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The Issue at Hand

Lew Harris writes about the Los Angeles Riots in his June 1992 letter from the editor


Thursday, the morning I flew out of town, I thought it was over. There was the one night of rage, but en route to the airport, it seemed things had quieted down.

So, I was off for the world premiere of a friend’s play in Toronto. Once there, I caught a cab at the airport, checked into the hotel—and, literally as I set foot in my room, the phone rang, and I heard the horrifying news. And even as the bellhop was still carting in my luggage and attempting to fulfill his bellhoppian duty of pointing out light switches, air-conditioning controls, and the private minibar, I began my long TV vigil.

Let me tell you—while never in my wildest dreams will I be able to fully comprehend what you were going through here, just imagine the bizarre sensation of being some 2,000 miles away watching your hometown explode on a 26-inch screen.

Certainly, you’d expect shock, horror, and sadness. But there was also and odd feeling of helplessness, of overwhelming isolation. You find yourself calling everyone you know.. You surf from CNN to Brokaw to Koppel, hoping for something new, but they just keep replaying the same tapes. You watch anyway.

Then things quiet down, and it’s not TVNEWS anymore, and even CNN turns to the usual suspects. So, while you have your vivid memories of watching the air around you fill with flame and smoke and despair, I have something more like a bizarre Greatest Hits videotape.

Roll the tape, Sandy.

  • A middle-aged man and his son, tramping through the rubble of what used to be their little trucking business in South-Central. The father is shocked but seemingly resigned, the son angry beyond words. The father is looking for where his office used to be—in it is the “fireproof” safe that held his retirement papers. You are there the moment he realizes that it, like that business that supported his family for some 32 years, is gone.
  • Two King jurors—voices only, of course. The first, articulate, seemingly concerned, insists the jury’s decision was not one of race, of color. No, she says, there was no choice—the judge’s instructions made us do it! A few hours later, the second juror, on Donahue. The woman is completely unintelligible. It seems she is trying to say she believed all four cops guilty but capitulated when she couldn’t convince the others. No, wait, she’s talking about only Powell. No wait. . . Try as he might, Phil can’t figure out what the heck she’s getting at. Frustrated, he breaks it off.
  • Daryl Gate is asked why the police did not respond to the first severe, sickening beatings of innocent drivers-by. Because, he snips, they were out protecting the firemen. Except, the commentator points out, there were no fires until after the beatings. This reminds me, ironically, of a headline we ran in this magazine 15 years ago, during another cop era, over a story on then-chief Ed Davis: “Is Ed Davis Crazy Like a Fox… or Just Crazy?
  • Bella Shaw, host of CNN’s Showbiz Today, introduces Wesley Snipes, gathered with other actors at the Wall of Justice in an attempt to restore peace, and asks, “So, Wesley, what is it like to be a black actor in Hollywood?” He is so taken aback he can barely respond. She muffs her way through one or two more incredibly inappropriate questions, then, as he is doing his best to adapt, abruptly announces that, so sorry, time is up. It’s clear from his expression that he has no more idea what is going on than the viewer.
  • And then the same host turns to Anjelica Huston, who immediately unleashes a tirade against members of the TV press who expressed outrage as they watched—live—as innocent bystanders were dragged out of their cars and beaten. Where was this media outrage, she asks, when Rodney King was being beaten? Get a life, Anjelica. Who do you think brought those tapes to the public eye in the first place?
  • India’s Oven, on Pico and Fairfax, ablaze. This was the first place to succumb (at least on my hotel-room TV screen) that I had actually frequented—a teeny restaurant two blocks from my first apartment in L.A. 
  • Frederick’s of Hollywood ablaze.
  • At long last, Rodney King, live from Beverly Hills. Later, back home, I would discover this was not the case locally, but in my video no one seemed to notice that the poor man just didn’t seem quite right.
  • CNN cameras follow Representative Maxine Waters through a Washington airport as she tries to get home. One flight is delayed, so she runs across the terminal and pal Jesse gets her on another—though she’ll have to go economy. She says okay, then runs back across the terminal to find her original flight is boarding. She waves good-bye.
  • Waters. Waters everywhere. Later, I will that here in town, state senator Diane Watson had a strong presence, but she didn’t make it once onto my video. No, it was Waters, out on the street, listening to people whose businesses had been burned; with Ted Koppel at the First AME Church, wracked with weary anger. And finally on CNN again, in an interview, more relaxed, calmly but studiously refusing any attempts at making her condemn the looters. All she will say is, “Don’t you understand what has caused all this?”
  • Two black men who defied the mob and helped save the life of trucker Reginald Denny are brought on. We can only see one—the other tells his tale deep in shadow, fearful of repercussions.
  • A young white man in a green T-shirt hops aboard a pickup with a couple of blacks. The first sign not only of a cleanup but of what would be a rainbow coalition.
  • Then, on Saturday, a long line of blacks, whites, Latinos, Koreans, all marching somberly and orderly, some breaking down in tears, through the battered area, begging for peace.
  • My video ends live in Toronto. It is in the gift shop of the Royal Ontario Museum, where I was purchasing a trinket. I hand over my Visa card, and the little, elderly shopkeepers asks my address. When I respond, Santa Monica, California, she looks up and says simply, “I’m so sorry about what is happening to your home.” I thought of her a few days later, when violence erupted in that city.

Back in L.A. on Sunday, it was hard to believe all this had happened in such a short time. Except there was somehow too little traffic, and a waiter at the California Pizza Kitchen complained jokingly about another night of curfew. Cabin fever, he said, had set in.

I drove to India’s Oven. I’d heard all four corners at Pico and Fairfax had been burned, and I wanted to see. Probably because I had so girded myself for the sight, it ended up being less than I expected. Across the street, at the boarded up Vons, something shook me more: my first National Guardsmen. And nearby, a yellow BLACK OWNED signed on a store I knew was not

Earlier, while I was still airborne, my wife, back home, had loaded up the brand-new Range Rover with groceries and clothes, then together we drove to the First AME. We had debated going into South Central—in that car, especially—and considered just doing a drop-off at the Salvation Army in Santa Monica. But having been isolated for so long, I felt compelled to get the goodies there right now. I also felt compelled to visit in person the institution that loomed largest on my video.

I hope you went, too, because, boy, it was some sight. The few blocks from the freeway took nearly an hour and a half, thanks to the long line of cars that poured in from all over the city to help. It was the same image I had been left with, watching TV on my last day in Toronto.

I had watched on Wednesday as they city erupted, on Thursday exploded, on Friday calmed. On Saturday—four days and, at that time, 45 deaths, 2,116 injuries and 7,495 arrests later—I watched as people of all colors joined together to reclaim their city. A week before, such a sight would not have seemed remotely possible.

The views of that reclamation played all over the country, all over the world. And there was something in it even stronger than the previous views of beating, looting, and burning.

For a few days at least, a phoenix rose from the ashes. It wasn’t a miracle. But maybe, just maybe, it was a good start.