All these years later the story of the LA Riots goes: beating, verdict, violence; fires, looting, peace. Our memories come from images and videos, and they tell a simple history, a straight line’s chronology of consequence. Just after midnight on March 3, 1991 several Los Angeles police officers were videotaped beating Rodney King on the side of the road – we all saw it, the first viral video, again and again and again. A year later, on April 29, 1992 at 3:15 pm four officers charged with assault under color of authority and the use of excessive force in King’s arrest were freed on all charges. Hundreds gathered and protested outside the courthouse, City Hall, and LAPD’s headquarters at the Parker Center. At 5:15 police were called to a civil disturbance at 71st and Normandie in South Central. They came unprepared for the crowd’s anger, soon saw they were outnumbered, and quickly retreated. A vacuum, a space void of authority, opened up at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, and was filled with rage. People threw rocks at passing cars, smashed in windshields, tore their doors off – “If you wasn’t black and you came through that intersection you was assed out.” Tom’s Liquor was looted and torched; Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten until the asphalt was stained red; Fidel Lopez was beaten, doused with gasoline and spray painted black. News choppers hovered helplessly overhead — “folks, you’re on your own here” — broadcasting a day old war to our homes on live TV.
As night fell protesters outside the Parker Center were overturning police cars and setting them on fire. At 7:15 Mayor Tom Bradley cut short his call for calm and restraint at the First AME Church in Jefferson Park so he could watch the rioting from City Hall. By 7:30 buildings were burning throughout South Central. A firefighter was shot, the first death called in. At 8:45 a state of emergency was declared, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew followed at 12:15. Nine people died that first night. The next day rioting spread north to Rampart, Koreatown, Hollywood. Los Angeles was at war: Koreatown burned with a thousand fires, with selfmade snipers manning the rooftops, defending their businesses against looters where the police would not. 2,000 national guardsmen were ordered in from the 670th “Street Fighter” Company, snaking down the 5 in a long line of humvees towards LA.
“The city was aglow with fire” for five days, with more deaths, more troops, more pleas for peace. By May 4 the rioting was mostly under control: the curfew was lifted, the Lakers came home, the good people of Los Angeles returned to work and school. More than 60 were dead, 2,000 injured, thousands more homeless and unemployed, their homes and places of work burned down. “I don’t have a neighborhood anymore.” Maybe it’s Hollywood, with everyone looking like they’re straight out of central casting. Maybe it’s the beaches and palm trees and weather, a perfect set. Something makes the world see LA as “nothing more than an immense script and a perpetual motion picture.” It’s easy to remember the Riots the same way. Most of us experienced the Riots as theater, as must see TV, even for those who lived just a few miles away in Venice or Pasadena or Beverly Hills – the police had drawn a thin blue line between the violence and the neighborhoods that mattered. The home videos from the street and the helicopter eyes in the sky made for a simple story, a terror narrative retold through a constant loop of the King beating, the Denny beating, the fires burning. All this evidence made sense of the chaos, clarity through the smog of war, removed as we were. But everything we witnessed was filtered through the media, viewed from the safety of our homes and now, so many years after. They were just moments from a single narrative, one of many.
You can say the Riots were caused by the King verdict the same way you can say a bomb’s carnage is caused by a lit fuse. True, yes, but incomplete to the edge of a lie. Some chronologies of the Riots begin on March 3, 1991, when Compton shop owner Soon Ja Du was caught on tape shooting fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins over a bottle of orange juice. Later that year she was sentenced to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine, throwing fuel on the fire of racial and ethnic resentments between black residents and Korean business owners in South LA communities. This was a time when America’s favorite fictional barbershop owner was dropping lines like
Or your little chop suey ass'll be a target
So pay respect to the black fist
And then we'll see ya
Cause you can't turn the ghetto into black Korea
Long before those days in May there was already a war on the streets – five years of “Fuck tha Police” Chief Daryl Gates’ Operation Hammer: aggressive, militarized, extralegal policing that labeled an entire population the enemy in order to win the war on crime. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The videotapes showing Latasha Harlins shot in the back of the head and Rodney King hit 56 times were just versions of events that had played out countless times before, unheard and unrecorded. “I don’t need the videotape to remember those attacks.” But the evidence never brought justice, and no justice, no peace.
You can follow the thread further back to the charred legacy of the 1965 Watts Riots, or the decades of segregation built with the freeways of Autopia, even the mass migration of blacks from the Jim Crow South to Los Angeles during the Depression. And if it’s hard to find a start, it’s just as hard to find an end. “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”
From a helicopter Los Angeles appears beautiful and foreign: the mountaintop mansions, the end of the earth falling into the sea, the infinite plain and ribbons of road connecting lives lived. It’s hard to pair this heaven as seen from heaven with our memories of the Riots, formed of footage from helicopters overhead televising the Florence and Normandie gauntlet and the fires burning through the night.
On the surface streets the city is not as pretty, navigating strip malls, dingbats, gridlock, gas stations. But that is where it is lived, unburdened by beauty, burdened by the past. “Los Angeles seems endlessly held between these extremes: of light and dark – of surface and depth.” On that first day brothers Terry Ellis and Tim Goldman were at Florence and Normandie making home movies that shaped many of our memories of that first day. They zoomed in on Denny in a pool of blood and Pastor Denny Newton standing over Fidel Lopez, protecting him from his attackers. We can see the Riots from the street and the sky, but we can’t imagine them. Images from the archive show a place inscrutable, impossible; images from today are life as we know it, boring and banal. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But it’s always been that way for LA. No city has been more loved or more hated. “The ultimate world-historical significance — and oddity — of Los Angeles is that it...symbolizes both heaven and hell.” It is the American dream and nightmare for the rest of the world, both paradise and inferno. For five days 25 years ago the inferno burned, with thousands of the city’s palm trees on fire. What we saw was us, but different. It felt foreign — ”I can't believe this is happening on the streets of an American city” — and familiar: Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlottesville; Martin, Garner, Rice. As histories try for storytelling, images go for spectacle. Los Angeles has always promised both.