Photojournalist Ted Soqui on L.A.’s Reaction to Ferguson: We’re Finally a Real City

Soqui—who photographed the 1992 riots and last night’s demonstrations—brings the local response into focus

As a riot broke out in Ferguson, Missouri following a grand jury’s decision on Monday not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, angry Angelenos took to the streets of Los Angeles in protest.

Groups gathered in Leimert Park, downtown, Mid-City, Beverly Hills, and Westwood. Although two freeways—the 10 and the 110—were temporarily shut down and police officers in riot gear used nonlethal projectiles to disperse a crowd on Pico Boulevard, officials described the protests as peaceful overall, revealing this morning that just three arrests were made.

L.A. photojournalist Ted Soqui, who photographed the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, was there, capturing images and taking part. He tells us about his night:

Why did you go to Leimert Park?
That’s where everybody was going to be to wait for the decision from Ferguson, and I like Leimert Park a lot, so it came together.

What was the mood like when the grand jury’s announcement was made?
A lot of people played for the cameras, but most of the citizens were just stunned. Like they couldn’t catch their breath. They were deflated. It was, ‘Oh man, not this again.’ There was anger, but it was restrained.

What did you notice about the demonstrators?
They were a lot older, generally, in Leimert Park—the crowd was mostly in their 40s to 60s. It was a different type of demonstration than I saw in ’92—people were tied to their devices, not listening to someone on a blow-horn or standing up speaking, so there wasn’t a real great sense of unity other than being together, physically. Everybody had a smart phone and was listening to and getting information on their own timeline. Nowadays that’s how it is.

The riots of 1992 were very different—obviously that event had a different cause, one that was much more local.
Yeah. Last night there was utter disappointment, but ‘92 felt like a flash point, when the match hit the gasoline. This didn’t feel anything like that. I think people expected a lot more, but they didn’t react with, ‘We need to burn this down.” It was more like a deep sigh.

Where did you go from Leimert Park?
I stayed there mostly. I followed a few marches and went up Crenshaw a little bit, but I wanted to go back to the park because there was a group of people staying there and it looked like they needed each other and to talk it through. I wanted to see their faces and talk with them.

Police Chief Beck this morning said he was proud of his officers for showing “great restraint” Do you agree with that assessment?
Yeah. I think the police department is a better reflection of what the city is now. When you see the police, you see a brother or an uncle or an aunt rather than someone that lives in Simi Valley and doesn’t have the same background as you. It was cool to see the restraint from people who care—not people who were coerced. There were maybe a few officers who wanted to act out and you could see them chomping at the bit, but overall it was completely restrained. The chief has really been instrumental in guiding the department to go there, and it’s incredible. Other chiefs have tried.

What, if anything, did last night tell you about the state of race relations in our city today?
I like where our voice is now. We can demonstrate loudly and get a point across without burning the city down. That’s pretty neat. In ’92, nobody knew what was going to happen. I didn’t know what was going to happen last night, either, but I didn’t feel at any point that people were going to burn down South L.A. or burn down Beverly Hills. It was interesting to follow the marchers down Wilshire Boulevard. They didn’t leave a trace of broken glass. There was respect for the community. To me, that’s how the city has grown. The city is finally a real city.