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Martini Club
April 30

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By jeanpaulsartre
May 1, 2002

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April 30, 1992�most Angelenos woke up and, based on what part of town they worked in, first decided whether or not to stay at home for the day. My decision was made for me, by my boss, who said, don't come in. Nobody had any kind of idea what kind of a day it would be, whether the preceding night of fires and looting and some violence was an aberration, successfully tamed, or whether the burning of buildings and looting of stores would continue to spread.

Some of us who had memories of the '65 Watts riots were inclined to think that a critical mass had already been reached, at least by area. The first night, the afflicted area encompassed a zone easily a hundred times bigger than the area afflicted in '65. To give an idea in the change of scale, the most riot-intensive zone in the '65 riot came to be known as "Charcoal Alley", and indeed was but a city block long�in '92, by the first night, Florence and Normandie, both large arteries, had already been established as the riot's flashpoint, and most Angelenos recognized that, hey, that's nowhere even near Watts, nor near La Cienega and Rodeo, where this other fire is burning, and that's no where near downtown where, absent combustible buildings on hand, some guys are setting some palm trees on fire�but, urban sprawl being so intensive in the interceding years, the burning of buildings had easily stretched for three miles in all directions, even by nightfall�the afflicted region could only be described as the southern part of central Los Angeles. As the riot zone had overnight not only consumed the "ghetto" (a newly antiquated term) but had abutted middle-class communities, it didn't seem likely that the action would�could possibly�spread.

Wilshire itself, the grand axial boulevard that stretched west from downtown to the ocean, and which tall buildings line in key parts, seemed secure, at very worst, the northernmost possible extreme that the riot could reach, in a way that a fire trail seems to secure a forest.

~~~

People who thought that the workday was relatively safe and that nightfall may usher in more problems had their visions challenged by the TV images around noon, when a supermarket at Third and Vermont went up in flames. Third and Vermont was not only a full mile north of Wilshire, and not only on the northern edge of Koreatown, it was about seven miles distant from "Florence and Normandie" the riot's flashpoint, and fully three-quarters of the distance from that intersection to the Hollywood hills. (When you look directly south from the Griffith Park Observatory, in the middle of the broad expanse before you that is the LA basin, you see three long streets stretching all the way to the rise, over 20 miles away, at the other end of the basin�those three streets are Vermont, Normandie, and Western, and all were badly damaged, with 128 buildings on Vermont alone being razed in the rioting). By noon, the riot zone had not just jumped Wilshire, but it had done it by a country mile, and had become ten miles long and about five miles wide.

And by now, everyone knew that if it had reached this extent by midday�a relatively peaceful and certainly "broad daylight" time of day, at least in theory�by nightfall things would only get worse.

~~~

At about two pm my own head started to hurt from the smoke in the sky, and to find better air, I went up to the roof of the apartment building I was living in.

My part of town at that time was the Los Feliz flats, north of Hollywood, south of Franklin. Franklin could be called "Foothill" easily, it's the street that runs eastwest along the bottom of the Hollywood hills. This part of town is part of the alluvial fan of the hills, and you can see much of the basin from the slight rise above it.
When I got up to the roof to try to find better air that could clear my head, I saw a great plain, miles long and miles wide, of plumes of smoke, running from where I live halfway to the ocean, about twelve miles west, and about three quarters of the way to Palos Verdes, about twenty miles south. That was Friday, April 30, in the late afternoon.

I went back in and tuned into the radio, and immediately heard something that I've never heard since, and don't want to hear ever again. It was, for me, definitely the most unsettling moment of the riot. I heard the three little test signals on the radio. The ones after which the test is conducted, they say, "This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system. Had this been an actual emergency..."

No, this time it was no test. It was an actual emergency. A scratchy voice came on, a decidedly low-tech voice, and said that a curfew had been declared in the City of Los Angeles, and anyone caught violating the curfew would be arrested.

For the first time in my life, as a citizen, my rights had been suspended, right here in America, for the sake of public peace. If I chose to go somewhere, there was no guarantee of my peaceful transit, either by the rioters, or by the police.

From the rooftop, the plumes of smoke were moving every which way, including approaching. There was still no fear, because nobody was torching residential units. But twenty-four hours into the disturbance, the manifest fact that the city had irredeemably changed hung all around the psyche, as palpable as the smoke in the air.
Indeed, as it turned out, some friends were already making plans to leave. Seattle, San Francisco�some people even indicated, out of spite, Simi Valley, the white suburban town that returned the not guilty verdicts. One friend moved out of town within three weeks.

After dark, the riot spread right up to Hollywood Boulevard, about three miles north of Wilshire. A nearby Circuit City on Sunset was completely emptied of goods. Newcrews withdrew from filming when they were threatened at gunpoint.

There were so many people on the street looting and pillaging, the state of curfew so widely ignored, so many places on fire, so many distractions, that certainly the curfew was not being widely enforced on pedestrians. We thought that a local restaurant might be open restaurant for dinner, and walking out on Vermont found that Palermo's�a famous local haunt of cops�had a light on inside. And inside, sure enough, there were more cops than ever before, cops in riot gear, taking time out with everyone else, advising everyone else to "go straight home" after dinner.

~~~

May 1, 1992�Enormous headache, soot in the air, looters on television now smiling broadly. The riot was still, technically, going on, but it was now mostly looting without destruction, even in the morning, and mostly practical goods.

Now came big surprise number two, the other vivid memory, nearly as unsettling as the Emergency Broadcast System's bulletin of the preceding day.

As I went down to Sunset to get a paper, I walked a little ways down Vermont, and saw, rolling towards me, whizzing and wheezing and clattering, but nonetheless looking even more out of place than a circus elephant would seem on the same street, was a tank.

I had only seen one tank before in person in my life, and that one was safely domiciled in a parking lot, as an exhibition. To see one suddenly in motion, on your street�

At this point, in 1992, tanks were something you experienced on the nightly news, in videoclips from Beijing or Beirut�it was jarring to see one, suddenly, rolling down Sunset Boulevard and turning up Vermont. Jeeps and machine guns and people in battle fatigues you could understand. The National Guard you could comprehend. But tanks?

The presence of a tank seemed like an absurd escalation. Then again, with the Fire Department unable to respond to even a quarter of the fires, and sometimes getting shot at when they did, and with over a thousand buildings either on fire, smoldering, or already gutted, perhaps heavy armor was appropriate.

When I got back to the apartment, I called up a friend and told him that there was a tank in our neighborhood. The friend told me that he and his wife had already planned to leave town at the earliest chance, and start looking for somewhere else to live.

And so it turns out, this is a pretty common pattern, the narrative of the day for untold unharmed millions around the world, the pattern of civil emergency: a state of curfew declared, your own house arrest after dark, your own modest civil disobedience, a tank on your street in the morning, and some of your oldest friends planning to leave the place in which you grew up with them.

~~~

When you look at the literature the riot subsequently generated, and you read the little information available on it, you see lots of confusion and little conclusion. The examinations on its tenth anniversary have not been at all scientific, they have largely been anecdotal: there used to be a dry cleaners on that corner, it burned down, now, ten years later, it is a marqueta, it is a Starbucks, it is a vacant lot. What this is supposed to be indicative of, generally, is what a child could guess: a little has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.

Much goes unspoken, especially the fact that most white Angelenos believe that the riot was not a spontaneous event but something that was planned by gangs and in the works for months. The way the destruction spread along certain arteries, quickly and in sequence, suggested to them that the movement was accomplished by cars loaded with Molotov cocktails, with teams working from point to point. If this is true, the perpetrators have never been caught, and why it should make a difference whether the bulk of the destruction was spontaneous or premeditated is another question still.

One fact that became abundantly clear, however, is that the communication between the (culturally black) Mayor, who was once a cop himself, and the (culturally white) Police Chief, was nonexistent, and this contributed to the problem, particularly at critical times. For all we know, the riot would have only escalated had not the National Guard been dispatched. The foundation of both diplomacy and of ethics lay in people keeping lines of communication open. When the two chief figures of a municipality aren't even speaking to each other, problems and disturbances are definitely a threat to become worsened. When a shaken Rodney King asked, "Can we all get along?" it turned out he wasn't just entreating rioters to put aside their problems with each other.

~~~

Every major political figure who had a chance to emerge a hero botched the chance. Peter Ueberroth was made chairman of something called "Rebuild LA", which didn't. Bradley left office, the police chief was forced out, and Warren Christopher (engineer of Gore's defeat in Florida, adviser to Gray Davis during the height of the PG&E near-bankruptcy, and, much earlier, Carter's helpless Secretary of State during the Iranian Hostage Crisis) was asked to head a commission, a toothless one, to reform the police department�predictably, as Christopher loves to float inertly in power vacuums, his commission issued a report calling for reform and did nothing else.

But what dimension would unifying, Giuliani-style efficient heroism take after this sad, self-inflicted wound anyway? The complaints have ever so gradually but certainly shifted away from policing and towards money.

Great unifying leaders in troubled times, from Joan of Arc to Florence Nightingale, are not political appointees, they are appointed by a sense of self, even by a sense of the divine.

One man who felt no political call but a personal one was Magic Johnson. Diagnosed HIV+ a scant six months before the riot, bored by Bush pere's invitation to serve on a national AIDS panel, Magic led a fast break into the economically ravaged hood. Ten years later, he hasn't stopped with a movie theatre complex, he's brought chain restaurants (including Starbucks) into places formerly redlined from such ordinary centers of commerce. Magic's HIV+ is also in complete remission, ten years later, and all the business enterprises are working well for him.

Generally, ten years after, the feeling is, things are a little better here. That is immense progress to an LA that once asked itself, in disbelief, "Were things always this bad?" in the years after the riot and the subsequent earthquake, the years that saw first white flight reach epidemic proportions (even extending to professional sports teams), then saw every major business indigenous to Los Angeles, from banks to movie studios to aerospace concerns, bought out by corporations with out-of-state corporate headquarters. As a result of the absentee ownership, LA, in fact, is now microcosmic in a way few large cities get a chance to be. Of all the chaotic cultural, economic and political conditions that produced the riot, that may be, ironically, the best result of all, the fracturing of the sprawling city into thousands, millions of tiny, self-sufficient entities.

The presence of optimism in Los Angeles, which one distinctly feels, seems strange in the wake of so much trauma within easy memory. Or maybe it doesn't seem strange at all: the pessimists, after all, have already voted with their feet, and moved away. Who is it who remains here, anyway, but the very kind of people�resilient natives, aspiring actors, aspiring entertainers, aspiring community-builders, aspiring entrepreneurs, aspiring Americans�who aren't easily discouraged?

jps


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