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Where We Were
Editor-in-chief Mary Melton and the staff of Los Angeles magazine remember the L.A. riots
In the spring of 1992, I had recently graduated from UCLA and just begun working full-time at the L.A. Weekly as an associate editor. I reveled in the energy of the Weekly, the buzz of deadlines, the exposure to different perspectives and inspired writers. On the late afternoon of April 29, 1992, the staff gathered in the conference room and watched the “not guilty” verdicts being read for all four officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King. We were deployed across town to cover reactions. I was sent with two colleagues who were both former interns like myself—Dave Gardetta and Amy Waldman—to the First AME church on Adams Boulevard. As it turns out, half of the journalists in L.A. were headed there, too. The church had become the place to go for the “official African American opinion,” and its minister, Cecil Murray, was the trusted voice to deliver it. It felt like an electric current was running through the city as we drove that late afternoon, the air was that charged. Young guys were walking down the middle of the streets, bottles were being lobbed into the sky and shattering on the asphalt. The closer we got to the church, the more impossible it was to reach it. Barricades were going up, there was nowhere to park the car, and we had no choice but to turn around and head back up Western.
It wasn’t until several hours later, when I called my parents to check in from a pay phone, that I realized how far things had gone. “Where the hell are you?” my dad screamed into the receiver. “El Cholo,” I reported sheepishly from the little booth off the restaurant’s entrance. At first my dad was relieved that I was in a familiar, safe place. Then he quietly said, “People are getting pulled out of their cars. You need to get home now.” When we had walked into the restaurant, it was crowded; somehow through our nervousness we hadn’t noticed it had emptied. The riots had yet to reach there (when I returned to the street 72 hours later, the area had been hit hard), and we walked onto an eerily quiet avenue. I hadn’t moved from my parents’ house yet, and back home I spent the evening splayed out on their living room floor with my sister, listening together to a Radio Shack police scanner (one of many odd hobbies in our house) as it spit out a crackling litany of destruction that moved north all night. For some reason I was most unnerved by the report of stolen police uniforms.
That weekend Amy and I headed south again to volunteer in the relief effort. We were assigned to pack donated food at a car dealership on Crenshaw, then loaded it into my pickup to deliver it to those neighborhoods that no longer had a corner market. There were still fires across the horizon. With the National Guard stationed at intersections I’d been passing through since I was born, I felt like I’d crossed the border into a different country.
What I learned over the next week that we spent at the Weekly, putting together a special issue devoted to the riots, influences my editing to this day. We gathered essays, photographs, statistics, definitions. I knew that readers would keep the issue, and that at least some of it would remain imprinted in their minds long after the wreckage was swept away and the newsprint had faded.
I was in Montreal visiting my future wife, who was in school there. I remember watching everything on TV in a student annex. A guy from Chicago was in the room, exchanging jokes with a Quebecois kid about L.A., as if the whole thing were just more SoCal silliness. I went home a few days after the riots ended. To be honest, I was glad that I wasn’t in L.A. amid the mayhem, but it didn’t feel right not being there at such a pivotal moment. As the plane descended over L.A. and huge tracts of charred landscape became visible, the scale of the events hit home. The wreckage itself seemed to cover an area larger than the entire city I’d just flown in from.
I was a metro reporter at the L.A. Times in 1992, and my assignment was to go to the First AME church after the verdicts, to a gathering of the community that began in the evening. My photographer and I headed out early and ended up a few blocks away from Florence and Normandie. I was talking to people, getting man-and-woman-on-the-street reaction, when I saw my photographer running toward me, his cameras swinging around his neck. “Run!” he said, and we hurried to his car. Someone had tried to take one of his cameras. Only later did we find out what had happened at the intersection so close by. We headed to FAME. There was no parking anywhere near the church, so the photographer dropped me off and went searching. Hours later, after I’d listened to the Reverend Cecil Murray address the community, I called in to the city desk for the final time before deadline. That’s when my editor informed me that my photographer had been mugged while trying to find parking. He was fine, but he had left hours before. As palm trees burned all around me, I found myself outside a crowded church—safe, given the number of people there, but still without a ride back to the office.
L.A. was still under its own peculiar form of martial law Sunday, the last night of the riots. No one was to be caught after dark on the streets. But I had a wedding to attend in Santa Monica. The drive west from downtown on the 10 was a dream: Mine was the only car on the dark highway. Surprisingly, the wedding was a happy one—most attendees were local. At one point the groom was lifted into the air by four bridesmaids, who then danced him across the floor—like swans—to the thin hands of the waiting bride. Maybe Swan Lake was playing at that moment; I don’t recall. I also don’t recall the names of the two men who worked as DJs that night, but I do remember they were Latino, and I know that later that evening they would find themselves pulled over and arrested for driving a van filled with audio equipment. An arrest like that was as normal as a wedding held under curfew that lousy weekend, and maybe we were all cursed. The marriage did not last.
It was so wrenching and violent on TV, and I felt like I needed to do something, but at 20 I hadn’t yet figured out what that was. I joined a friend at Philippe’s to talk about it and to feel like we were part of a community. I remember watching the National Guard and their military convoy heading south on Alameda and regret that I did nothing to help those in need.
I was a high school student in suburban Northern California. The riots seemed strange and distant, not quite real. From far away it seemed like they weren’t that big a deal, like they had only gripped a very small part of the city. I paid more attention to the verdict and was far more appalled by it than I was by the riots.
I was working at LA Style magazine, we were in the El Capitan Theatre building on Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from the Chinese Theatre. There was definitely activity and fires down Hollywood Boulevard close to Vine, so we were upset and nervous. Most people went home. Some of us in editorial and production lingered, because we were on deadline, but I got home early that afternoon. I lived in West Hollywood on a hill and had a view of all the helicopters from our balcony. We were certainly glued to the TV that night and felt safer at home than at work. It felt otherworldly, and I remember wondering, What was I thinking when I moved here?
Julia St. Pierre
I was at home, watching TV and the images of looting in Koreatown and South L.A. Korean store owners were on the roofs of their businesses with shotguns, protecting themselves and their property. I was stunned. I remember quickly getting into the car with my dad and driving with him downtown to check on his business. We were afraid rioters would smash the front glass window and get inside. As we drove over the bridge across from Belmont High, heading east, I looked to my right and saw fires burning in the distance. It was South L.A. burning. What a horrifying sight. My father’s business was unharmed, and the window was boarded up as a precaution. I can still picture the National Guard tanks stationed at 5th and Grand, at the corner of the Biltmore Hotel, on alert. It was surreal.
I was working at a Futuretronics store downtown—basically a knockoff of the Sharper Image—when I saw the verdicts being read on TV. Despite the first night’s rioting, I went to work the following morning. As I was looking out onto the deserted streets, it dawned on me that looters might be interested in all the neat gadgets on display. The manager locked the door, turned off the neon sign, and began to frantically cover the floor-to-ceiling windows with gift wrapping paper. We hunkered down inside, hoping that a young mob walking down 7th Street wouldn’t notice the shop. They didn’t.