L.A. on Fire: Ted Soqui’s Dramatic Images of the 1992 Riots

Even photographers were targets during the melee. How one captured the chaos in black and white

When four LAPD officers were acquitted on April 29, 1992, of charges that they’d used excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, the city imploded. By May 4, 53 people were dead, more than 4,000 were injured, and there was as much as $1 billion in prop- erty damage. Freelance photojournalist Ted Soqui remembers going to a 24-hour camera store on Melrose Avenue to stock up on film that first night. “All of a sudden I heard the drumming of machine gunfire,” says Soqui. “Someone sprayed the store from the street.” Soqui got little sleep over the next six days. He ditched his press credentials and masked his gear in a paper bag to avoid being mugged (a common fate among his colleagues). “No one was open to process film for a week,” Soqui says. “I’d shoot all day and develop and print in my garage all night. It wasn’t completely light tight, so I had to finish before the sun came up.” Soqui’s photos of the melee, including this one of a mob overturning kiosks near City Hall, were published in the L.A. Weekly, the Village Voice, and People. “It was a strange, lawless time for L.A.,” says Soqui. “I’ve never been to a war zone, but I imagine L.A. in 1992 was as close as one gets.” Last December his image of an Occupy L.A. protestor served as the basis for Time’s “Person of the Year” photo-illustration by the artist Shepard Fairey.

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“Everything was gone, and this man was just looking for his coin jar. He did find a bunch of coins. He knew where to look.”

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“Here is the California National Guard running the perimeter, just strolling with rocket launchers and bulletproof vests on. They even have a canteen. They were ready to go.”

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“I liked the expression on his face. They weren’t deploying ammunition for at least three days, and he didn’t have any. That’s why he has the strap covering the bottom part of his weapon—to mask it.”

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“This is Rodney King doing the ‘Can’t we all get along?’ speech. I couldn’t get a spot in the front, so I was forced off to the side. In the end I got a better shot that way. I could barely hear him because he spoke so quietly. In this shot he looks like Martin Luther King or something. He looks like a statesman. It was a rare moment.”

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“This was shot on Adams Boulevard near Crenshaw. When I walked up there, the fireman came up and told me to leave. Other photographers had just been robbed. But I saw these three kids as I was leaving, and they were in shock. I don’t think they fully grasped what had happened. They just walked right by and didn’t pay me any mind.”

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“There were people inside the area looking for belongings, and I couldn’t tell if this was someone who lived there or someone taking advantage of someone else. Anything not bolted down…”

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“The smoke was bad. I was going to walk through it but thought better of it at the last second. Then a couple on a motorcycle rode right by. It was a total free-for-all.”

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“This was at the Coliseum and the sports arena complex. These two California National Guards were total hicks. As soon as I walked up, they were making sarcastic comments towards me. I just let them run it through. In a situation like that, you can’t win and you’re not going to make friends.”

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“This guard did have ammo. He was outside the post office near USC. He was keeping order for the people who were coming to get their mail and he saw me, but he was keeping an eye out for bad people who were going to take advantage of others.”

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“These guys were good to go, too. This was in South-Central L.A. I was impressed with their weaponry. It was hot that day, things were happening, and they were getting ready to go out and patrol. I jumped right in front of them, grabbed the shot, and moved on.”

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“He was standing guard outside the Ralphs in South-Central. He was ready to find the trigger quickly. There was no playing there. They were the only law enforcement. LAPD was gone.”

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“This is right near USC. It was a market that burned down to the ground. I saw this last wall, and it looked like a wave.”

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“This is the other side of the market. I liked that the woman in the back is wearing a Martin Luther King T-shirt.”

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“The burned-down market.”

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“This is in downtown. The fires in the background are cars that had been overturned near Parker Center that night, including police cars. My car was to be next. I got out of there, but barely.”

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“This was shot over the 101. This person had an American flag—I don’t know where they got it, and they had a mask on. The fires are palm trees that were ignited. He was waving the flag like a marshmallow on a stick.”

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“A parking kiosk, which was thought to be a police structure, was overturned and set ablaze. I didn’t see that many signs. This was one of the few.”

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“Here’s the parking kiosk before it was set on fire. This felt like a protest, but it got out of hand quickly. Once the structure was knocked over, it was immediately set ablaze. It was all along the lines of ‘Fuck the police.’ That was the theme. People told me they were primarily RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party] protestors. They are notorious for just starting stuff.”

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“Here the kiosk is being turned over. I thought, ‘Here we go.’ ”

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“The parking kiosk, again.”

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“This is on South Vermont. The woman pushing the cart was yelling at me, ‘Don’t take my picture!’ But I saw the baby and knew I had to take the photo.”

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“This shot was taken in the Pico-Union area. I was amazed by the amount of destruction that I saw, but there were just people hanging out. The city goes on.”

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“So much was gone so quickly.”

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“This woman was looking for whatever she could find. I think she was tied to the gentleman looking for the money. I couldn’t believe they’d find anything, but they tried. It was all they had.”

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“Someone was trying to steal a TV, and this was one of the few areas where police intervened, and so the TV got left on the sidewalk. You can see it says BLACK OWNED BUSINESS painted on the side of the building. Didn’t stop anyone from looting. Didn’t help at all.”

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“This was on Sunset near Highland outside an electronics store that was fully looted and boarded up. Somebody had painted SORRY, WE’RE EMPTY. And they were grammatically correct, I might add.”

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“These are LAPD officers holding a line in front of Parker Center, stopping people from entering.”

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“I parked next to this car when I pulled up to photograph in downtown. It was a police car and I thought I would be safe parking there, but it was not the safest thing to do. Every other car on the street was set on fire, and then they got to mine. They were shaking my car when all of a sudden, the bullets from inside the police car started flying. There was a cache of ammo back there that lit up, and everyone ran. I got into my car and drove away, going the wrong way down a one-way road. That police car’s ammo was the only thing that saved mine from being illuminated. I had to take a photo of it, of course.”

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“The woman on the right is wearing a hat that says SHIT HAPPENS. They were just staring at the California National Guard that was being deployed all over their neighborhood. I don’t know if they were happy about it or sad about it, and they didn’t say anything either way. I think they were in shock.”

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“Chief Daryl Gates. This was after the riots, when he faced City County to explain why the police were not deployed. I became his Public Enemy Number One. Everywhere he went, I was there. He let the city burn. He did not deploy the police. He went to some sort of fancy function, and he didn’t call a tactical alert on the city. Other brave officers took it upon themselves to protect the city. He failed us, and his face showed arrogance. He got it in his mind that the city’s political structure didn’t care much for the police, so he didn’t care much for them. He didn’t see himself as a public servant.”

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“There’s a duality to this shot. Everything was normal, but it wasn’t. There were no police, and this structure was just burning down to the ground. I was driving by, watching this go on.”

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“[Bill] Clinton was running for president, and he decided to visit the area. I heard he was coming, pulled up, and fought my way in there to get this shot. That was pretty great. It felt like somebody from beyond the city actually cared. It was pretty brave of him.”

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“Clinton impressed me. He took it all in.”