest had still to dawn on me, I dilly-dallied trying to finish up whatever task I had begun before heading home.

This was when I got a call from Barbara G., a colleague who lived in an apartment along Wilshire Blvd., a few blocks from home.  She normally took the bus to work and was wondering if I could give her a lift home since apparently, bus service was down.  We agreed to meet at the entrance to my building in a few minutes to begin the ride home.  It was when I began to make my way out of the campus that I began to have an inkling of how serious the situation was.  Every road to get off campus was clogged up with traffic by everyone trying to get off campus: right out of the parking lot, it was a crawl. A drive that normally took 20 minutes, would take more than an hour.

Barbara G’s apartment was located just behind a large electronics and appliance store, Adrays, on the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Ridgeley.  And just as I parked to let her off in front of her apartment, two small pick-up trucks with several guys riding on the back drove onto the Adray’s parking lot. One of them, with a crowbar or something, started to smash the large locks that secured the steel accordion door of Adray’s.  Barbara G. and I were probably just standing on the sidewalk outside her apartment trying to finish up a conversation when all of this started to unfold. The guys reeked of the smell of liquor, which I could smell, even though they were at least three to four car lengths away from us. And as one guy kept on trying to smash the locks with the crowbar, another ran towards the front of the store, and stood at the corner of Wilshire, looking East and West along Wilshire, serving as a lookout.  At some point, the lookout shouted something, and everyone hastily jumped back onto their trucks and sped off. Adray’s was safe.  Moments later, a police car came around the corner but the looters were gone by then.   All this unfolded within the span of less than a minute.

Later that evening, I had a chance to take in television news.  The coverage was full of footage of burning buildings, and looting.  There was even a clip of some Koreans aiming their guns at something off screen.  Only then did it dawn on me that the events that I witnessed earlier were more widespread, and intensely concentrated in South Central Neighborhoods, and in Koreatown.  We live in the Midtown area of Los Angeles, and this was probably the furthest reach westward that the unrest had spread, at least in terms of property damage.  All night long, one could hear helicopters overhead, police and fire sirens wailing in the distance.

The very next day, since school and work were out, I took my family to drive around town to survey the aftermath of the previous day’s events.  From the midtown area where we lived, we could not get much beyond the downtown area.  But the gravity of the unrest the day before was evident through the roadblocks, and major intersections manned by National Guard troops in full combat regalia.  A very intimidating sight, and enough to discourage lookie-loos like me from proceeding deeper into the disturbance area.  We did manage to see evidence of the previous night’s rampage and destruction:  burnt down buildings, property damage, such as smashed up shop windows, and trash and litter everywhere.  Neighborhoods had literally been trashed. One thing that stood out from this survey was that in many places where businesses were unscathed, especially convenience stores, big handwritten signs were often scrawled along windows and doors saying “Chinese owned.”  So much for ethnic solidarity.

While media attention focused on stories of mayhem and destruction, there were actual stories, too, of compassion and altruism across ethnic lines.  My neighborhood had the iconic mom and pop convenience-liquor store owned by a Korean couple at the corner of Hauser and San Vicente.  At the height of the disturbances, my African American neighbors kept a vigil at this store to discourage looters from vandalizing it.  The store went unscathed. And for many days afterward, the Korean couple kept thanking the neighbors for standing by them at a very dangerous time. While I was not there to stand vigil, I too, became a recipient of this couple’s gratitude.

The social unrest was sparked by the acquittal of LAPD police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King.  Despite the fact that this beating was captured on videotape — showing five officers ganging up on King and beating him repeatedly until he laid motionless — the Jury acquitted the officers. African Americans have complained for years about police brutality, but often it came down to the word of the victim versus the police and juries were most likely to believe the skillfully reconstructed police versions of events.  Now, here was incontrovertible videotape proof of police behavior.  So everyone was hopeful that justice would finally be served on the matter of police brutality against Blacks.  The Jury verdict was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Earlier, another jury found a Korean store owner guilty of voluntary manslaughter, for shooting–in the back–and killing Latasha Harlins, a teenage Black girl.  While the crime carries a maximum sentence of 16 years, the presiding judge sentenced the storeowner to only four years probation (no jail time), and a $500 fine.   This rather light sentence outraged the Black community, and when the Rodney King verdict was handed down shortly, frustrations came to a boil. Korean businesses consisting largely of mom and pop liquor stores, which had proliferated in South Central neighborhoods were targeted, and particularly vulnerable.

The 1992 rebellion ultimately ended the careers of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the City’s first black mayor, and police chief Daryl Gates.  Bradley was criticized pointedly for his lack of effective leadership during these events, and Gates, for the virtual disappearance of police forces to keep the peace in the afflicted areas during the height of the unrest; an absence that prevented fire department firefighters from entering areas that were on fire. In the midst of the chaos and unrest, firemen were understandably hesitant to venture into neighborhoods without police escort.  South Central Los Angeles, was abandoned to get looted and burned.   It is interesting to note that in an archival photo published by the Los Angeles Times in its retrospective on the 1992 uprising, Mayor Tom Bradley, and then Governor Pete Wilson are shown at the podium with somber faces, while Police Chief Daryl Gates, off to one side, had this large grin on his face, suggesting unmistakable glee at the turn of events.

So where are we now? How far have we traveled in our struggle against racism and intolerance?  Progress has been painfully slow.  There is progress on several fronts, notably in gay rights and marriage equality; and in community policing: the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is now more involved with the communities that it patrols.  The practice of having dashboard cameras on police cars, and body cams on police officers, is much more prevalent, too.  Recently the LAPD revised its rules of engagement. Police officers are now expected, when confronting tense situations, to make every effort to first de-escalate the situation before resorting to the use of deadly force; this will clearly require extensive police training and re-training, and it remains to be seen how effectively it can be implemented.

Nationwide, the role of race in police-involved shootings continues to be a disturbing and nagging problem, what with the recent spate of police-involved shootings of black men, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Intolerance of minority communities and communities of faith appears to have been re-energized by the recent presidential elections and its divisive rhetoric.

Likewise for anti-immigrant attitudes, now encouraged and emboldened by policies of the Trump administration, such as its failed ban on immigration and travel from Muslim-majority countries, and its promise to “build a wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots reminds us to hold a mirror to ourselves as a nation, and to ask if our current state of affairs, as a nation of diverse communities, immigrants, and religions, is what we would like to see ourselves be. It seems that we have become more fractured by our political, religious, economic, social, and ethnic tribalisms.

Public discourse has become more strident, leaving little room for conversation and reasoned disagreement.  Social media, though enabling us to transcend geographic boundaries, appears to only exacerbate these fractures by enabling us to indulge in our more parochial and tribalistic tendencies through huge echo chambers created through Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other platforms of social engagement.  Instead of echo chambers, we must re-engage those that we differ from or disagree with, revitalize the practice of reasoned disagreement to uncover and spotlight common interests that underscore our common humanity.

Above all, we must re-envision America as a nation transcending its tribalistic tendencies to create more inclusive, and compassionate communities.

Enrique de la Cruz
Enrique de la Cruz

*** Enrique B. dela Cruz, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the California State University-Northridge. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic) from UCLA and has written on Asian Americans, Filipino-Americans and Philippine-U.S. relations.  You can e-mail him at enrique.dela.cruz@csun.edu

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